The Power of the Bunny

October 12 - Chet

Today's blog post is a guest post by Eric Darnell.

Baobab Studios is the team behind INVASION!, a top performing VR animation narrated by Ethan Hawke that has drawn accolades from film festivals globally including Tribeca Film Festival, Toronto Film Festival, and the prestigious Cannes Next Marche du Film.

Eric Darnell, Baobab Studios’ co-founder and Chief Creative Officer, is known for his director and screenwriter talents on all four films in the DreamWorks Madagascar franchise. He also held top creative roles for The Penguins of Madagascar and Antz, DreamWorks’ first animated film.


What if you could jump into an animated movie and become a part of the story? Would you? Could you?

Before getting to that, let me share a bit of my background. After I got out of college in the early ‘80s I turned on my TV one day and saw something that blew me away. This was 1983, the year the Internet was invented. Home computers were in less than 8 percent of households. Mobile phones were an extravagance and looked like doorstops.

What I saw on that TV screen was a documentary on a new art form called computer animation. It was incredibly primitive by today’s standards, but at the time it was groundbreaking. I had never seen anything like it. It was highly stylized and yet very real at the same time. And I finally knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

I got my first real job at a company called Pacific Data Images. It’s there that I started focusing on using computer animation to tell stories.

Five years later, DreamWorks partnered with Pacific Data Images and over the next 20 years I was lucky enough to be a director and writer on 5 computer animated feature films starting with Antz, Dreamworks’ first feature animated film. Then Madagascar and all 3 of its sequels. Through all those years, the thing I spent more time on than anything was the stories we were telling.

Then, in February of 2015 I put on my first Virtual Reality headset and, just like 32 years earlier, I was completely blown away. I knew it was time to try something new. So last summer me and a few other folks started a Virtual Reality company called Baobab Studios.

Baobab is focused on creating virtual reality narrative content – specifically, computer animated interactive storytelling where the viewer is a part of the story.

I want to use interactivity to promote one of storytelling’s great strengths; the capacity to elicit deep and profound emotional experiences through the development of empathetic connections with the characters within the story. That’s a long-winded way of describing the kind of powerful emotional experiences we all have with storytelling in movies, books and theater -- with great stories, well-told with characters that we can fall in love with and matter to us. Stories are a part of what it means to be a human being. As Kenneth Burke said, stories are equipment for living. Stories are in our DNA.

What’s unique about Virtual Reality is that you can immerse the viewer in the story in ways that you can’t do with those other mediums. I want to put the viewer inside the story – make the viewer part of it.

Our first VR animation, Invasion!, begins by placing you in a snowy landscape that is all around you. You are not sitting in a theatre -- you are out on a frozen lake, the snow falling all around you, and you are free to look wherever you want. When you look down, you see that you have the body of a little white bunny. When you look up you see the clouds rolling by.

There’s a bunny in the distance – she spots you, hops over and looks you right in the eye.

On the Vive you can walk around and the bunny will follow you, and she will maintain eye contact. When this eye contact happens in Invasion!, everyone’s eyes are glued to that bunny. She has the audience’s full attention. And though the audience is free to look wherever they want, when that bunny looks them in the eye, no one looks away.

But is this really that different than a movie? Actors will sometimes “break the forth wall” and look directly at the audience.

From the audience’s point of view, it is different. Simply put, people respond to the bunny as if she is real! The audience does things audiences just don’t do at the movies. When that bunny hops over, people spontaneously interact with it. Some people coo, some wave and say “hi”, some mimic the bunny’s pose, some reach out to try and touch her, some even play with the bunny and are convinced that the bunny is responding to their own playful antics.

That bunny represents something that I did not anticipate, and something that makes VR such a unique and promising medium for storytelling.

Why are audiences reacting this way? Because this isn’t a movie. There is no camera. There is no fourth wall. There is you – and the bunny looking at you. The bunny is acknowledging that you are a part of her world. And if you allow yourself to suspend your disbelief, you are in her world.

In VR, you are not pushing a mouse around or fiddling with a keyboard or game controller. You are simply there, making eye contact with another seemingly living being. This is one essential way that we all, animals included, instinctively communicate with one another. It’s natural. It feels real. And, as far as the more primitive areas of your brain are concerned, it is real.

Later, when the aliens point their deadly weapons your way, the bunny leaps behind you and hides. Many viewers find this moment surprisingly compelling. They feel a surge of empathy and an instinctual desire to protect the bunny.

One viewer told me that when he turned away from the cowering bunny to look at the aliens, he could still feel the bunny’s presence behind him – he could almost feel the bunny’s breath on the back of his neck.

This is the power of the bunny -- which is, or course, a metaphor for what I see as the broader potential of Virtual Reality: To give you the opportunity to believe a character really exists and really matters, and then be able to act on that belief. You just can’t do this in any other storytelling medium.

Imagine if you could step into the worlds of the films I’ve made. You could be an ant marching next to Z on your way to do battle with the termite army. You could be the zebra-next-door who is best friends with Alex the Lion. You could be the fifth penguin out on a mission to save the world.

VR has the potential to let you, effectively, live a dream. That’s why I’m so excited to tell stories in VR. And bringing dreams to life is what Baobab Studios is all about.


INVASION! is available for free today.

For more information on Baobab Studios:

Destinations: Public Lobbies and More

September 21 - Lawrence

Today we are adding Public Lobbies to Destinations. Now it’s even easier to meet with players around the world and explore Destinations together in VR. In addition, we are shipping more default Destinations, props, and tutorials for players to dig into and learn from.

