Robin Lippman, content coordinator at Felix & Paul Studios
This afternoon at the Austin Hilton I caught a glimpse of the future of movies, maybe.
Miyubi, a scripted virtual reality experience about a robot toy and a family in the 1980s, is the longest VR creation I have ever seen. It lasted about 40 minutes. On my Gear VR headset at home I am used to watching VR clips that last no more than a few minutes at a time.
Whereas last year at South By Southwest the VR demos were scattered around the conference, in 2017 the boom in content for headsets justified an entire room on the fourth level of the Hilton, named VR Cinema.
The room was dimly lit, like a movie theater. It was filled with people wearing headsets and headphones, sitting on stools you could spin 360 degrees. The viewers looked in different directions, up and down, each in his or her own world.
VR content creators discussed their work in booths around the outside of the room. The biggest displays were for Facebook’s Oculus and a Montreal-based VR pioneer named Felix & Paul Studios.
At first I lined up at Oculus, because I wanted to try the Oculus Rift headset. When I realized the watchers were using Samsung Gear VRs I gave up my place in line and moved on to Felix & Paul.
A movie-style poster at the entrance to the viewing area showed pixelated views of a family and a tagline that read, “Love in the age of obsolescence.” The title of the experience was Miyubi.
I gave the check-in guy my mobile number, and 20 minutes later I received a text saying they were ready for me. No popcorn, but I did score a relatively quiet location in the corner on one of 10 swivel stools. Since I have my own Gear VR, I didn’t need help putting it on and adjusting the focal point.
As the story opened, I found myself staring at a young boy, maybe 9 years old. He didn’t see me, of course. He was looking at a toy robot named
Miyubi, and he was delighted.
We were in the living room of a large, upscale home in the 1980s. An older brother and a younger sister were causing trouble. Mom and Dad were trying to maintain order. A grumpy grandfather in a wheelchair was saying mean things about me, the robot, because I came from Japan and he was a veteran of World War II in the Pacific.
In each scene, there were no shifts of view as the action continued. Everything happened in one shot, and I could look anywhere I wanted in the room. If I looked down, I could see that I was made of something like Lego blocks. When the scene shifted to a new time and space, like another room in the house, the transition seemed like a reboot of the robot toy’s operating system.
When family members prompted me, I could make disembodied digital voice replies that sound like Cosmo, a current-day robot toy I bought last year at Amazon.
It was a cute story, and I won’t spoil it for you by revealing what happens toMiyubi or how the robot’s relationship with the grandfather changes. I thought the quality of the acting, the fullness of the sets, and the story itself were all at an impressive level of achievement.
Every time I don a Gear VR headset, I hopefully turn the focus wheel on the top of it all the way to the left, hoping the view will be sharp and perfect. It never is. If I raise the headset off my nose a little, it sometimes helps. But the basic view is less than wonderful. I know the technology is going to improve. In the meantime, I don’t mind a blurry sneak preview of the future.
After experiencing Miyubi, I chatted with Robin Lippman, content coordinator for Felix & Paul. She is based in Los Angeles.
I thought I was an above-average VR viewer because of my experimentation with virtual reality in the last year, including my own 360 home movies filmed with a Gear 360 camera. So I was disappointed to learn from Robin that I had totally missed an important part of the experience.
She said there are “Easter eggs” in Miyubi, objects you can focus on for an extended time that expand the movie with a scene that I never saw.
There had been no advance information on the screen about the Easter eggs as the experience started. I asked Robin why not. She replied:
"We don’t want it to distract people from the story. We want it to be kind of hidden and a surprise if you do find it. They are toys hidden kind of in plain sight. As you stare at them you will see them light up. Then if you continue to stare at them they activate and become icons."
I’m glad Felix & Paul did not tip me off about the hidden aspects of Miyubi. If I had known about them, I would have obsessed about getting them and would have missed what I learned about the characters and story by looking all around me as the experience unfolded.
What I love about the Easter eggs is the sheer creativity of it. You could not do this on a “flattie,” which is what VR enthusiasts call traditional movies. There is no way to focus on one part of a normal movie screen in order to unlock anything. But in VR you can, so why not have some fun with it?
Robin said the creators hope viewers might go back and see the story again, increasing the chances that they will stumble on the Easter eggs.
I will certainly do that when Miyubi is released at the Oculus Store next month. When I asked Robin how much it will cost to purchase the experience for my VR headset, she said the price has yet to be determined.
She expects people will experience Miyubi on headsets at home and also at VR cinemas like the one set up here at South By. She said some traditional theaters are selling tickets to VR experiences that you can watch in areas set aside in their lobbies.
In which case there would be popcorn available, but when I recall my engagement with Miyubi I can imagine that VR might be bad news for concession sales in theaters.
When I sit in front of a flat screen at home or in a movie theater, I realize, I am in a more passive mode than I was at the VR cinema. During a flattie, I let the director’s choices determine exactly what I am seeing at each moment.
In VR, I can look anywhere at any moment. That takes a higher level of engagement and attention — ergo, maybe less consumption of popcorn and Milk Duds.
One thing I love about brand new technology is the name game.
Earlier at South By I heard panelists fretting about the word “bot” or “chatbot” as a description of artificial intelligence agents like Alexa and text-based bots available on Facebook Messenger and elsewhere. Nobody knows what a bot is, they worried, but no one so far has come up with a better name.
For VR, Robin said current usage is to call the content experiences, not movies. They are also sometimes referred to as VR movies or VR films.
“We call it an experience, because you really do feel as if you are there,” she explained.
What I experienced this afternoon at South By Southwest is clearly in its very early days. I like to imagine that I will one day look back to my viewing of Miyubi the way my grandparents may have remembered their first “talkies.”
VR may not be the future of movies after all.
It is probably the beginning of something entirely new that doesn’t even know its name yet.