01 Dec 2017
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The Future of VR Is Animated Bunnies

Content—not tech—is what virtual reality needs now
by Janelle Nanos

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In Baobab Studios’ VR film Invasion!, viewers interact with Chloe, a scared white rabbit that responds to their actions. (courtesy of Baobab Studios)

In Baobab Studios’ VR film Invasion!, viewers interact with Chloe, a scared white rabbit that responds to their actions. (courtesy of Baobab Studios)

With the promise of mind-boggling , out-of-body experiences, virtual reality is hyperbolic by design. And the excitement extends to industry forecasts: According to the research firm SuperData, the sector, driven by early adopters, is on track to make $3.7 billion in revenue this year, and the firm estimates it could swell to more than $28 billion by 2020.

But Maureen Fan (MBA 2009) has a reality check for the industry. For VR to go mainstream, she says, “we need people to be thinking about storytelling.” Future success depends less on further technological advances and more on content creation.

To address that need, Fan cofounded Baobab Studios with Eric Darnell, a former DreamWorks Animation exec who was the screenwriter and director for all four Madagascar films. Baobab creates interactive, animated VR worlds that feel less like games—in many early VR experiences, users engage with characters only to win something—and more like movies. For Fan, animated VR is the entertainment trifecta: “ the empathy of film, the agency of games, and the motivation of real life.”

In Baobab’s first short film, Invasion!, released in 2016, actor Ethan Hawke narrates a scene in which a frightened white rabbit named Chloe tangles with a pair of bumbling alien invaders, Mac and Cheze. Unlike a typical film, the virtual reality experience—downloaded as an app to a VR headset—is more like a Choose Your Own A dventure book. Users’ decisions shape the storyline, while their interactions with the characters do something even more remarkable: create an emotional connection between the real and the imaginary.

Asteroids!, a sequel to Invasion!, was also a virtual reality hit. (courtesy of Baobab Studios)

Research has found that as humans form emotional bonds, they subconsciously begin to mirror one another: just watch a couple on a good first date as they mimic each other’s motions. Baobab’s characters do the same thing, imitating the facial expressions and other motions of the viewers. As they explore the virtual world of Invasion!, for instance, wide-eyed Chloe tilts her bunny ears to mimic the users’ curious gazes. The result is an emotional engagement unlike any other available in entertainment, Fan says. “We want to create these characters that you fall in love with and transport you to these fantastic worlds.” That is the real promise of VR, she says.

That may sound like more hyperbole, but Baobab’s approach has gotten notice as Invasion! surpassed the 1 million download mark. The short also won a Daytime Emmy for outstanding interactive film and was optioned as a full-length animated movie. (The movie will not involve VR, a testament to the studio’s focus on storytelling, says Fan.) The studio’s follow-up, Asteroids! , which revisits Invasion’s alien cast, drew critical acclaim. And m usician John Legend has signed on as executive producer of Baobab’s newest release, Rainbow Crow , a series retelling the Native American folktale.

Baobab’s emphasis on creating compelling virtual reality content is an obvious win for the makers of headsets; VR technology producers Samsung and HTC were early investors in the studio. And the entertainment industry is looking to virtual reality as the future of film. Baobab has raised more than $31 million from the likes of Twentieth Century Fox, Creative Artists Agency’s Evolution Media Partners, and China’s state-sponsored Shanghai Media Group.

Hollywood’s commitment to VR storytelling will eventually usher the technology into the mainstream, Fan says. “It was never a question that VR was going to come, it is a question of when. Tech adoption takes longer than everyone anticipates.” But when tech and content come together, she says, “the impact is greater than what anyone expects.”

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