Silicon Valley's Hottest Innovations 2016

Virtual Wizards

Baobab Studios wants to redefine virtual reality through its unique and immersive way of storytelling

Invasion! is a story form about two aliens Mac and Cheez who are on a mission to take over Earth and destroy whoever stands in their way. But despite all their firepower and technology, earthlings defeat the invaders. Only the earthlings weren’t human instead they were two white fluffy bunnies, Chloe and, oh wait, I was the other one! I double checked, definitely me in a 360-degree bunny body. Depending on the headset you have on, you can jump around the room as the characters follow you around. I took the easy route and decided to take their word for it. As I put on the headset, I was instantly transported from Baobab’s office in Redwood City straight into a scene from what could have been any Pixar animation movie standing on a frozen lake as the spaceship landed close to me. Only I wasn’t just watching, I was saving the world with Chloe.  As I scored my first Virtual Reality (VR) victory and almost high-fived Chloe on my way out, I realised what an immersive experience VR can be and how it can change the storytelling paradigm, be it in movies or in a classroom when a teacher is teaching the kids about dinosaurs or ancient Rome. They don’t have to imagine it they can experience it.

That’s the magic VR can create and Baobab Studios is taking it beyond the realm of gaming to a larger audience who are looking for a new way to experience content. Maureen Fan and Eric Darnell came together in 2015 to form Baobab Studios, named after the Baobab tree known as the tree of life. Fan as the vice president at Zynga oversaw three studios, including the Farmville sequels, which contributed 40% of the overall revenues. Darnell is known for writing the screenplay and directing the Madagascar franchise which all together grossed $2.5 billion. When you put the headset on, it is magic so there is no question on whether VR will be the medium of the future, it’s more a question of when. “But for that to happen,” says Maureen Fan, CEO, Baobab Studios, “we need good content that makes people go out and buy the headsets. You need to give them a reason to be excited about what they are going to see and it has to be something they want to see many times over.” The challenge, though, is that there is not enough good content that universally appeals to everyone and that is the problem Baobab is trying to solve.

Right now, most of the content available in VR are tech demos which appeals only to the hardcore gamers or documentaries, on say Syria, to highlight serious issues. “We are focused on developing content for a wider audience and drawing them into our stories by creating an immersive environment. We believe that story telling is very important because after the novelty of the technology, it is story telling that carries the medium forward,” adds Fan. 

Baobob has definitely managed to catch everybody’s attention with their first VR experience – Invasion! You can watch the six-minute film, which has Ethan Hawke lending his voice to it, on any of the leading VR headsets of Oculus, HTC, VIVE, Sony PlayStation VR, Samsung and Google Daydream. Samsung uses Baobab’s content for its main demo. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, and Cannes and Toronto.   Apart being one of the most downloaded VR content, the film captured the imagination of some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Roth Kirschenbaum Films, the producers behind films such Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Snow White and the Huntsman and Maleficent will bring the characters and the story of Invasion! to the big screen. Joe Roth, former chairman of Walt Disney Studios, now co-founder of R/K films wants Invasion! to be the next Toy Story.

Some of the best names from the film and technology world are backing Baobab, which raised $25 million in Series-B funding in 2016, taking the total funding raised, till date, to $31 million. Investors who are putting their weight behind the company include Horizon ventures with Twentieth Century Fox, Comcast ventures, HTC, Samsung, China’s Shanghai Media Group and PayPal’s Peter Thiel. Phil Chen, founder of HTC Hive and now a managing partner at Presence Fund calls Baobab the Pixar of VR. “Baobab is a pioneer in VR storytelling and technology and we are excited to be working with them on making VR mainstream for consumers in the coming years,” Chen was quoted as saying. And if that’s not enough, the company’s advisory board comprises the who’s who of the animation world, including animation innovator and the man behind Walt Disney’s movies, The Little Mermaid and The Beauty and the Beast, Glen Keane, Pixar co-founder Alvy Ray Smith former COO of Lucas film David Anderman and former DreamWorks Interactive CEO Glenn Entis.

While VR has been heralded as the future of entertainment, the prohibitive cost of handsets and the scarcity of quality content meant that VR never really went mainstream. But with the dramatic increase in computing power in smartphones and headset prices becoming more reasonable, VR’s time of reckoning may have finally come. VR headsets such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive require computers with high computing power, so they tend to be expensive more than what consumers spend on an average PC. But in a bid to put VR in the hands of many more consumers, Oculus has made it possible for users with PCs with lower computing power to enjoy the experience without giving up on its immersive quality by introducing an algorithm that kicks in whenever the frame rate drops due to a slowdown in computing power.

Deloitte Global predicts that VR will have its first billion-dollar year in 2016 with about $700 million in hardware and the rest in content.  “I don’t believe in any of the estimates because the market potential is much greater than anyone can possibly imagine. It is not just entertainment that I am excited about but what VR can do in the field of medicine and education,” says Fan. Google Earth VR is making virtual tourism a possibility where people can discover various parts of the earth. VR in medicine will not only make the teaching process more effective, but can also help in the rehabilation of patients suffering from a stroke or brain injuries. For the terminally ill, VR could be the best option for them to get a glimpse of the outside world everyday.

Fan says there are various ways to monetise and distribute the content they create like charging for downloads, collaborating with studios to make feature films, develop content for industries other than entertainment. But, for now, the focus is on getting more users go through the immersive experience. “No one can truly say they know how VR will evolve so we are experimenting. Our focus is to get VR to the masses,” says Fan. So Invasion! was made freely available. Almost every VR headset manufacturer is investing in developing content. Facebook has committed $250 million to fund a range of new content such as games and entertainment, betting that software is the next frontier of VR. The social media giant had acquired VR firm Oculus in 2014 for a staggering $2 billion even before its first product was out.

Baobab’s second short film Asteroids! will be out in 2017. The preview is already out and it takes viewers into the lives of Mac and Cheez and their life on the spaceship. For now, the company says it will focus on making short films. “I am not sure people want to have their headsets on for two hours to watch a movie. So even if we can, it may not be the best thing right now. Short films allow us to learn and iterate quickly because by the time we are done filming a lengthy feature, technology has changed many times over,” says Fan.

She is confident that in some years the mobile will drive the VR experience but for now they still don’t match up to the ones on the desktop. Fan is not too worried and feels the technology bit is the easier part to figure out. She is excited about Daydream, Google’s virtual reality mobile platform. Daydream is not locked to any specific phone, so users can simply insert their compatible android phone into the headset to start experiencing the VR magic. Daydream competes with Gear VR, which was jointly developed by Oculus and Samsung. 

There is no doubt that the world will move from headsets that put a smartphone before our face to smaller headsets or even glasses or contact lens that can project objects in the virtual world in the years to come. Mark Zuckerberg believes that VR will emerge as the next major computing and communication platform even if it takes about a decade to get there. So companies like Baobab, which is definitely ahead of its time, will need a lot of patient capital till VR reaches its tipping point. But when that happens Baobab will be truly at the forefront of the VR revolution. After all, content is king.