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My 5 year look-back at VR

Through the eyes of Felix & Paul Studios

Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques preparing to film Space Explorers: the ISS Experience, with a ZCam VR camera modified by Felix & Paul Studios for filming in space. Photo courtesy of the Canadian Space Agency.

Written by OMERS Ventures Managing Partner, Michael Yang

Recently, a good friend reminded me that it was four years ago when many of us got together for the VR 20/20 Conference to discuss the future of XR technologies. We were bound to be wrong, especially when postulating about disruptive technologies such as VR but it got me thinking, what I have learned about this space and what could I possibly conjecture about VR today?

I got religion about VR in 2015 after coming home from SXSW where I met so many VR creators and sampled so many VR experiences. I certainly wasn’t close to being the first institutional investor in the space, but I was probably one of the earlier ones who aspired to build a portfolio of small investments across the wider spectrum of immersive entertainment. Social — check, AltspaceVR. Live events — check, NextVR. Animation — check, Baobab Studios. Location-based — check, Spaces. Gaming — check, Kite & Lightning. And last but not least, cinematic — check, Felix & Paul Studios.

It’s been fascinating to see and learn what has transpired with each of these innovators since. Altspace has been thriving as part of Microsoft and they recently offered Burners an awesome virtual alternative of BlackRock City. Both NextVR and Spaces became part of Apple this year, and I can’t wait to see what Apple does with those talented teams. Baobab has consistently put out piece after piece with star-studded casts and recently announced Baba Yaga which looks to be another hit. But it’s been Felix & Paul Studios that I have had the opportunity to spend the most time with over the years, and their experiences give me continued optimism about the space.

Felix & Paul Studios have been behind so many firsts and innovations in immersive entertainment, pushing forth their vision for storytelling in this medium. “Miyubi” was a nearly 1 hour comedy with a nice Easter egg scene activated by some basic interactivity. “Gymnasia” was a darker, stop-motion piece bringing a tried and true animation technique for VR viewers. “The People’s House” employed remote-control camera operations to allow the viewer to walk around the Obama White House. “Jurassic World Blue” married ILMxLAB’s dinosaurs with live captured Hawaiian footage. “Space Explorers: A New Dawn” was the first 2 episodes of a multi-part series on space exploration, and “New Dawn” chronicled the training of next generation NASA astronauts which required VR cameras to perform in hostile environments underwater, in a desert, and right next to a fiery launch sequence. “Traveling While Black” was the company’s seminal VR documentary on racism in America that debuted last year before BLM and social injustice came to dominate much of our consciousness. So as you can see, the Studio has been on the forefront of bringing so many new things to VR storytelling and 2020 has been no exception.

At this year’s SIGGRAPH, Felix & Paul Studios jointly announced with the Jim Henson Company their upcoming project, “Story Teller: The Seven Ravens,” which is their first AR project leveraging the Unreal game engine and developed initially for the Magic Leap headset.

Narrated by author Neil Gaiman, this is the team’s first foray into object-based storytelling, leveraging a physical book with markers as a portal into another world that is alive and believable. On the heels of that announcement, the Studio gave an update on the next 4 episodes of the Space Explorers series. “Space Explorers: The ISS Experience” will debut its 1st episode later this year as the team has been busy shooting aboard the ISS. Felix & Paul Studios captured the arrival of NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley via the SpaceX CrewDragon in May this year and expect more first-ever footage both inside the ISS and in outer space affixed to the Canadarm2 robotic arm. The Studio has pushed its camera tech to new heights and made it so DIY that even the world’s best astronauts have become legit videographers of “astronaut-generated VR content.”

The ways that one could access Felix & Paul Studios content has also evolved and progressed over the years. From the early HMD days of Oculus DK2 and Samsung Gear, then to Oculus Go and Rift, and then more recently to Magic Leap, the Studio has always strived to make its pieces accessible on key consumer platforms. Stay tuned for Felix & Paul Studios making its experiences available for exhibitions and dome-viewing audiences — think arts centers, museums and planetariums, in a city near you. And les we forget on our precious little smartphones, The Studio announced a partnership with a consortium of wireless carriers to bring its catalog to the mobile devices of 5G subscribers all around the world.

