Google is getting ready to take its Spotlight Stories to virtual reality headsets: The Spotlight Stories team, which is part of Google’s ATAP R&D unit, will show off a new animated short called “Pearl” on the HTC Vive virtual reality headset at the Tribeca film festival in New York this weekend.
Officially, Google is using the film festival for the theatrical premiere of “Pearl,” a sweet animated short from Patrick Osborne, the director of Disney’s Oscar-nominated short film “Feast.” But at the Tribeca Interactive Playground, Google will also show off more immersive versions for mobile phones, Google’s own Cardboard VR headset and the HTC Vive.
Earlier this week, Google gave Variety an exclusive first look at the different versions for each platform, and Osborne as well as ATAP’s Rachid El Guerrab and Karen Dufilho-Rosen talked about the challenges and opportunities of adapting the same short film for these four different platforms. “It was very eye-opening for us,” said El Guerrab about producing the Vive version.
“Pearl” is a kind of coming of age story about a girl growing up with her musician dad. The short film is set to the song “No Wrong Way Home,” which is at times performed by the protagonists, at times listened to on the radio, and even payed back on an old tape recorder. The whole film feels a bit like a road movie, with all the action happening in a car that ages with the protagonists.
Even as a theatrical version, “Pearl” is a very sweet story that’s smart about combining music with storytelling. But it gets even more interesting once it’s being watched in a more immersive fashion. Google will release a 360-video-version in the coming weeks on YouTube that will work just like previous Spotlight Stories: Users will be able to use their phone in a kind of magic-window mode, tilting and moving it to explore an invisible stage around them.
This will allow them to focus on the Dad as he drives his car, singing along to a song on the radio, and then pan to the back seat to look at his little daughter as she climbs all over the place. The Cardboard version, which Google will release soon as well, comes with a slightly different vantage point, more immersive and very up-and-close to characters in the car, but at times obstructing the view to the outside world.
The Vive version finally lets viewers experience the whole film as if they were a person sitting on the passenger seat, even giving them the option to stand up and look through the sunroof while the car is driving. “When you are in the Vive, it’s almost like a play that happens around you,” said Osborne.
Throughout the film, there are a handful of trigger points that allow users to influence the timing: The immersive versions of “Pearl” can last anywhere from 5:30 to 7 minutes, depending on how much time viewers spend looking at certain things. It’s not the first time the Spotlight Stories team has experimented with such trigger points, but this was clearly one of its most ambitious projects to date: “Pearl” was comprised of 38 shots, 26 sets and 17 characters.
Still, in the end, making all of this work as a 360-animation on a phone or even in the Vive wasn’t the hardest part, said Osborne. Most challenging was instead to go back and condense all of it to a cinematic version that doesn’t allow viewers to look around. “You question the camera choice more,” he said.
Dufilho-Rosen said that she has had the same experience as a viewer when switching back from a Spotlight Story to a regular piece of content, explaining that a kind of muscle memory kicks in, making her tilt her phone, only to find out that nothing happens. “It makes you want an endless canvas,” she said.
Google inherited the Spotlight Stories project from Motorola, where the mobile company’s R&D research lab had conceived it as a way to push the envelope of storytelling on mobile devices. Some previous Spotlight Stories included “Duet” from legendary Disney animator Glen Keane, “Help” from “Fast and Furious” director Justin Lin and “Special Delivery” from the makers of Wallace and Gromit.
Initially, Google distributed Spotlight Stories through a dedicated Android app, but more recently, it started to upload the 360-videos directly to YouTube. Spotlight Stories haven’t been available on the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift to date, and in fact Google stopped short of announcing its plans for a Vive release of “Pearl.” However, El Guerrab said that the long-term goal is to enable both modes of viewing — headsets and mobile phones. “We’ve always been about this idea of immersive storytelling,” he said, adding that VR headsets would be a logical next step.
Speaking of taking next steps: Google’s ATAP unit was originally launched with the premise of incubating projects for two years, after which they would be spun out. Spotlight Stories has been with ATAP for three years and counting now — but that time may be over soon: “We are graduating,” said El Guerrab. “We are on the road to our next thing.” He didn’t want to reveal yet what that future may look like, but given Google’s growing interest in virtual reality, it’s not too hard to imagine that there is room for the project within YouTube or Google’s VR unit.