Penrose Rose
Courtesy of Penrose

From Sundance to your phone, San Francisco-based virtual reality storytelling startup Penrose Studios is set to make waves.

Penrose Studios, which was founded by former Oculus executive Eugene Chung, announced Thursday that it’s animated VR short film “The Rose and I” is going to premier at Sundance next year, where it will be shown as part of the New Frontier section. And if that wasn’t enough, Penrose also released a mobile version of the film, dubbed “Rosebud,” on Samsung’s Gear VR headset Thursday — and it may just change how you think about mobile virtual reality.

Up until now, mobile VR largely consisted of two things: Video games that offer some level of immersion, and 360-degree videos that let viewers experience concerts, documentaries and more from a set point of view, with the action unfolding around them. What’s largely been missing is the ability to physically move through a virtual space. That’s because mobile VR doesn’t offer positional tracking, which means that the app wouldn’t know if a viewer stood up and walked around.

More advanced VR headsets like the upcoming Oculus Rift, and the HTC Vive, do offer this kind of positional tracking by adding special sensors to a room, capable of tracking the user’s movements within a certain area. That’s not easily doable with mobile VR, but the Penrose team found a remarkable solution to bring a similar experience to the Gear VR.

“Rosebud” as well as “The Rose and I” are essentially virtual reality adaptations of “The Little Prince,” allowing users to observe the bond between a rose and its caretaker on a small asteroid floating through space. When watching “The Rose and I” with a full-fledged VR headset with positional tracking, viewers can walk around the asteroid and explore it from all angles.

For “Rosebud,” the team replaced positional tracking by giving users the ability to manipulate the asteroid with the Gear VR’s touchpad, allowing them to zoom in and out as well rotate the object in a 360-degree fashion around the position of the viewer. It’s an experience that breaks the wall between viewer and participant, giving an immediate sense of presence in a room, and letting viewers forget for a second that they’re just wearing a phone strapped to their face.

Chung told Variety that his team, which includes veterans from Oculus, Pixar and Dreamworks, had to work quite a bit to make this experience feel fluid on mobile. Not only had they to overcome the lack of real positional tracking, but also deal with the fact that a modern PC used to power an Oculus Rift hs 150 times the computing power of a phone-based Gear VR. The solution involved a lot of technical tricks, but also leaving a lot of things out altogether. “The simpler you get, the better,” Chung said.

Before starting Penrose, Chung served as head of film and media at Oculus, where he also co-created the Oculus Story Studio. Penrose released “Rosebud” through a dedicated app called “Rose” on the Gear VR’s Oculus store Thursday, and the company plans to release additional content through the app in the coming months.

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