After a demonstration of the Oculus Dev Kit 1 in 2013, game developer and comic publisher Square Enix started work on a research project dubbed “Project Hikari.” The project was an attempt to adapt comics into virtual reality, by not just making something that look like it was a comic come to life, but also to explore what a VR comic means.
The company is demoing the project, Tales of the Wedding Rings VR — based on a Japanese comic of the same name minus “VR” — on the Oculus Rift at New York Comic Con this weekend.
Tales of the Wedding Rings VR is a non-interactive viewing experience in a virtual space. It’s not so much a virtual reality comic, but a VR 3D animated film framed as a comic. They do this by using the visual language of comics and how it conveys a narrative as a way to effectively guide the viewer.
Square Enix predominantly use these floating comic-like panels that the team calls “live panels.” While shaped and used like panels in a comic book, they allow them to frame and place shots of the scene and characters without the viewer moving at all. But inside those panels, everything is still three dimensional. Effectively the completely 360 virtual environments are only used to establish the setting of a scene, while the scene itself is played out in live panels.
For example, the opening scene starts by placing the viewer in the backyard of the two story apartment building where the main characters, Sato and Hime, live. The viewer is given the opportunity to freely look around the backyard as if they were standing there, until a live panel appears showing Sato and Hime walking into the backyard.
There is then a transition as a new live panel appears, showing them walking up the stairs and then another as they walk to their apartments. As Hime walks past Sato, the scene splits to show two panels: one to the right, where we see Hime from Sato’s perspective as she turns around, and a panel on the left of Sato from Hime’s point of view, which gives the viewer the option to look at either while they talk.
The dialogue is fully voiced in Japanese, but it’s also accompanied by comic speech bubbles in English. While this helps to essentially subtitle the work for non-Japanese speakers, it’s also used help draw the viewer’s attention as you might use them in a traditional comic to transition the reader between comic panels.
Other VR experiences that I’ve seen that attempt to adapt comics either use the dimensionality of VR to place the user into what is basically a static panel from the comic with a voiceover, or they project the comic onto the environment with very limited animation as a sort of guided view through the panels with some sound effects and music.
But by using the visual language of comics, along with fully animated 3D characters and environments, the Tales of the Wedding Rings VR demo is a very good proof-of-concept for how to effectively convey a narrative to a viewer in a virtual space.
While I’ll be interested to see what Square Enix is able to do in the full version when it is released in 2018, (there is no mention of price or platforms yet), what I’m actually looking forward to is someone not adapting an existing comic with these techniques, but creating an original story specifically using these techniques in a native VR environment.