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Interactive VR Storytelling With Jon Favreau and His Tiny Goblin

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‘Gnomes & Goblins’ will be released for the HTC Vive on September 8th.

Update: You can grab the demo on Steam VR at this link.

I’m standing in the middle of a dark wooded forest, surrounded by sprawling trees that tower overhead. Each tree is glowing a soft warm color from tiny candles that line the surface of the weathered trunks. Thats when I notice the modest windows and doors covering the side of the tree. Walking ever so slowly over, I decide to stick my head into the tree trunk, which reveals miniaturized living quarters inside the tree for someone or something that calls this home.

I then hear a rustle in the ankle high blades of grass to my right and spin my attention towards the commotion. Standing only a few inches tall off the forest floor appears a little goblin, who timidly approaches. He appears to want something from me. I pick up an acorn resting nearby and hold out my hand. The cautious little goblin snaps up the acorn with both arms and scurries off, only to return moments later with a present of his own — a handbell.

Reaching down, I pick up the handbell and begin ringing it with fervor. That’s when the dark magical forest begins to fill with bright lights, transporting me to the next part of this interactive VR journey — a story that felt like a delightful lucid dream the entire time.

This is the dream world of Gnomes & Goblins and the creator is someone you’re probably already familiar with.

The roughly 10-minute interactive VR experience was being demoed Wednesday at the Wevr offices in Venice, California. Sitting outside the demo room speaking with guests, sat the creator of Gnomes & Goblins, film director Jon Favreau.

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Favreau, whose latest work includes Disney’s box office smash The Jungle Book, couldn’t be more proud with his experiment in virtual reality. Gnomes & Goblins is an original production from Wevr in partnership with Reality One that offers you a unique opportunity to explore this enchanted VR world created by Favreau.

On the surface, the fantasy world of Gnomes & Goblins immerses you in the story of meeting and developing a personal relationship with a mysterious goblin resident. Its a beautiful story that leverages room-scale VR presence to its fullest, giving us all a taste of this new form of entertainment. Its a VR medium that straddles the line between movie and game, something i’m sure we’ll all see more of over the coming year.

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After sitting down and speaking with Mr. Favreau at the Wevr offices about the unique attributes of Gnomes & Goblins, it quickly became apparent that under the hood of this native VR experience, a lot of thought and development went into making this one unforgettable encounter.

Interactive VR Storytelling and Artificial Intelligence

One of the most obvious things you’ll notice but may never give a second thought to is your natural interaction with the goblin itself. I felt like and was talking to our silent little friend as if he was real — just another friendly pet you come across prancing around the VRScout offices.

Gnomes & Goblins was developed using Wevr’s VR character AI framework, making this goblin react to every movement of your hands, forcing you to move slowly as to not scare the little guy, and warming him up to build a comfortable rapport over time with continual sharing of acorns.

In fact, how the story plays out for you will be different for every person, all dependent on how you end up interacting with the goblin. If you present the goblin with multiple gifts of acorns and kneel down to his level on the forest floor, he’ll take a liking to you quickly and maybe even fetch his acorn gift straight out of your hand. But if for some reason you decide to be a jerk of a human and attempt to hit the goblin with acorns, he’ll never show his face again and the ending of the VR experience may not be as enchanting as you would hope from the creators.

Scaling The Virtual World For All Users

A little known feature of Gnomes & Goblins that you’ll never notice happens all within the first few seconds before entering the magical dream world. For Favreau, creating a comfortable VR experience for all users, whether a towering six-foot eight man or a tiny child just feet off the ground, was something very important and dear to him. It was essential that no matter what the users height, they would still be able to enjoy the same interactive story and engage with the characters in a similar way.

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So where does this scaling magic happen? In order to start the VR experience, you must pick up a tiny candle and light another candle representing a type of start menu option to begin your journey. This simple act of moving the candle to light another is what Gnomes & Goblins uses to register your average height as a user and scale the world accordingly. A small detail to easily overlook, but a key component for many moments during the interactive story.

So what got Favreau so excited over a year ago to pursue this latest VR project?

The actor and director’s aha moment came much like many others we’ve spoken to, all while trying the HTC Vive for the first time, and more specifically, experiencing theBlu. It was an overwhelming experience for Favreau, being at the bottom of the ocean and looking up towards a massive whale floating by. Because of how this initial VR experience made him feel, realizing presence for the first time and admiring the power of scale in this new medium, Favreau was immediately inspired to dream up Gnomes & Goblins with the help of Andy Jones from theBlu and Wevr for the project.

Where does Favreau take the Gnomes & Goblins preview VR experience from here? Well for one thing, Favreau and the team plan on taking their time to get it just right, looking at a more complete release sometime in 2017.

What we can expect though is a larger scale expansion of the Gnomes & Goblins world that will include explorable communities, the ability to accumulate abilities and also foster long term relationships with your AI goblin or gnome friends you interact with. It will likely be a kind of open world with curated stories woven into the fabric of the environment and characters you may come across in this fantasy world. And everything is on the table for Favreau right now, maybe even the ability to fly.

Wevr in a way is a lab of VR creators all collaborating together, having recently brought us VR experiences created with individuals like Deepak Chopra and Reggie Watts. And it will be interactive stories with high profile creators, like Gnomes & Goblins, that will not only continue to push VR as a medium forward, but also drive the needed awareness with mass consumers to raise the tide for everyone in the VR space putting their blood, sweat and tears into their creations on daily basis — all hoping to share that aha moment with another person and hopefully inspiring many more to create VR stories for themselves.

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The preview of Gnomes & Goblins will be available to download for free September 8th for the HTC Vive on the Wevr Transport platform, as well as Steam VR and Viveport. It will eventually be made available for Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR later in the year. But seeing how you’ll need to pick up acorns from our new goblin friend, the Vive with hand controllers is the way to go.

About the Scout

Jonathan Nafarrete

Jonathan Nafarrete is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of VRScout.

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