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Inside the Nickelodeon Entertainment Lab, the Network’s Geeky R&D Unit

Nickelodeon is celebrating the return of its animated comedy series “The Loud House” today with a 360-degree video that lets viewers explore the madness of the Loud family household literally from all angles.

The video has been produced by Nickelodeon’s Entertainment Lab, a small research and development unit that spent the past year quietly working away on internal projects. As it is getting ready to release more of its work to the public, Variety recently got an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at Lab, its stage-sized VR setups, hacked arcade machines and crazy VR slime fights.

Nickelodeon SVP Chris Young (pictured above) began exploring new technologies for the network in 2014. In May of last year, Nickelodeon made his mission official, and created the Entertainment Lab, a group of six staffers looking to explore virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and everything in between. “The Lab is really tasked with a long-term view of where entertainment is headed,” Young explained as he recently gave Variety a tour of their Burbank, Calif.-based facilities.

Nickelodeon Entertainment Lab LBVR
CREDIT: Janko Roettgers / Variety

The Nickelodeon Entertainment Lab’s stage for muti-player location-based VR.

That tour began with a look at a stage customized for developing location-based VR experiences that can be used by multiple players at the same time. Much like other location-based VR setups, the Lab has also been using dozens of tracking cameras and special computer backpacks that make it possible to freely walk around within the experience while wearing a VR headset. Young explained that he wanted to go beyond the constraints of a typical consumer-grade VR setup. “I was interested in doing something at much bigger scale,” he said.

In a corner, a desk was littered with cables, soldering irons and random parts. Young explained that he wasn’t happy with the fact that your typical VR setup doesn’t know whether you raise your hand, or step forward with one foot. “We really want to have full body presence.” And since commercial body tracking solutions are still evolving, Young decided to build his own tracking devices, with a little help from a 3D printer.

Nickelodeon Entertainment Lab
CREDIT: Janko Roettgers / Variety

The Nickelodeon Entertainment Lab is developing its own tracking hardware for location-based VR.

The Nickelodeon Entertainment Lab has done extensive work in VR, much of which will never be seen outside of the walls of the network’s facility. This included “Sage,” an animated VR short film from Nickelodeon supervising director Dan Krall about an elf in a magical forest.

Lab employees also experimented with alternative controllers for VR to get beyond the awkward task of having to teach players the use of buttons for a particular game. “Kids know super-soakers, and they know what a banana is,” quipped Young — so why not use these everyday items for VR games? At one point, Young even created a life-sized model of his office in virtual reality, which allowed him to use his real office as a playground for motion capture and other experiments.

But not all of the Lab’s work is focused on VR. One of the team’s offices is being used for real-time video animation for Facebook Live streams. With the help of some X-Keys Midi controllers, Lab employees were able to animate cartoon characters in real-time, making them frown, jump and wave just by hitting a few buttons. Their mouth movements were automatically synchronized to live speech input Adobe’s Character Animator app, which works a bit like the software powering Apple’s Animoji. “I call these guys cartoon DJs,” joked Young about employees using the hardware.

Nickelodeon Entertainment Lab
CREDIT: Janko Roettgers / Variety

A real-time animation station at the Entertainment Lab, used for Facebook Live streams.

The Lab’s most famous project thus far has been “Slime Zone,” a social multiplayer VR experience that was first shown at Vidcon last year. In it, players find themselves in a colorful animated world where they can shoot green slime at each other, play ping-pong or basketball, or just watch videos together, chat and hang out. Every now and then, Nickelodeon characters like Spongebob, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and even Korra make an appearance.

Imagine an 8-year-old’s birthday party where everyone had way too much cake and soda and is bouncing off the walls, but in VR, and you get the picture. It’s a lot of fun, and a way for the Lab to play with a bunch of different modalities around social VR. Team members also wanted to try to bridge the gap between the new medium and other screens, and went full circle on video gaming by porting Slime Zone to an arcade machine.

There’s no word yet if and when the Slime Zone will ever turn into a commercial product, but one shouldn’t be too surprised to see more of the Lab’s work actually reach consumers. For instance, Lab employees have been working on augmented reality characters based on Apple’s ARKit that may get released in the near future.

And there will likely also be more 360 videos, since the “Loud House” project was used to set up an internal workflow. “The process we set up to handle the 360 output allowed the animators to approach the production in the same way they create the TV show,” said Young. “With this process, it was a seamless step from storyboards, to animation, to final 360 render.”

Nickelodeon Entertainment Lab
CREDIT: Janko Roettgers

Nickelodeon Entertainment Lab staffers are using Midi hardware to animate characters in real-time.

Some Nickelodeon Entertainment Labs projects may seem silly, but listen to Young, and you start to understand that there’s more to it. Ultimately, he argued, it’s all about a shift from traditional production methods to tools that can be used and manipulated live. “The future is real-time,” he said. “Working real-time is fundamental to this technology.”

Young and his team have for instance been testing the quality level of game engines, which are traditionally used for real-time video-game graphics rendering. As part of that work, the Lab also produced an animated short film rendered entirely in a game engine. The goal was not only to show that the results look comparable to traditional animation, but also that the assets could be changed on the fly, and even adapted to new mediums. After producing the short film in 2D, the team put the same assets into VR. “And then we took the VR experience, and put it onto HoloLens,” recalled Young.

Ultimately, Nickelodeon could start to use game engines more widely to produce animated shows, Young predicted: “As a company, we are very interested in it.”

Update: 9:32am: This post was updated to add more details on the Lab’s setup for animated Facebook Live streams.

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