Virtual reality has reached the “trough of despair,” according to FooVR founder Will Smith. The industry is struggling with disparity in the demand for high-quality VR experiences and the relatively small potential customer market for those kinds of products. Both consumers and publishers are in a holding pattern until something changes, but FooVR isn’t waiting. Smith’s company is making moves to leverage its interesting animation technology in other creative spaces while still building content for VR enthusiasts.
FooVR’s efforts to branch out manifested this week in the form of a GameStop advertising campaign for Bungie’s upcoming sci-fi shooter Destiny 2. In a 30-second TV spot, a pair of gamers enter the world of Destiny 2 as low-poly avatars. They move and commentate on the action around them before a voiceover talks about preorder bonuses (a widget that keeps track of your kill count) and ESRB ratings (T for Teen). This is actually the latest in a line of GameStop ads that use machinima, or the art of making films with video games, to sell products.
Here’s an example of that technique from one of GameStop’s Halo 4 spots:
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But FooVR is different in that it is faster and provides more creative freedom while significantly cutting the cost compared to traditional animation.
“[GameStop] has done a lot of work with Machinima over the years working on ad campaigns, working with Rooster Teeth and some other folks,” Smith told GamesBeat. “They liked doing those campaigns, but they found that the machinima isn’t flexible enough. They were looking for ways to have more control over the character animation while still injecting characters into a video game.”
It turns out that is exactly the kind of technology that Smith’s team built to produce The Foo Show.
The Foo Show is FooVR’s marquee product. It is a variety/talk show that takes place in a simulated studio. The idea is that Smith will bring on some guests, typically game developers, to interview. At the halfway point of the program, the show will then cut to the equivalent of a location shoot inside the game in question. In the pilot episode, for example, Smith talked to Campo Santo founders Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman about their Firewatch adventure from inside the game’s famous watchtower.
And as a viewer of The Foo Show, you don’t just sit back and watch this happen. You put on a headset and join Smith, Rodkin, and Vanaman as they explore, joke around, and interact with the space.
To enable that experience, FooVR did a live recording session where Smith, Rodkin, and Vanaman were all wearing Vive headsets. As they walked around the watchtower, FooVR’s software recorded their movements, their positions, and their audio. The tech then turned all of that data into animation that FooVR can play back during one of its episodes.
But Smith realized early on that this capture technology isn’t just useful for first-person VR content. If his team set up virtual cameras inside the simulated space, they could quickly create animated video for 2D screens as well. And that’s the pitch GameStop wanted to hear.
“Basically, we animate the characters, just like we have with Foo from the beginning, with just a Vive,” said Smith. “We do it all with just the Vive. We put the actors in the Vives. We go in a sound stage in Texas. We line up the background plates that Rooster Teeth shoots using the game engines. We line those up with some different camera controls to recreate the shots, and then, we put the guys in. I think it’s the first time anybody’s done anything like this.”
The benefits of this process to a company like GameStop are obvious. Previously, the world’s largest retailer would have to rely on in-game character models and tools to create the machinima for its ads. Alternatively, the company could have put original characters into the games through traditional animation tools. But that’s expensive, and FooVR might make that alternative seem foolishly expensive.
“Traditionally, with the cost of animation, it costs about the same to make each frame of animation,” said Smith. “Your costs are relatively fixed, and it all has to do with the amount of time you’re putting on the screen. Because we generate the animation dynamically, the cost of those assets amortizes down the more you use them. It makes sense in an ad campaign situation like this.”
FooVR still has to build the character models for the actors, but it doesn’t need to animate them frame by frame. So it takes less time, which saves a lot of money. But it’s not just about cash. Saving time has its own benefits.
“We go down and shoot all our animation stuff in a one-day shoot for a couple of these spots, usually,” said Smith. “I’m going to Austin at the end of next week, and we’re going to shoot three spots in three days.”
That fast turnaround enables FooVR to provide its clients with options they would never have with standard animation. For example, the software can capture multiple takes without having to worry about the animation not matching. FooVR can then take all of that footage back to the marketing agency for them to participate in the creative process at a point when traditional animation would have locked out any last-minute changes.
FooVR is so fast that it could even enable a client to create topical content that reacts to the real world. Hell, this tech can even do live-action animation.
“We’ve done live,” said Smith. “We’ve done a live pilot. We did a show with Adult Swim featuring Carl from Aqua Teen Hunger Force on Super Bowl Sunday.”
FooVR has a lot of potential in this space, but this shift has some echoes of the “pivot to video” we see so many online media companies making. I asked Smith about that, and he explained that his team is still producing The Foo Show. Two episodes are rolling out soon as part of a crowdfunded season of content. But, he also said that going out and finding partners like GameStop and Adult Swim gives his team the opportunity to refine the animation technology. That will feed back into the VR side of the equation.
At the same time, Smith is passionate about what FooVR can do on 2D screens.
“I love animation. I’ve always loved animation,” he said. “I grew up watching the Simpsons and the Flintstones and old Hanna-Barbera stuff.”
And he loves the idea of contributing to that artform.
“If we can give people who want to make animated shows a new tool in their toolkit that lets them do live programming or live-to-tape programming — things that are impossible in a traditional animated format,” Smith said. “I’m all about that.”
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