Public Lobbies
Join players from around the world with the new Public Lobbies feature. Meet new people, customize your avatar, and interact with physics props. Make new friends and add them as Steam friends from inside of Destinations. All players can create a public lobby from any Destination on the Steam Workshop - simply select "Create Lobby" from the Social panel and it will show up in the public lobby list.

New Content
In addition, we are adding three new Destinations to the default set of shipped Destinations: photogrammetry of the Valve office lobby, La Pedrera in Barcelona, and Arcade Toss, a multiplayer game built in Destinations. We are also including a set of new props, a new avatar, and new hand gestures. Some of these items are locked by default though – you will need to explore different Destinations in order to unlock each unique prop. (Prop and hand gesture support is only available for players with motion controllers)

More Examples and Documentation
To accompany the new content, we’ve added two new articles to the Destinations Wiki. One is an extensive tutorial on indoor photogrammetry which walks through the creation of the Valve Lobby Destination. The other document shows how scripting was used with Destinations in order to create the Arcade Toss Destination. All of the content assets for Arcade Toss will be shipped with this update as well.

We’ve been very excited to see the great content that creators have continued to upload. 120 Destinations have been uploaded to date, allowing players to visit 10 different countries. In addition there are numerous Destinations that depict game settings and other fictional places. A few notable mentions: mkhamra for his beautiful photogrammetry captures of Jordan, ToitagL for his capture of South Corsica, peppels for his capture of his Studio Room, and Rectus for his Beach Sunset Destination.

Destinations is compatible with any HMD that is supported by OpenVR, including the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. It is available for free on Steam, and you can get it here.

Update Update Update

September 13 - Chet

When we discuss business with VR developers on what works in VR, we tell them the same things that works in 2D games. Make a good game, price it right, listen to your community and update, update, update.

The cycle of update, feedback, update is an important one in the development of a game. Today with Space Pirate Trainer’s massive update we are seeing that again. Already one of the most popular VR titles on Steam, today’s massive update paired with a 3-day sale at 25% off, will introduce even more players to the game and give existing players more competition on the leader boards.

Other titles that have been doing significant updates that you might want to go back and reconsider if you haven’t already picked them up:

Out of Ammo
Out of Ammo started with the rough outline of its gameplay and world and continued to refine both with every one of its updates and now RocketWerkz actually has its release candidate available to play now. If you didn’t try it when it first came out – it has changed! Jump in, play, and give feedback.

Cloudlands VR Minigolf
Futuretown wasn’t content with just bug-fixes but months after release have come out with a course editor update. Their workshop already has over 200 courses created and shared! Still not sure? They also have a demo available.

Vanishing Realms
There are significant updates and then there are massive updates – Indimo just released a massive update on its RPG that had already been met with Overwhelmingly Positive reviews. It just keeps getting better.

Pool Nation VR
How do you update a pool game that already nailed the playing pool part of the game? Cherry Pop Games added darts, skreeball, and air hockey. How did they choose those games? They asked the community and they answered. A great loop of update, feedback, update, feedback.

Raw Data
When Survios‘s Raw Data jumped to #1 on the Steam Charts with their release into Early Access you might think that was it – mission accomplished. Their work was done. Far from it. They continue regular updates adding content, fixing bugs, and regular events with the community.

Hover Junkers
Stress Level Zero didn’t let early success go to their heads, they continue updating Hover Junkers regularly. Not only did they add a co-op mode, just last week they added new weapons.

This list could continue for pages. We see games like Battledome, Pierhead Arcade, BigScreen, Rec Room, and more keep updating, getting feedback, and updating again. So make sure to go back and check out earlier titles to see if they tickle your fancy now… and if we missed listing your favorite update – list it below.

Funhouse of Mods

September 1 - Chet

With today’s update, NVIDIA VR Funhouse supports mods and Steam Workshop. What does this mean?

On the player side, just visit the workshop page, subscribe to one of the mods, and start playing new experiences. NVIDIA was even nice enough to create 5 mods to get you started while you wait for the community additions.

On the dev side, you can download Unreal and the Funhouse Mod kit (the kit is available inside the Epic game launcher). This kit works with the freely available Unreal engine and is all you need to get modding.

If you want to take it further, you can even access the full VR Funhouse source code from Github, and build your own game. If you get something serious up and running, make sure to let us know about it – visit here to find out how to get your VR game published on Steam.

Diamonds in the Rough

August 26 - Chet

One of the interesting problems of virtual reality for developers is trying to describe the games being created. For players it is the flip side; trying to understand what to play from a video or screenshot.

The just released Galaxy Golf is a good example of this. It is a golf game, on tiny planets, with no clubs, just aiming, gravity, and obstacles. Sound fun? It is. The second you start it up and aim your first shot your brain gets it, it is a fun puzzle game in the cloak of a golf game.

And Galaxy Golf is one of the more understandable titles. What about the work of Isaac Cohen? What is L U N E? I describe it as trying to setup a musical tent in the rain. If that doesn’t motivate you to try it – well… just try it or his more game-like work Blarp! That is unless you don’t like cool trippy things…

Then there is Battle Dome. A competitive shooter where you paint the ground to own teleportation areas as you battle for position in a gunfight - or something like that. The art isn’t going to win any awards but again, it needs no instructions almost because once you are in it - you get it.

The list continues, in HoloBall why are you protecting a car? Does it matter? In #SelfieTennis you move by jumping up and down on your toy horse? What!?!?

These make experiences like Rec Room (a virtual reality social club) or Audioshield (block orbs to the beat) seem easy to understand in comparison.

With over 500 VR titles on Steam, what is hiding out there you want other people to experience?