Inside the surprisingly humble cafeteria on the ground floor of London’s Framestore, friends, colleagues, and journalists have gathered to hear a talk from co-founder and chief creative director, Mike McGee. But rather than wax lyrical about the latest Hollywood accomplishments—including the Oscar-winning VFX in Gravity and the vast CGI sets of The Martian—or its commercial endeavours such as the famous Audrey Hepburn Galaxy chocolate TV advert, McGee is talking about virtual reality. Or, rather, he’s revealing how one of the world’s biggest visual effects studios is already on its way to becoming one of the biggest players in the VR industry.
Framestore’s bullish attitude to VR—it has already developed experiences for the Oculus, HTC Vive, and Samsung Gear VR, and is working on projects for PlayStation VR and Microsoft HoloLens—stands in stark contrast to that of the games industry, which has thus far remained largely nonchalant about the platform outside of smaller developers. Just yesterday, Take-Two (publisher of Grand Theft Auto amongst other games) CEO Strauss Zelnick said that the company simply wasn’t “incentivised to be at the frontline of [VR] development” because of the high asking price and the need for a dedicated play space. Both EA and Activision are taking a “wait and see” attitude to the platform.
It’s an odd turn of events given that the original VR posterboy, the Oculus Rift, was pitched (and still is pitched) as a device primarily designed for playing video games. Meanwhile, the HTC Vive is powered by Steam, the biggest PC gaming platform in the world. As Ars’ own Kyle Orland pointed out, the lack of investment from games companies runs the risk of turning one of the most exciting and promising technologies of the last decade into little more than a niche fad. After all, without that killer app, what reason is there for people to pay for a headset? Conversely, without headsets—just roughly 30,000 Vive units have been sold to consumers according to Steam estimates—why should game companies invest?
But here’s the thing: while the games industry might be abandoning VR, that couldn’t be further from the truth for Hollywood and the VFX industry. Arguably, they’re producing the best VR content right now.
VFX companies started early. Before the HTC Vive was even announced, Framestore created the first fully motion tracked VR experience, using its expertise in film VFX to graft existing motion capture technology onto a headset. The result, dubbed Merrell TrailScape, took players on a 4D virtual hike, complete with a physical rope bridge, rock wall, and wind machine. It scared the heck out of users as they were made to shimmy across the edge of a virtual chasm. Framestore later made an experience for the film Interstellar on Oculus Rift—built in Unreal Engine 4 no less—that took players on a impressively detailed tour of the Endurance space ship. It’s far more detailed than anything a games company has yet produced in VR.
Enlarge / Framestore created a Mini test drive experience on the HTC Vive, complete with vibrating chair.
Framestore has produced numerous shorts for Samsung Gear VR too, including one for the Marvel Avengers movie that takes players on a journey inside the suit of Iron Man and another for BMW that places them in the seat of the car they could soon be driving for real. Most recently, it created a Mini test driving experience complete with rumbling seat. This too was built in Unreal Engine 4.
Outside of consumer experiences, Framestore is building tools that allow film and TV actors to put on a headset and see the virtual CGI set around them, with their actions being motion captured and relayed to screens where the director can see everything in real-time. Soon, McGee hopes, CGI set designers will be able step into the set and build in VR, giving them access to a sense of scale that isn’t possible with a simple 2D display.
What is and isn’t a video game?
While these aren’t gaming experiences, the games industry would be wise to watch what VFX companies like Framestore are doing. These are companies with vast experience in storytelling—far more than any games studio—and expertise in graphics technologies. Plus with VR being so young as a medium, who’s to say what is and isn’t a VR video game? Just as Sony would unexpectedly come to dominate 3D gaming in the ’90s with the launch of the PlayStation, so too can other companies come in and upset the status quo with VR. Headset sales might not be there just yet, but for the games industry’s biggest publishers to sit it out now, early or not, risks more than just short term losses—it risks losing the market altogether.
Some companies outside of VFX are shouldering the risks. Ubisoft will soon launch its first VR game Eagle Flight, while chip-maker AMD is pitching its new £160/$199 graphics card, the Radeon RX 480, at VR users. AMD is actively chasing Hollywood, with offices in LA aimed directly at helping studios create VR content (though perhaps it should talk to the London VFX studios—all the VR demos shown at Framestore were running on Nvidia GPUs).
There are the experiential VR companies too, ones like Thorpe Park (building VR theme park rides) and The Void (building entertainment centres with motion tracked virtual walls that can be changed to any environment within the VR headset). Rather excitingly, The Void is currently developing an experience for Ghostbusters.
For the games industry to shun VR now is incredibly short sighted. These experiences will only serve to push more people towards VR. And when users do decide to buy a headset, it might not be games they look for—it might be apps similar to what has been shown in these installations. Even if new VR consumers do end up looking for games, they won’t find very much if great swathes of the games industry continues to bide their time. There’s just far too much potential in VR, in film, in installations, and in industry (medicine, engineering, creatives, to name but a few) for both consumers and games makers to ignore it.
Perhaps the games industry’s saviour will be Sony’s more accessible PlayStation VR, perhaps not, but gaming does need to wake up and smell the coffee. VR won’t wait, and there are plenty of hugely talented people out there gunning for it.
This post originated on Ars Technica UK
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