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How HBO created a Westworld VR experience that lets you step into the show

HBO’s Westworld is averaging a gross audience of 11.7 million viewers, outperforming Game of Thrones and True Detective during similar points in their debut seasons.

So, it’s no surprise the network has greenlit a second season of the sci-fi Western, which was initially inspired by Michael Crichton’s original film.

For serious fans, however, there’s another way to experience the Westworld universe. HBO’s new internal virtual reality division spent the past year working with Westworld creators Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy to create an exclusive HTC Vive virtual reality experience, one that transported fans at this year’s TechCrunch Disrupt and New York Comic Con conferences right into the virtual version of the park. And this is just the beginning of HBO’s focus on exploring virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality experiences.

Ryan Wilkerson, vice president of experience design at HBO, said the company actually began its VR journey five years ago, long before the Vive was even announced.

“We recognized the role that technology was going to play for our service and how we tell stories,” Wilkerson told Digital Trends. “As a result, we made the decision to make a substantial human capital investment by assembling a best-in-class technology team. The members of this team come to us from the tech, gaming, and digital/streaming services industries. They not only have exceptional technical aptitude and talent, but also experience in working side-by-side with creatives to help empower their voice.”

“What better way to love our shows than to be immersed in them?”

The company’s first foray into virtual reality was through an external partnership with Framestore VR Studio and Relevant, which created the Game of Thrones: Ascend the Wall experience that debuted in 2014 and has toured the globe. Wilkerson explained how the “4D experience,” which included a rumble plate, was evidence of how a physical experience could play a critical role in the illusion of presence.

“It did a great job with pacing, and transporting people into a world that is familiar from the show, and inevitably leading you towards an emotional (and sometimes physical) reaction,” Wilkerson said. “The experience was well received, and judging from lines that people were willing to wait on, showed us that there is some real desire to experience stories this way.”

HBO has since invested heavily in its VR division, which is spread across multiple teams in three locales, comprising artists, sound designers, UX designers, and engineers with backgrounds in high-end gaming. The developers work closely with HBO creative and programming execs, as well as the social media and marketing teams.

“Virtual reality has the promise to really deliver on creating a special experience for storytelling, ones that the creative teams we work with can use in a unique and compelling way,” Wilkerson said. “It is early days in its evolution right now; for us it’s about experimenting and figuring out how creative and tech teams work together to utilize this medium in the best way possible.”

Admission to Westworld

When HBO’s VR team set out to develop this particular experience with the Westworld creative team, Wilkerson knew it was going to be a very special collaboration, bridging real-time CG, live-action 360 video, and location-based environmental design. The experience runs on Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 4, which also powers popular video games like The Coalition’s Gears of War 4 and virtual reality experiences like Phosphor Games’ The Brookhaven Experiment.

In the year leading up to this project, the team was focused on R&D for all aspects of VR technology, including runtime engines, real time character performance, 360 video cameras, and content pipelines.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

“After meeting with Jonah and Lisa, it was clear that we had a chance to leverage a lot of that R&D experience for a really ambitious project,” Wilkerson said. “Our primary goal was to maximize the technology in order to enable Jonah and Lisa’s vision for the experience — they had new and challenging ideas that we really wanted to bring to life. Our second goal was to learn as much as possible and apply that knowledge to our further projects.”

The virtual reality production ran parallel to the series’ live action shoot, which allowed the tech team to shoot on set at Melody Ranch with Westworld and Breaking Bad director Michelle MacLaren directing the original VR story. Nolan and Fox were involved in the initial brainstorming sessions and the series’ writing team helped set the direction for the narrative arc.

“You can be a hero or a villain, but you’re also a part of our story, in a way that hasn’t been done before.”

“There was good back-and-forth during this phase, regarding what was possible on the platform, and how this could best support the narrative,” Wilkerson said. “Rough cuts of CG and footage were gradually integrated into the build, which allowed us to evaluate pacing and continuity.”

The end result is an experience that tells an original story, while allowing you to step into the Westworld theme park, complete with choosing a gun and ammo before being transported into the Wild West. Of course, this being Westworld, there are glitches that occur, but we won’t ruin the experience for fans who have yet to try it. Suffice it to say, key locations both in the park and behind-the-scenes play a role in the room-scale virtual reality experience that includes physical props. The player is also able to make choices that will impact the experience.

“Given that it’s meant to be viewed in conjunction with a physical environment, our focus was on making it a unique and compelling experience, regardless of replay value,” Wilkerson said. “In the end, we struck a balance that we’re really happy with; you can be a hero or a villain, but you’re also a part of our story in a way that hasn’t quite been done before.”

Just the beginning

“We think there are benefits to both 360 video and real-time CG virtual reality, and were happy to marry them together in the Westworld experience,” Wilkerson explained. “That said, the sense of personal agency and ability to affect the world were integral to the idea of fantasy fulfillment in Westworld. From our first days experiencing the proto-Vive demo at Valve Software’s offices, we knew we wanted to make use of room scale presence and controller input. The technology and our experience lined up perfectly to make this happen.”

Given the internal investment HBO has made in VR, the Westworld experience serves as a stepping stone for the company. Wilkerson said HBO will always explore the art of the possible, and VR is a natural part of that journey.“VR and mixed reality development is moving so incredibly fast, it’s exciting to see the medium gaining more and more mainstream adoption,” Wilkerson said. “We recently announced, at Google IO 2016, HBO’s presence on the Google Daydream platform, and are hard at work to bring our apps and content to audiences this winter. Of course these are early days, but we have long-term plans for VR so HBO fans should definitely stay tuned to see how this evolves over time to become more and more immersive.”

HBO, and companies like it, will increasingly have a growing new audience to connect with. In addition to Google Daydream, Sony has launched its own PlayStation VR, while Oculus Rift and Vive continue to target the more hardcore PC enthusiasts.

“VR can be such a powerful tool in a creative’s hands, enabling a different axis of storytelling”

The VR experiences will continue to go hand-in-hand with HBO’s overall programming vision, which strives not to “make shows that everybody likes, but rather to make shows that somebody loves,” as Wilkerson put it.

“This resonates with us as we explore VR, as it has the potential to add another dimension to our original programming,” Wilkerson added. “What better way to love our shows than to be immersed in them? Certainly it’s not a fit for every show, but for those in which it works, it adds a compelling layer to story and world-building.”

In addition, Wilkerson said, VR allows producers, writers, and directors to explore stories in a special way. “VR can be such a powerful tool in a creative’s hands, enabling a different axis of storytelling that’s great fun to explore and experience, for both creator and audience.”

With a growing base of VR headsets across mobile, PC, and gaming consoles, it shouldn’t be long before fans will be able to step inside HBO’s many universes in brand new ways.

John Gaudiosi
John Gaudiosi has been covering video games for over 25 years, dating back to his work for The Washington Post while in…
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