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Robots, video games, sci-fi: The perfect VR film for geeks

The new film "Miyubi" is a geek heaven, mixing virtual reality with adoration for '80s video games and sci-fi. And it's winning over Sundance filmmakers too.

In the VR film "Miyubi," VR film, you watch a family's life unfold through the eyes of the title's toy robot.

Felix & Paul Studios

If you like toy robots, or catchy '80s-style MIDI video-game music, or Jeff Goldblum, you'll probably find a friend in "Miyubi."

"Miyubi" is a virtual-reality experience by Felix & Paul Studios that tells the story of a year inside a 1980s family, as seen through the eyes of the film's namesake toy robot. It's expertly shot, cleverly written and acted, and dotted with Easter eggs that make you want to watch it a second (and third) time.

That's no small feat for a 40-odd-minute piece you watch via a headset on your face. It's possibly the longest VR movie released since the format ignited about three years ago.

"Miyubi" is winning over a crucial audience for VR: the filmmaker crowd at the Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered on Friday. That influential group will be critical to getting liftoff for virtual reality, which uses motion-sensitive headsets to make viewers feel like they're in the middle of the action. VR's already one of the buzziest tech areas thanks to mega investments from the likes of Facebook, Samsung and Google, but critics argue it needs more content to draw in mainstream audiences.

Hello, Hollywood

Just as Pokemon Go helped clue consumers into what VR cousin augmented reality is all about, virtual reality needs a killer app -- plus reams of good movies, shows and games to dive into. That's where Hollywood comes in.

Among filmmakers here, the reaction to "Miyubi" has been "Oh, it's like what we're doing," said Bryan Besser, a film agent who helped broker Felix & Paul's deal to make VR for 20th Century Fox next year. Like a bridge between the two worlds of VR and Hollywood, he said, the piece is "helping Hollywood insiders to see how their skills could translate to making virtual-reality movies and shows."

The gaming industry already has an infrastructure of know-how and software that could shift to VR production with relative ease. That's why you hear a lot about video games when talking about the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive headsets.

But filmmakers have been building their VR production tools pretty much from scratch. As a result, VR movie-making is trickier, more hacked-together and costlier than making VR games.

It's also uncharted territory for storytelling.

"Film has been around for 100 years. We've become experts ... at suspending disbelief for film," said Paul Raphael, creative director and co-founder of Felix & Paul. But a rectangular projection against the wall is wholly different from an immersive environment. While in many ways a VR experience feels more real than a film, the suspension of disbelief needs to be "re-figured out" for VR, he said.

"We have to nail that, or else the whole thing falls apart," Raphael said.

Movies and shows may be more important for VR to have a wide reach. While the gaming industry netted about $17.7 billion in US revenue in 2016, film and television/video represent more than $133.6 billion in US sales that year, according to projections by researcher PwC.

"Miyubi" feels familiar to filmmakers because of its length and the fact that it's a pretty traditional scripted story played out by some recognizable actors. The story was written by Owen Burke, the editor-in-chief of FunnyOrDie. Among the actors are Jeff Goldblum -- whose resume includes geek-tastic movies including "Jurassic Park," "Independence Day" and "The Fly" -- and Richard Riehle, a 25-year veteran character actor.

Make no mistake, many in Hollywood are already plowing into virtual reality. Directors Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro are involved in up-and-coming VR studios, and companies like 20th Century Fox and Comcast, the parent of NBCUniversal, have been investing in VR projects.

But to create a rabbit hole of VR for viewers to dive into, the more movie makers that get on board, the better.

"Miyubi" is expected to be publicly released in late February or early March. It will be available on Samsung Gear VR, powered by Oculus, and viewers will also be able to download it in the Oculus Store.

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