Virtual Reality & Animation Heading into 2018

Since computers became a thing, I have been imagining the day when virtual and reality would fuse into one. Haven’t we all? Finally, over the past year, the topic of virtual reality (VR) has grown to the point where it is difficult to avoid. But has that long awaited time for VR actually, finally come? The jury is currently out, with companies split in their support for VR and augmented reality (AR). Apple has been standing firm behind AR, for example, while Google and Facebook have been pouring their support and millions into the development of VR. So what does that mean for us animators? Is VR actually here to stay?

The animation world has begun dabbling in VR in many media, from cartoons to photoreal CG. One of the largest animated VR undertakings in 2017 was Oculus’ short narrative Dear Angelica. Dear Angelica was painted completely within a VR environment using Quill, a tool developed by Oculus developed specifically for the project. While watching the film, viewers can navigate around what is being drawn as it is drawn.  The film was a success at Sundance, inspiring many to continue pushing forward, exploring the creative limits of the new VR world.

Dear Angelina may have been well received but just because the animation creatives in the VR industry are excited doesn’t mean it’s the future of animation. It also may still be too early to tell. There are, however, some interesting opinions we felt we should consider. Gabe Newall, creator of Half-Life and the Steam platform as well as the President of Valve, stated, “VR is going great. It’s going in a way that’s consistent with our expectations. We’re also pretty comfortable with the idea that it will turn out to be a complete failure.”

Photo: Guido van Nispen 

Perhaps Newall predicts current VR will evolve into something better, but as for now, the Oculus Rift which went on sale in 2016 has underperformed sales expectations by 400%. Oculus set up 500 VR demo kiosks in Best Buys around the United States in order for potential customers to try VR for themselves. They ended up closing 200 of those kiosks. VR may continue to be a hard sell due to the expense of high-end VR and people getting bored after a few uses. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has suggested that it may be too isolating.

Virtual Reality Demonstrations
Photo: Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, University of Texas at Austin

VR gives animators a new world for creative expression, but it has also brought some creative and technical challenges to light. Designers and illustrators have more pressure to grab the viewer’s attention and direct it at story points. According to Framstore’s senior animator Shayne Ryan, this situation is called “earning the user’s gaze” or just being aware the viewer may not take everything in during one experience. On the other hand, this also has the potential to enhance a story’s value since every time the audience replays a VR video they may notice something new. Watch Asteroids!, an Official Selection at Sundance Film Festival 2017, and see if you are always looking at the right place at the right time.

So, what about augmented reality? For Apple, AR is the future. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook believes  AR to be “potentially as revolutionary as the smartphone.” Where VR always seems to be thought of as entertainment, or an experience, AR’s investors seem to believe it is the future of entertainment, virtual meetings, and other daily facets of life which our smartphones currently take care of. Anyone using Apple’s iOS11 can download various apps to get a better feel for the Apple ARkit platform and see what they are brainstorming for 2019. For you animators out there, judging by the video below, our children’s children may not know the same animation we have spent our lives creating!

Disney has also been breathing life into their retired 2D animation style with AR. Disney has developed an app which brings drawings to life from a normal coloring book and normal crayons. Anyone can color in a character on the coloring book’s page and the app reproduces that character in three dimensions and in real time. The characters jump to life, dancing and moving around. This isn’t the same as taking in a whole Disney animated story in AR, but it could be just the beginning.

Currently both AR and VR are surrounded by heavy investing and high hopes, but what does that mean for animators like us at Lava Studio?   2018 and succeeding years will surely hold many fun AR and VR opportunities for all of us, and, if things go according to the most ambitious plans, animation and graphics will blend into our reality in all aspects of future life. Again, it may be too early to say, but we might be on the path to a future that looks like this…

In the meantime, as technology and creative industries continue to merge, Newall is definitely right to encourage us to fearlessly experiment, unafraid of failure-based learning and progress. We at Lava are looking forward to creative opportunities in both VR and AR platforms, and to see what we and others can come up with in 2018 and beyond. Stay tuned with us!