So here are my 5 key takeaways, through the eyes of Felix & Paul Studios

  • Don’t get enamored with a particular hardware platform as the silver bullet.
    I can recall countless conversations with founders and companies in this industry over the years where we spent endless hours (that I would like to have back) about new hardware specs for upcoming HMDs and what that would unlock. None of the early HMDs really amounted to much more than testing grounds because they were really commercial prototypes. To stay in business and hone your craft, you had to continue to iterate with each hardware generation unfortunately — you learned, they learned and collectively, everyone improved. But there was no winning bet-the-farm on a single hardware platform move, not even the upcoming Oculus Quest 2!
  • Don’t be wedded to your original style or technique.
    We all knew that things would be different in VR then in traditional 2D and that allowed developers and creators to stick to their knitting as well as reinvent themselves. But sticking to your knitting didn’t mean that you did the same dang thing over and over in this new landscape. Felix & Paul Studios has explored different genres, different techniques, and different levels of interactivity, and it has helped them “up” their creative and technical chops for future projects. The Studio didn’t pivot to AR to do “Story Teller: Seven Ravens” because they were abandoning VR and going all in on Magic Leap. No, they wanted to experience first-hand what developing content in this world might do to stimulate and inspire them going forward. Think of it as cross-training muscle groups.
  • Owning the full stack has fostered opportunities that would not have been possible if you hadn’t.
    Many “experts” will tell you that you need to stay focused and that you can’t possibly do it all — hardware, software and content at once. Well, if not for having all of those competencies, Felix & Paul Studios would not be where it is today. One debate we had early on was whether to maintain our own proprietary camera tech or rely on the emergent cottage industry of camera makers that appeared on the scene. Well, most of those 3rd party camera players are no longer around and I can guarantee you that none of them would’ve been interested in supporting the unique use cases that the Studio demanded (cameras that can withstand the temperature, pressure and G forces associated with space?). More recently, to fulfill its desired technical requirements for a moving AR headset, the Studio had to come up with its own software tracking technology when working on “Story Teller: Seven Ravens” — the experience would not have been creatively possible with the HMD’s out-of-the box capabilities.
  • You have to build your own brand and control your own destiny.
    In the early days of VR, it was easy to rely on the major platforms to assist, if not really catapult you forward. Whether it was technical support, marketing support or financial support, Oculus, Google, HTC and others were prolific in helping developers and creators get started. More recently Unreal and Magic Leap have been doing so, to a lesser degree. This could lull you into a false sense of success as ultimately, you needed to have built something that is pulled by end users vs pushed by platforms. Outside of a few spectacular experiences that have reached this nirvana (Beat Saber), the industry is largely still crossing this chasm and many won’t make it to the other side. This is why Felix & Paul Studios is bringing their content on the road and to the masses through new distribution outlets that are headset free.
  • VR is about more than just gaming.
    It’s too early to call for the final tally. Gaming, for sure, has proven to be a viable vertical for immersive entertainment and VR experiences in particular. But other non-gaming developers and creators are bubbling along the surface and biding their time until Zuck’s magical 10M headset milestone for a self-sustaining ecosystem is achieved. It’s not always in a developer or creator’s complete control and exogenous factors may do more to propel you forward or hold you back. But staying committed the cause, keeping your head down and grinding it out, and continuing to push technical and creative boundaries will allow you to create your own luck.

Sitting here, some five years after I first met Felix Lajeunesse, Paul Raphael and Stephane Rituit, I would’ve never predicted where we would be today (in Houston with NASA) and what they would’ve accomplished along the way. And for that single reason, I remain optimistic and excited for the next five years.

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OMERS Ventures

OMERS Ventures

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OMERS Ventures is a multi-stage VC investor in growth-oriented, disruptive tech companies across North America and Europe.