Virtual reality company Baobab Studios, which was founded by former Zynga game developers and Dreamworks animators, has raised $6 million in a Series A funding round led by Comcast Ventures. HTC and Samsung Ventures also participated in the funding, along with Zynga co-founder Mark Pincus and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.
Baobab Studios is focusing on computer-generated virtual reality storytelling, which will be featured on Samsung Milk VR and other platforms, including HTC (HTC) Vive, Facebook-owned Oculus Rift, and Sony (SNE) PlayStation VR.
“With its mix of creative and technical talents, the Baobab team is bringing an enhanced and innovative form of storytelling to the new VR medium,” says Ajay Singh, strategic investments, Samsung (SSNLF) Global Innovation Center.
A sneak peak of the studio’s first short, Invasion, is available for the $99 Gear VR mobile head-mounted display. The short focuses on an alien invasion on Earth.
“There is no doubt that having one of the more expensive headsets coming down the pipe next year and a computer powerful enough to run one promises some amazing VR experiences, but the lower-priced headsets can deliver some really great VR entertainment too,” says Baobab Studios co-founder and chief creative officer Eric Darnell. “I love that Gear VR opens up VR to so many more people, especially at a time when only a few weeks ago, there was almost no VR market.”
At Dreamworks Animation (DWA), Darnell directed movies such as Madagascar and Antz, and worked as a story artist and lyricist on Shrek. Having lived through the early days of computer animation, he sees similarities to the new virtual reality storytelling platform.
“It’s almost like turning back the clock with VR,” Darnell says. “It’s really the Wild West out there. The technological challenges are huge: With VR, you have to generate an image in 11 milliseconds instead of the 11 hours or more we would take to create an individual frame for a feature film like Madagascar.”
In addition to former Pixar Animation Studios and Lucasfilm employees, the new Redwood City, Calif.-based studio is headed by Zynga’s (ZNGA) former vice president of games, Maureen Fan. That casual gaming background will play a role in telling stories through a medium that allows viewers to look around 360 degrees.
“Different audiences will want different levels of interaction,” Fan says. “Not everyone will want to strap into a headset, tethered to a computer, and interact deeply in an experience when they get home from work. Sometimes, people will just want to be entertained. Others will welcome that heavy interactivity and could spend hours at a time in the virtual world.”
Darnell says in virtual reality the viewer decides where the “camera” is pointing, essentially composing the shot.
“If the viewer is watching the clouds roll by instead of paying attention to your story, you either have to have some way to wait for them or you try to find a way to inspire them to look where you want them to,” Darnell says. “The cool thing is when you can do that, but the viewer feels like it was all their choice. This medium puts the viewer in control and that gives us film creators endless new opportunities.”
To date, there’s been a lot of focus on virtual reality video games, as well as live-action 360-degree content. Fan says virtual reality will be great for hardcore gamers, but there’s a much wider audience that wants to be transported to a different world.
“We’re excited to create these worlds for them, create stories that draw them in, and create characters that they fall in love with,” Fan says. “It’s a new way of experiencing content. Instead of staring at a tiny screen, they can truly be immersed in that world with little pressure to set aside hours to complete a game.”
Baobab Studios isn’t alone in the nescient virtual reality animation market. Oculus VR launched Oculus Studio Story earlier this year, which is led by former Pixar veterans. The studio has released two virtual reality shorts, Lost and Henry.
Fan believes there will be a market for long-format virtual reality storytelling down the line, but it will take awhile.
“There’s a reason that Pixar and Dreamworks started with shorts,” Fan says.
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