Their first meeting was a bit of an ambush. “He showed up with a giant laptop and a Rift under his arm,” said Oculus VR head of experiences Colum Slevin, remembering the first time he ran into Future Lighthouse CEO Nicolás Alcalá at a film festival. Unfazed by the crowds around them, Alcalá inisted that Slevin watched Future Lighthouse’s most recent project “Melita” right then and there. “Who is this crazy person,” Slevin recalled himself thinking.
But he ultimately relented, put on the headset — and was immediately taken by what he saw: “Melita” is a beautifully animated story that plays out in a dystopian near-future, with a world in a full-swing climate catastrophe. In that world, humans work together with artificial intelligence-powered humanoid robots to find humanity a new home.
All of this is told over 20 minutes in beautiful animations that capture both the bitter end of life as it were on earth, as well as the promise of technology to start anew. “I was completely blown away,” said Slevin.
At the center of the story is Melita, a female AI bot that is holed up at a North Pole research station together with Anaaya, a scientist of Inuit descent. Melita is initially just a sidekick, tasked with scanning the sky for planets that could sustain life. But the story also has her trying to grasp what has gone wrong with life on earth as the ice and its animal inhabitants literally disappear before her eyes. “You are learning about humanity through this character,” Slevin said.
Oculus officially announced at its Oculus Connect Developer conference in San Jose, Calif. Wednesday that the first episode of Melita is coming exclusively to the Oculus Rift VR headset later this month. At that point, consumers will be able to see what Future Lighthouse has been working on for the past 18 or so months — and will likely continue to work on for years to come.
Alcalá recently recalled that he first came up for the idea of “Melita” when he read an article about Nasa’s Mars rovers, which go into hibernation mode during winter time, losing all contact to earth until their solar panels start to get enough energy to wake them up again. “Melita” will follow that storyline in an upcoming episode 2, which will take her from earth to a new planet, where she runs out of power, only to wake up in the distant future. “We wanted to do a very ambitious piece,” said Alcalá.
Founded in 2015, the Los Angeles- and Madrid-based studio is approaching storytelling for virtual reality with a uniquely cinematic sensibility. “Melita” features a number of wide shots followed by dramatic camera movement to take you up and close to the action, or transition from one scene to another. Motion also plays a big part within individual scenes, where slow drifts of the camera add to the emotion, and visualize how a world is fading away before the viewer’s eyes.
That type of cinematic language hasn’t often been used in VR, much less in animated VR. “There was a time when people said: Don’t move the camera in VR,” recalled Slevin one of the rules-of-thumb of a new medium that is still trying to figure out ways not to make viewers nauseous.
But Alcalá plans to go even further in the second episode of “Melita,” and add new interactive elements, including content that incorporates some information provided by each viewer — something he called “content that knows who you are.”
Episode 2 of “Melita” will likely again last around 20 minutes, while a third episode could potentially get feature-film-length. “It can be as big as we want it to be,” said Alcalá. “It all depends on the hunger of the market.”
Oculus meanwhile is betting that viewers want “Melita,” and more pieces like it. After winding down its own in-house studio earlier this year, the Facebook subsidiary is now investing in content from third-party partners like Future Lighthouse.
Slevin said that these investments are quickly moving beyond 360-degree video fare, and towards more ambitious productions like “Melita” that make use of the positional tracking of the Rift VR headset. “We are all in on six-degrees of freedom story-telling,” Slevin said. “It opens doors.”
Check out a 360-degree trailer for “Melita” below: