The opulent Beverly Hills mansion where Oculus VR, maker of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, showed off its latest project was an unusual location for a press junket. In the evening on the day I was there, Oculus hosted a more formal premiere event; even then, the grounds must have seemed decadent.
The project is Henry, a short film about a lonely hedgehog whose potential friends are all scared away by his spiny hugs. Under any other banner besides Oculus’s, Henry certainly wouldn’t be worth this much fanfare. But it’s only the second film from the virtual reality company’s internal production company, Oculus Story Studio, and it’s remarkable in how effectively it blurs the lines between video games and film—and fantasy and reality.
But Henry really has one purpose: to teach potential virtual reality artists and creators a lesson in VR filmmaking.
IF I ONLY HAD A FRIEND
The entire short takes place in Henry’s woodland tree hollow home, where the hedgehog blows out his birthday candle (stuck in a large strawberry) and wishes earnestly for a friend. He looks at you sadly, his big eyes emoting as effectively as any Pixar characters’ (Henry director Ramiro Lopez Dau has previous credits working at Pixar on Brave, Monsters University and Cars 2). With the Oculus Rift headset strapped to your face, external cameras track the position of your head and body, and Henry’s eyes follow yours as you peer around. When the balloon animals he tied for himself come to life, they leap around and over your head in excitement (and in fear of Henry’s spines).
“In VR we’re at such an early stage, that for me, this project was always about finding that emotional connection with a character,” Dau told me. “You are in the same space as him. Is that going to feel awkward? Is that going to feel like nothing? It was a very interesting experiment.”
Using the goggles-like Oculus Rift to peer into virtual spaces has always impressed me and filled me with excitement for the future. Rift creator Palmer Luckey made the first prototypes when he was just 19 years old, his passion for virtual reality—previously the realm of science fiction and failed Nintendo systems—intersecting perfectly with rapidly evolving display and motion-tracking technology.
Talking to Luckey, now a 22-year-old multi-millionaire, is what I imagine it might have been like talking to early years Steve Jobs (even if he’s not a fan of the Apple founder). Luckey believes 100% in virtual reality, and he knows everyone else will soon as well.
“Eventually, it’s going to be like a phone, where everybody has personal devices that they use and it’s actually going to become viable for everyone to use their VR devices together, kind of like how everyone always sits around at parties texting,” he predicted. “We can look forward to a future where people are wearing their AR [Augmented Reality]/VR glasses at the party.”
I responded that that sounds slightly nightmarish—dystopian at the very least—but nothing phases Palmer Luckey. The same can’t be said of Henry the Hedgehog, a character whose inherent sadness and adorable gibberish mutterings—like Minions mixed with Eeyore—easily elicit an emotional response from viewers.
He’s begging for a lucrative line of plush, plastic-spined dolls and “free hugs” t-shirts with his grinning face all over them, but Oculus’s purpose with Henry and its other Story Studio films isn’t to make money or to start franchises. It’s to inspire others to use virtual reality technology like the Rift to push the boundaries and blur the lines of entertainment.
“Henry is actually not targeted at children. It’s secretly targeted at film creators and people who are going to make content similar to that,” Luckey said. “I think people can learn a lot from it.”
’A SERIES OF COMPROMISES’
What interests me most about Henry is how close the short film comes to being truly interactive, like a video game. Luckey and co. have talked a lot in the past about “presence” in virtual reality—the user’s sense of being in another place, which makes you do goofy things when you’re wearing the Rift, like physically reach for things you can see in the virtual world expecting digital versions of your hands to pop up in front of you. That sense is key to Henry; it’s why his eyes meet yours and follows your movements, proving he knows you’re there. You can’t affect Henry’s story or world, but he affects yours.
“It’s really hard to necessarily draw the line,” Luckey told me. Many people see virtual reality as a realm purely for gamers, but Oculus believes the tech is ripe for filmmakers as well, and Henry isn’t the first pseudo-interactive experience to grace the hardware. We discussed some of the experiences that creators outside of Oculus have already made, like a gladiator arena where the crowd mimics the user’s thumbs-up or thumbs-down gesture, deciding the fate of a combatant; or a murder mystery in which users walk around a fancy ball watching events unfold, but never participating in them besides as a passive observer.
These experiences are not without their shortcomings. In Henry, for example, you can’t help but wonder why you can’t simply be the hedgehog’s friend. He clearly knows you’re there—that’s part of the magic—yet he sets a table for one. And although you can walk around a small area within Henry’s home, being tethered to a PC via the Oculus Rift means you can only walk so far, and the setting is necessarily limited. Impressive and engrossing experiences are very possible within those limitations, but limitations they nonetheless are.
“I would never say Henry is perfect. When these things are conceived, you start to run into these problems…it was a series of compromises that we made,” Luckey said. “You have to come up with a plausible reason for why you are not the person who can solve the problem.…How do you deal with cuts? How do you handle moving between different environments?”
The Rift is scheduled to go on sale to the public in the first quarter of 2016, and many of these questions will still be up in the air when it does. “We’re not going to have all the answers by [then], but we’re trying to have more answers than we’d have if we weren’t doing Story Studio,” Luckey said. “Even the things where we failed, even the things that have been killed internally, we learned a lot from them, and we want to make sure other people learn from that too.”
At the mansion where the event was held, I spent much of the afternoon speculating with the other guests—journalists and Oculus personnel alike—about what mysterious fat cat might own the place, a Gatsby figure presiding secretly over taco buffets and tech debuts. One person told me they’d heard she’s an old woman. Why she rents the place out, who knows?
Waiting to speak with Dau and Luckey, I imagined she was strolling unrecognized in our midst, sipping sparkling peach tea while people milled like ants about her home. Maybe she was just like Henry—a lonely creature in search of a friend. That was pure fantasy—but then again, so is Henry, and I’d gladly give that spiky little guy a hug, embracing his spines and his flaws in a heartbeat if only I could.
Oculus Rift is far from perfect, but as a new platform for creative expression it has the potential to make fantasy meld with reality. At a certain point, the difference—in our minds at least—becomes negligible. And that’s when incredible things might become possible.
Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Gaming Editor, in charge of all things video games. He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend and two dogs, although that’s only until Oculus Rift comes out, after which he’ll exist entirely in virtual reality. Follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.
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