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Google just acquired one of the most successful VR game studios

Google just acquired one of the most successful VR game studios

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Google announced today that it’s acquiring Owlchemy Labs, the VR-focused studio that created Job Simulator and Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality. Owlchemy will keep releasing VR games for multiple platforms, but with backing from Google — similar to Tilt Brush studio Skillman & Hackett, which Google acquired in 2015. “We have a slate of original games that we have in [the] production and prototyping phase, and we're going to continue to do that,” says Owlchemy co-founder Alex Schwartz. “We're very excited to continue to do that with the support of Google behind us.”

Owlchemy is known for developing games that closely mimic using real hands, and a blog post assures readers that it’s “continuing to focus on hand interactions and high quality user experiences, like with Job Simulator.” Schwartz says that full-motion hand tracking is “kind of our key factor.” That stands in contrast to Google’s current VR platform, Daydream — which uses a remote with limited motion controls. “We have a pretty big vision” for virtual and augmented reality, says Google VR and AR engineering director Relja Markovic. “Daydream's a great product — I love my Daydream. But there will be many, many things that come after that.”

“I don't think we're done exploring how you interact with controls in your hand.”

It’s difficult to read too much into what this means, and Markovic points out that Google has released products purely for non-Google headsets, like Tilt Brush and Google Earth. But the acquisition does feel like it’s pointing toward something beyond the current version of Daydream. “If you think about where VR and AR are going, especially AR and Tango, and other ways of interacting with your environments, I don't think we're done exploring how you interact with controls in your hand. That's not saying ‘Oh, and therefore we're going to bring Job Sim to Daydream,’” he says. “But there's a lot of learning to still be done in that space as well.”

Schwartz and Markovic say Owlchemy will keep engaging with the larger VR development community, sharing knowledge and best practices — as well as potentially contributing to Google’s experimental Daydream Labs program.

Owlchemy didn’t start as a VR studio — in 2011, it released the controversial satirical game Smuggle Truck, followed by the fluffy-animal-themed update Snuggle Truck. But it was one of the first studios to work with the initial Oculus Rift development kit in 2013, and Job Simulator was a launch title for the PlayStation VR, HTC Vive, and Oculus Touch motion controllers. In the fairly small and new world of VR gaming, it’s one of the industry’s major success stories; Job Simulator passed $3 million in sales at the start of 2017.

Google will probably say more about virtual reality at its I/O developer conference next week, although there have been few rumors about what we might see, and Schwartz says Owlchemy isn’t imminently announcing any new projects. But the acquisition suggests that at the very least, Google is still working on its push to develop more VR content, and that in contrast to Facebook-owned company Oculus — which recently closed its VR film studio in order to fund external projects — it’s comfortable keeping talent in-house.