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Pixar’s first VR project makes Coco’s land of the dead a cheerful playground

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Coco VR Disney Pixar / Oculus

Disney Pixar’s new film Coco, based on Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations, isn’t just an original work from a studio increasingly known for sequels. It’s also Pixar’s first attempt at building for virtual reality. Coco VR is a short companion piece to Coco, created by Pixar, Oculus, and VR design company Magnopus. Where Coco is a film about family and mortality, Coco VR is more of a playful experience, letting VR users meet up and explore the land of the dead together.

Coco VR is available for free today on the Oculus Rift, and a stripped-down version — featuring less content and none of the Rift’s precise hand tracking — is coming to Gear VR when the film premieres next week. Pixar teased the experience at Oculus Connect in October, and I got to check it out in full last week.

Coco VR is clearly a tie-in promotion, but it’s more substantial and interactive than Disney’s early VR work or its recent film promotions. After a hasty introduction from protagonist Miguel, it drops you into Coco’s land of the dead, where a resident tells you to get ready for showtime. You inhabit a skeletal body with the Rift’s head tracking and motion controllers, donning various dapper outfits and hairstyles in front of a mirror. Once you’re dressed, you can wander around the afterlife’s town square, before catching a train through the city and performing a musical number.

You can go through Coco VR alone, but Oculus and Pixar are promoting it as a social space, where up to four players can hang out together. Some areas don’t benefit much from extra people: there’s a museum of concept art, for example, and an “outdoor” theater playing a deleted scene from the movie. (If you haven’t seen the film, these might generally be more confusing than compelling.) And the train trip is simply gorgeous, winding through bright, floating neighborhoods in the land of the dead.

Other parts seem clearly better with friends. You can try on glasses and mustaches in a VR photo booth, or talk to each other while tossing your skull heads around, literally throwing your voice in the process. Other VR social apps have similar interactions, but in Coco VR, they’re apparently a direct extension of the development process, where designers from different offices would walk around in VR together critiquing their world. “It was pretty crucial for us,” Pixar producer Marc Sondheimer says.

Coco’s more serious elements aren’t translated to Coco VR. Miguel briefly explains the purpose of Día de los Muertos and shows off a memorial ofrenda, but the piece glosses over anything too melancholy, like afterlife residents “dying” again if their families forget them. “We wanted to find a way into that, but that proved a little more challenging and required a lot more narrative,” says Sondheimer. “We leaned much more into the idea of interactivity and going on your own adventure in the land of the dead.”

Coco VR isn’t a throwaway experiment, but if you’re looking for Pixar to tell a new story primarily through VR, that might take a while. “I think we're still evaluating it,” says Sondheim. “We're still learning about what audiences like, what stories we would want to tell in VR, so it remains to be seen.” He says it’s an issue of creative development, not commercial calculation, but it doesn’t help that VR is still an extremely niche medium. For now, anyone can check out Coco VR at an unspecified number of Disney Stores and movie theaters — it will be available until November 22nd, when the full film premieres.