VR Digest: Oculus Story Studio shuts down

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written by John Dewar (@jstarrdewar) Issue 119 – May 10, 2017

VR Digest: A Virtual Reality newsletter brought to you by Studio Transcendent

Hi Friends,

I’m back from my epic journey to southeast Asia. Unfortunately the two main takeaways of my trip have been that a) macaque monkey like to bite tourists and b) that they carry multiple terrifying viruses! Other than that they’re quite amazing, but I think I’ll need to keep my monkey business in VR from now on.

John + Aaron, Bowdy, and Elissa 
at Studio Transcendent

Oculus Story Studio Shuts Down

Facebook shocked the VR community last week with a blog post announcing the closure of Oculus Story Studio. The narrative-focused internal team was formed around the beginning of 2014 with the stated mission of blazing a trail for filmmakers interested in the VR medium to get into real-time rendered experiences rather than 360 video. The studio would develop tools and techniques other developers could use.

Story Studio made its debut at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival with Lost, which puts you face to face with the lost hand of a giant robot. They followed it up with the story of Henry, a hedgehog in search of a friend willing to give him a hug despite his quills. That film won an Emmy. Most recently, they released Dear Angelica, which is an emotionally arresting story told through a three dimensional painting that evolves as the story unfolds.

Dear Angelica also gave rise to Quill, a digital painting app that is now orphaned. Oculus is planning to make it open source, but will cease to update the version on the Oculus store. Quill has been overshadowed by Tilt Brush in the public eye, but as it was developed as a production tool for Story Studio, it has a slightly different use-case that will continue to be useful for artists interested in following in Dear Angelica’s footsteps. The tool had also recently sprouted some animation capabilities that enabled some really compelling content, but the new features remain unreleased, so they may only become available once the open source project is available.

The Story Studio team seems to have had little warning about the decision. Only two weeks ago, Story Studio had debuted their latest project Talking with Ghosts at the Tribeca Film Festival. The LA Times was very positive about it in a piece running down five VR films from the festival. Saschka Unseld, who left Pixar to help form Story Studio and directed Lost and Dear Angelica, posted a wistful tweet about not being sure what was next. Maxwell Planck, another ex-Pixarian and the studio’s “technical cofounder” wrote: “Last week was … hard. I still believe in VR and the trail ahead. A life’s work worth doing shouldn’t be easy.”

However, despite an outpouring of sympathy on Twitter and a lot of reactions calling the decision a mistake, some are arguing that the VR content creation community is better off without Story Studio in the mix, even if they were providing technology through Quill or by open-sourcing Henry. Ben Lang at Road to VR makes that argument:

Claiming “mission accomplished” is a nice way to let everyone involved (deservedly) walk away from Story Studio proud of their work. But it isn’t the only reason it made sense to close the internal studio. Another was due to an awkward relationship to external studios who are trying to build real businesses in VR film.

Studios like Within, Baobab, Penrose, Felix & Paul, and plenty more have raised significant money in the pursuit of becoming defining studios in VR film. These companies would often rub elbows with Oculus Story Studio at big film events like Sundance and Tribeca, ultimately all competing for the same limited amount of attention.

But as Oculus is a major VR platform holder, it often ended up shining the spotlight most strongly on its own internal Story Studio works, with big press events and even preferential placement on the Oculus storefront; not exactly the kind of relationship you want to have with external creators whom Oculus wants to court and help thrive on their platform.

Our founding editor Ian Hamilton posited on Twitter that Story Studio may have devalued content on the Oculus Store by offering such high quality experiences for free. Unseld responded “It's a delicate and important balance where the right path isn't a black or white decision.”


Palmer Luckey is once again posting publicly on his Twitter feed after months of near-silence in any public forum.

UploadVR reports on a very interesting new Gear VR app called Phonecast, that essentially screencasts a standard Android app into the VR user interface shell. The app does not work with any Android app, but is instead focused on bringing a wide range of streaming services that don’t currently offer VR apps into the virtual realm for a big screen TV-watching experience.

Nvidia released new VRWorks SDKs, one for audio path tracing (which creates realistic echo and reverb effects in a space and could be useful for adding realism to multiplayer voice chat and interactive sound in games), and one for real-time stitching of 4K video streams into panoramas. The audio SDK is already integrated into NVidia’s version of Unreal Engine 4.

A Verge article looks at how museums are using VR and AR apps to attract visitors. The American Museum of Natural History, Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, the Met Cloisters, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art are among many museums using technology to keep the museum going experience relevant to younger patrons. Lisa Ellis, a conservator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, led a team that used micro-CT scanning of 16th century Gothic prayer beads; the Met Cloisters now offers the use of  HTC Vive headsets to allow visitors to see the intricacies of the beads’ designs. Ellis stresses that “the original artifacts must remain a priority, and technology should serve to enhance the visitor’s understanding of the physical objects.” In the case of the 16th century prayer beads, “you get in [the VR headset] and you’re just blown away,” Ellis says. This leads many visitors to return for a second look at the real beads in person.

VirZOOM has created an exercise game that syncs VR experiences to a stationary bike. The company recently added a partnership with AMD to their previously established relationships with Life Fitness, HTC, and Fitbit. CEO and co-founder Eric Janszen says that their partners have been “instrumental in making [VirZoom’s] vision of VR exercise games in a gym setting a commercial reality. The AMD and Radeon teams have gone above and beyond to create a powerful PC experience for high-end virtual reality suitable for a commercial gym environment.” One of VirZOOM’s own marketing and PR staff lost over 50 pounds by using the bike 2-4 times a week for 20-30 minute sessions, in addition to adopting healthier eating habits.

Schell Games, creators of I Expect You to Die, have a new project called SuperChem VR that uses motion controllers to allow students to perform chemistry experiments in a realistic manner, without risk of accidents. “Teachers report that learning about chemicals, lab equipment and how to use the equipment correctly can be a slow process,” says CEO Jesse Schell. “...SuperChem VR is designed to allow you to learn about these concepts in a safe, interactive and immersive way.” The app is blazing a trail in one of the most promising avenues for VR education. VR has long proven its worth for simulation training, but only now has the technology become inexpensive enough for widespread educational simulator use.

Studio Transcendent’s Director of Sales, Bowdy Brown, wrote a blog post about VR serving as binoculars into the future. After speaking about VR with people in all arenas of industry, Bowdy has discovered that much of VR's potential may be in enabling us to envision complex and costly future projects as if they already exist.

VR Digest™ is a Virtual Reality Newsletter brought to you by Studio Transcendent, a producer of premium Virtual Reality experiences. We publish weekly on Wednesdays.

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