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Oculus Story Studio founder says VR storytellers are reaching too far

The Holodeck is a long way off, says former Pixar technical director

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Max Planck, 10-year veteran of Pixar and the technical director of Oculus Story Studio, threw cold water on his audience at Game Developers Conference 2016 today. For half an hour he explored the many constraints working against creatives working in virtual reality, and argued for prioritizing shorter experiences ahead of longform work.

"We’re kind of at where film was back at the time of the nickelodeon," Planck said, "where people were willing to pay a nickel just to see something cool. And I think we should embrace that."

Planck cited the independent games scene as evidence that consumers are willing to spend less on smaller experiences, while admitting that VR doesn't have a pricing model yet.

The nitty-gritty of his talk focused on the limitations for developers working in VR, and delved into both the practical and philosophical.

For instance, Planck explained how, in his years working in computer-generated animation, he's gotten used to a certain kind of workflow. Multiple teams can work on multiple portions of a motion picture at the same time without much interference, and directors can monitor their work from over their shoulder, essentially. That's not the case with VR, he said, showing a video of one member of his team wearing a VR headset, trying to explain herself while her staff of animators tried to follow along on a traditional flat screen behind her.

Simply sharing the same virtual space is a practical impossibility for the artists and engineers building today's experiences, and that slows down production. But by working slowly and carefully, his team has been able to produce short experiences like Henry, pictured above, which is available for viewing now.

Most importantly, the kinds of tricks that directors have used for years — like cuts, pans, fades and simple scene transitions — simply don't make sense to the everyday consumers of VR. When they applied them to Henry, he said, people had a hard time determining if he was real or a ghost.

These skills may evolve in the future, as the audience becomes accustomed to the medium, but it's also up to content creators to create a new visual vocabulary.

It's also up to content creators to create a new visual vocabulary.

"If you showed a movie now to someone who was watching movies in the 1920s," Planck said, "it would look like art. They would say, 'This is moving too fast. These are just abstract images being fed to my eyes.' I think VR is going to go through that same arc."

Instead of longform, wide-open experiences with lots of interaction Planck stressed the need to take things one step at a time. By focusing on smaller, more deeply refined experiences, teams around the world can help move the medium forward.

"The Holodeck is a very long way away," Planck said, "and I think that everyone wants the Holodeck now. They see virtual reality and our imagination has been filled up with the idea that this is what we should be making, and I feel that people are making less-compelling experiences because they’re reaching too far."

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