‘Henry’ is Oculus’ first, emotional step to making AI characters

29 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Facebook’s Oculus Rift Debuts Virtual Reality Short ‘Henry’ From Pixar Alum.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (AP) — Oculus is hedging its bets that an adorable critter named Henry can help convince consumers — and Hollywood — about the viability of virtual reality as a storytelling medium. Oculus Rift’s Story Studio team finally took the wraps off its new virtual reality film Henry on Tuesday at a special event in Beverley Hills, California.Henry, a 10-minute animated virtual reality narrative experience, debuted Tuesday for Facebook’s Oculus Rift VR head sets — and signals another step in the company’s march toward a Rift release to the consumer market in early 2016.

The premiere of the VR short film marks a new phase for the Oculus Rift — still the most buzzed about VR headset — as it takes us deeper into the world of cinema instead of gaming. Created by Oculus Story Studio, the experience takes place in a 360-degree environment where viewers follow Henry, a sweet but shy hedgehog who likes to hug — which unfortunately scares away potential friends due to his spikes.

There’s a conference room wall in their San Francisco office covered in dozens of sticky paper squares of all shades, each representing a problem someone has to fix before the project is done. It’s like something out of a scene from Silicon Valley, only instead of tweaking a compression algorithm it’s optimizing what is essentially a cartoon. Instead, with “Henry” and Oculus’ other work, the company is seeking to demonstrate VR’s capability and inspire studios and production companies to create content beyond promotional efforts connected to other films and entertainment franchises. “In a perfect word, we’ll have all the major studios making tons of VR content because they’re making tons of money off of it,” said Luckey. “That would be much better for us than having to hold up the entire VR marketplace with our own content. The viewer is plunged into the interior of Henry the hedgehog’s tiny home, and it when he finally makes his appearance he playfully winks at you as if you’re really both in the same room. It’ll be much healthier to have a diverse ecosystem.” “Henry” is an entirely passive experience that doesn’t require viewers to use a controller, other than tilting their head to see the action inside Henry’s tree-trunk abode.

It’s two weeks before Henry’s July 28 premiere, and the creative brain-trust of Story Studio is huddled in a dimly lit room (they do meditation in here in the mornings). However, “Henry” director Ramiro Lopes Dau, a former animator at Pixar, included the ability for the spikey character to look directly at the user during the experience. “I think there’s room for all difference kinds of experiences, where they can be more or less interactive,” said Lopes Dau. “In the case of ‘Henry,’ it’s more about the character. Also appearing in the clip are the film’s director, Ramiro Lopez Dau, and Oculus founders Palmer Luckey, Nate Mitchell and Brendan Iribe who all offer their thoughts on what is beginning to look like a more worthy innovation for Hollywood in place of 3D movies. We use those moments when he’s happy or sad to look at you no matter where you’re standing.” The introduction of interactivity in a piece of content referred to as a short film begs the question: Is “Henry” really a movie? His supervising technical director, Max Planck, is at a computer console, his shoes off; he’s watching the feeds going into both of Lopez Dau’s eyes, while the handful of other employees in the room watch Planck’s display and point out glitches.

That’s the magical thing about what VR is to me.” At Oculus’ studio, Unseld was an executive producer on Henry, directed the studio’s first short, Lost, and is currently directing Dear Angelika, a VR experience created with graphic novelist Jillian Tamaki. Henry and other VR experiences created by the studio (as well as company-created games) will be available for free to consumers who purchase the Rift. That’s another. “These will all become Post-it notes,” Story Studio’s creative director Saschka Unseld says to me in a hushed voice so as not disrupt his team’s flow. “Ryan [Thomas], our main production coordinator, is constantly typing.” Indeed, Thomas will spend most of the next hour looking up from his laptop only to gather enough info for the next note. On the latter, Oculus has already launched a VR content site, where users can access Oculus content for free as well as purchase content from third-party developers. The former start-up, which ignited the latest VR obsession three years ago, now has several competitors similarly diving headfirst into the marketplace, including Valve and HTC’s Vive headset and Sony’s Project Morpheus, which works in tandem with the PlayStation 4 console.

Malamed acknowledged that Oculus is also talking with filmmakers — who work both in live action and animation — about creating VR content, though declined to name them at this stage. They used to do this once every couple of weeks, then weekly—there was too much to fix in between, and it took hours to render—but now, two weeks out, they do it every afternoon. Last fall, a few months after Facebook acquired Oculus, the studio was founded with the mission to determine what was possible for VR filmmaking, and then to share that knowledge with the world. “Part of the mission is ‘inspire and educate,’” producer Edward Saatchi says.

And a huge hurdle to doing that has been figuring out how to make movies using both traditional animation software like Maya and videogame tools, while also making Hollywood filmmakers comfortable with the media as “an art-form, rather than cinema in a videogame,” as Saatchi puts it. It’s a concern game developers rarely worried about outside of non-playable “cinematic sequences”—most players race by shadows before they really register.

Unreal 4 does feature an animation tool that helps developers build cinematic experiences, and by the end of the year they hope to incorporate something called Sequencer that will feel more familiar to filmmakers used to working in ProTools. The titular hero is hedgehog who loves hugs. (This, clearly, is problematic.) While celebrating his birthday by himself, his balloon animals come to life and try to befriend him. (This, clearly, is really problematic.) There are emotional ups and downs, and when Henry experiences a certain feeling, he looks at the viewer to share his sadness or excitement. It’s also unnerving; the first time I tried an early demo, I immediately felt like a voyeur, as if I was spying on this poor hedgehog during his sad solo birthday.

But in VR, the whole point is that you’re meant to feel as though you’re physically there with Henry—and as Unseld pointed out to me when I took off the goggles, it’s weird if Henry doesn’t recognize someone sitting on his living room floor. “It’s just like ‘Why don’t you look at me? But when he does it carries an emotional connection, an empathy, that even those abused action figures in Toy Story 3 didn’t quite muster. (Unseld will later lament that this connection makes comedy twice as hard because Buster Keaton-esque physical comedy just feels “mean.”) That first demo was in early June.

At the time, Story Studio was still in the prototype phase and didn’t even know if the eye contact function would work. “Now that you’ve seen this, you see how putting in interactivity is going to be really confusing, it’s going to be really weird,” Saatchi said to me afterward. Once they mastered the right tech and animation flow of Henry looking at the spectator (animators are obsessed with the idea of “in-betweening”—making sure a character moves at the perfect speed to relay his or her mood), they built a button that would allow them to trigger the action. They’re establishing the rules, they’re doing work that I think 10 years from now when we look back and can see what VR has turned into, we’ll go ‘Wow, Story Studio really did shine the light on the way forward.’” Shining that light is still a work in progress, however; illumination and texture are still flummoxing the Story Studio crew, even as they enter the last few days of production on their film.

After seeing the wall of Post-its, I ask Unseld how much has changed in the month or so since we last spoke. “Everything and nothing,” he says, and to my untrained eye, this feels true. The project was supposed to be “CG locked” a week ago, but when Max Planck came in this morning there were 700 adjustments that had been checked in to the system. “It’s as if 50 people were editing an article at the same time,” Unseld says, “we have to just stop.” For now, work continues. Like Unseld, Planck and Lopez Dau are Pixar vets; the three of them are well aware that the animation powerhouse had no operating manual to speak of when it built its arsenal of animation tricks and techniques. “The first Toy Story was nearly breaking the tools with overload,” Unseld says.

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