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‘The Hobbit’ Gets Virtual Reality Expansion with ‘Thief in the Shadows’

Visual effects studio WETA and Epic Games produced the VR experience unveiled at the Game Developers Conference

Bilbo Baggins is going on another journey — this time to the virtual world.

The hero of Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy will face off against the dragon Smaug one more time in “Thief in the Shadows,” a virtual reality experience created by Weta Digital.

The visual effects studio used Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 4 to develop the VR spinoff, using assets from “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.”

Using the Oculus Rift headset, viewers wade through a vast collection of gold coins and are confronted by Smaug, who guards the loot. Benedict Cumberbatch voices the dragon as he did in the films.

“When you come face-to-face with an enormous dragon that experience has to be believable, visceral and emotional,” said Alasdair Coull, head of research and development at Weta Digital.

Weta and Epic unveiled the VR experience at the Game Developers Conference, taking place this week in San Francisco. The demo is running at a smooth 90 frames per second. Most videogames strive for a rate of 60 fps.

While there are no imminent plans to release the demo commercially, the partnership between the companies and graphics chip maker Nvidia demonstrate a growing interest by content makers to produce entertainment for new hardware expected to become available to consumers this year.

Earlier this year, Fox Searchlight debuted a non-interactive VR companion piece for the film “Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern. Using a Samsung Gear VR headset, viewers rest on a virtual tree stump in a forest, listening and watching as Witherspoon’s character walks up a trail, rests on a rock next to them and engages with the ghost of her mother (played by Dern).

Fox’s Innovation Lab initiative is already exploring other films to offer similar companion pieces, including “The Martian,” and future “X-Men” films.

Sundance saw several VR films as well. “Birdly” let viewers view San Francisco as a bird flying above the city, and “Project Syria” puts the audience in the middle of a rocket attack in the war-torn nation.

Oculus, meanwhile, has also launched an internal team focused on creating VR movies — recently debuting “Lost,” an animated feature by former Pixar animator Saschka Unseld. It plans to release four additional shorts this year.

Virtual reality has been a pervasive theme at this year’s GDC. Sony announced Tuesday it would release Project Morpheus, which is made specifically for the PlayStation 4, in the first half of 2016. And Valve Software and HTC have announced a VR headset of their own called Vive, which will go on sale later this year.

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