Over the past few years, virtual reality has brought the film and gaming worlds together like never before, offering a plethora of experiences that fall somewhere between the two. But relatively few tools exist for actually making these experiences, especially from inside a VR headset — and that’s something that LA-based studio Visionary VR wants to change.
Visionary VR’s ambitious in-development project Mindshow, which was announced at this year’s VRLA conference, is a free tool for simple interactive filmmaking. Mindshow is a kind of machinima system, letting creators record a 3D gaming environment like a miniature movie set. Instead of just directing avatars from afar, though, they drop directly in the shoes of different characters via a VR headset, recording their actions and then combining them into a coherent story. Viewers can either watch the resulting film, or potentially remix the characters’ actions themselves — then pass it on to someone else, who could record their own take, and so on.
"For us, it's the first step toward a future where everything is malleable," says co-founder Jonnie Ross. "So I'm watching someone's version of Family Guy, and all of a sudden I can walk into this world." Mindshow will start as a closed alpha, then open up to a larger user base, although Visionary VR didn’t give firm release dates for either. (You also can't literally remix Family Guy, at least not right now.)
In practice, the Mindshow demo feels like walking inside the world’s coolest children’s toy set. The creators dropped me inside an alien world, watching a space explorer as he cowered in the face of some impending threat. I looked around and walked a few steps in either direction to see exactly what he was responding to, but I couldn’t see anything. That’s because the attacker was the role I was supposed to play.
The Vive headset and controllers essentially serve as a basic motion-capture rig. With a button click I was in record mode, reliving the short scene I’d just witnessed, only this time I was actually participating in it from the alien’s point of view. With my right thumb, I could cycle through a handful of facial expressions — happy, sad, scared — but otherwise I was simply acting with my body. While I walked through the scene to experience it, my gestures and body movement were simultaneously being recorded as data to animate the character. Afterwards, I was able to watch the scene I’d just created, complete with my own recorded voice modulated for a monstrous effect. The demo walked me through another take, where I could break through a stack of boxes to really scare the hapless astronaut.
Then, it switched gears, and put me into the body of the astronaut. Visionary VR likes to stress that Mindshow is a collaborative platform, operating on the "Yes, and..." improv principle: when a scene partner does something, you accept it and add your own twist. In this case, I could act out the astronaut’s reaction to the performance I captured just a few moments before. (I decided to have the astronaut crumble to the ground in abject terror.) A complete version of Mindshow, I'm told, would me allow to send the demo to a friend, so that they might put on a headset and record their own take.
The demo was simple — it didn’t exactly take me through the nuanced and cerebral process of a Pixar artist. Still, it’s easy to see how Mindshow could evolve into a full-fledged VR filmmaking tool, whether for directly staging and recording animated shorts, or mocking up a scene for a longer feature film. More sophisticated storytelling tools, like moving cameras and branching narrative capabilities, are already on the product roadmap. And for people who want a less cartoonish look, Visionary VR is considering ways to offer more customization options. Game design platforms like Unity and the Steam Workshop already offer ways for 3D artists to upload and distribute work, and Mindshow could either build something similar or directly hook into these marketplaces.
For now, though, Mindshow was simply fun, like a high-tech version of running around with my cousins as a kid, pretending we were characters from Star Wars. The creators don’t believe it’s limited to this kind of lighthearted play-acting — but for now, that’s its strongest suit. "I think comedy is a great starting point, and doing things that are silly and light and fun for us is part of what lifts the constraints on creation," says Ross. "When you're wearing a costume, all of a sudden you're more comfortable to come out of your shell and do things you might not otherwise do."