VR morphed me into an alien. Now it's your turn

From startup Mindshow to Google to Oculus, the latest trend in virtual-reality storytelling is to put more control of its creation in your hands.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
Expertise Streaming video, film, television and music; virtual, augmented and mixed reality; deep fakes and synthetic media; content moderation and misinformation online Credentials
  • Three Folio Eddie award wins: 2018 science & technology writing (Cartoon bunnies are hacking your brain), 2021 analysis (Deepfakes' election threat isn't what you'd think) and 2022 culture article (Apple's CODA Takes You Into an Inner World of Sign)
Joan E. Solsman
5 min read

I created my own virtual-reality cartoon, and the only skill required was my willingness to look ridiculous.

My clip, in which I play both a hollering alien and the space captain he threatens, was the product of Mindshow, an app from Los Angeles startup Visionary VR.

Think of the app as if Pixar jumped into VR and fused Minecraft with music-mixing software GarageBand. The app features a library of animated characters, props and settings for you to inhabit and edit into a sharable clip. And it all feels like playtime.

After initially figuring out how to combine virtual reality and narrative, Visionary VR decided to open things up.

"There is a greater opportunity than enabling our own ability to tell stories," CEO Gil Baron said. "It's enabling everyone else to."

Mindshow is the purest example of the latest undercurrent in VR storytelling: how to give you a bigger role to play. It's the latest pitch for the medium, which uses screens in motion-sensitive headsets to throw viewers into wild digital worlds. With the likes of Facebook and Google backing it, VR has been hailed as the next big thing.

In fact, 2016 was supposed to be a splashy year for VR. Last year marked the launch of three high-profile systems: the Oculus Rift from Facebook, the Vive from phone maker HTC and video game developer and distributor Valve, and the Playstation VR from Sony. Meanwhile, Samsung said early this year that it had shipped 5 million Gear VR headsets since their late 2015 launch. But the reality check is that the release of hardware alone isn't enough to sustain hype, and critics argue that insufficient content crimps VR's appeal.

So creators working on narrative VR -- and the companies that fund them -- have started to ask themselves how they can put VR storytelling into people's hands.

Mindshow, which was on display last month at the Consumer Electronics Show and at the Sundance Film Festival, literally puts you in control of the story. With the Vive's hand controllers and headset, you perform any story you invent, whether you play a tuxedo-wearing puppy or anthropomorphic Twinkie.

Others making VR movies have also started to dip their toes in interactivity, giving viewers more agency over the telling of a tale. And the deep-pocketed companies making VR hardware are shoveling money and tech tools to more people, hoping to turn diverse filmmakers and regular folks like you and me into VR creators too.

Tech giants

Facebook placed its bet on VR three years ago with its $3 billion purchase of headset-developer Oculus, but the company didn't turn off the funding spigot once it had the hardware. In October, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook had invested $250 million in virtual-reality content and pledged another $250 million, plus $10 million each for educational and diversity programs in VR.

Many of those funds are earmarked for bringing people into VR who otherwise might not initially show interest.

One of the diversity efforts is VR for Good, which matches a nonprofit with a filmmaker to collaborate with Oculus on virtual-reality movies. Along with Launch Pad, the company's effort to encourage filmmakers to address social issues using VR, Oculus has been widening the net so a greater variety of people can take advantage of the medium.

Watch this: Mindshow turned me into a VR alien

Google has been making similar moves through its YouTube arm. Since Google's launch of the Daydream VR headset in November, YouTube looked at the dozen biggest content categories on its massive video site -- vlogging, beauty tutorials, game play, for example -- and identified creators in each one to pair with a VR studio, according to Jamie Byrne, YouTube's director of creators and VR initiatives.

In some cases, the company would bless the creator with a Jump rig, a VR shooting setup that stitches together video captured by 16 cameras to create 360-degree footage. It also loaned out Jump rigs and provided them at its YouTube Spaces in Los Angeles and New York to any YouTuber with more than 10,000 subscribers.

"We're really focused on getting the tools in the hands of more creators, because that is where the innovation will come from," said Byrne.

Both Google and Oculus have released programs to enable anyone to make their own VR.

Tilt Brush, a VR app from Google, turns hand controllers into a virtual paintbrushes, letting people craft 3D illustrations around them in a virtual room. Oculus' similar program, Quill, is taking the concept one step further. Later this year, Quill will update with a timeline feature, essentially letting anyone toy with drawing their own animated time-lapse VR movies.

Tiptoeing into interactivity

The rush to make content for VR headsets led to rapid schooling among VR filmmakers. That has turned festivals like Sundance -- which will be followed by South by Southwest in Austin, VRLA in Los Angeles and the Tribeca Film Festival in New York -- into hot spots to show off filmmakers' newfound chops.

Last month, in the chaotic tent at Sundance deemed "VR Palace," many experiences tiptoed toward more viewer control. "Asteroids!," for example, is the followup to a bunny-meets-aliens VR short released last year by VR studio Baobab. The studio has a deal to make traditional animated feature-films based on characters it has been developing for VR.


The trend of 2017 in VR is to put more control in your hands -- even if you look silly in the process.

Josh Miller/CNET

"We don't do branching stories," said Eric Darnell, Baobab's creative chief and the director of the "Madagascar" animated movies. "One story, told well, is hard enough."

But with "Asteroids!," his team approached interactivity for the first time as "branching emotions," letting viewers forge a deeper connection by giving them a limited role in a character's fate.

One experience, "Life of Us" by the studio Within, ventured into multiplayer narrative VR, another first. The plot of the story is unalterable, but you're joined virtually by someone else experiencing the same film through a headset in a different room. As the story barrels through trippy, hyperspeed stages of human evolution, you can talk and laugh together, and swat monkeys off each other's backs, literally. (Well, virtually.)

Mindshow doesn't so much as tiptoe toward interactivity as bum-rush it. That app, which lets you take on the role of VR actor and director, is set to be released in a beta version later this year.

"We need to get out of the way and just provide the means," said Jonnie Ross, Mindshow-maker Visionary's chief creative officer. "Essentially, let's crowdsource what the future of storytelling is."

So does the future look like a talking Twinkie? If that's as fun as virtually body-swapping with a scowling green alien, I really hope so.

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