Will Smith has seen it all.
“I started out reviewing videocards when GPUs weren’t GPUs yet,” Smith told me about his decade plus covering technology, from his time at the magazine Maximum PC, to later co-founding Tested, a technology site that also houses some familiar Mythbusters faces. “I watched phones happen. I watched post-computer stuff happen. And I just wanted to make something of my own, rather than write about other people’s work.”
A year ago, Smith announced that he was leaving Tested to start his own virtual reality company. Eventually, we learned that that project was FOO, a new network for building shows in VR. Last week, Smith officially launched a Kickstarter for The FOO Show, an experimental talk show specifically for VR, bringing locations from games (and developers themselves) into a virtually recreated space. But it’s not the first time The FOO Show‘s popped up on our radar.
In The FOO Show, interactivity is key
This past spring, Smith premiered the show’s sorta-pilot episode, which featured Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin of Campo Santo, two of the creators behind this year’s critically-acclaimed game Firewatch. Together, the three of them sat down for an interview in VR, their low-poly virtual selves moving as their real bodies did. But as they teleported to a life-size recreation of the primary lookout tower from Firewatch, things changed. And viewers knew there was something special about this particular experiment, beyond being able to tangibly pick up that signature walkie talkie.
The FOO Show is altogether a different kind of talk show. It’s more relaxed in its format, more akin to a conversation one might have in a podcast. Its conversations are borne organically—like through interacting with objects as simple and mundane as a toilet. And that’s the key to The FOO Show: the interactions we’re able to make with 3D objects in VR, and how we react to them. “We… like videogame toilets,” Smith said of his chat with Brendon Chung, the featured game developer in an upcoming episode of The FOO Show. In the season’s premiere episode, Smith said that because of their joint fascination, the two ended up talking about toilets for a good chunk of the episode from within the recreation of the hacker space from Chung’s Quadrilateral Cowboy. And that’s just one of the many unpredictable and candid conversations that can emerge from this kind of show.
Sure, there are already VR-bound films and shows, among other things. But Smith wants to set The FOO Show and the shows beyond it apart, by focusing on the interactivity that we couldn’t really achieve before VR. “We’re looking at genres of television that would be interesting if you added more interactivity. So [something like] procedural crime dramas are a good example because it’d let you actually explore the crime scene in a way that you can’t while watching Law & Order,” Smith explained. “And that’s one of the things that we think is really key for making this kind of programming in VR, that you have to have interactivity in those environments and give people something to explore.”
While eventually Smith wants to go beyond games-centric subjects both in the The FOO Show and the shows planned beyond the talk show—he even has a scientist lined up for this first season—for the time being he’s aiming for developers that are intriguing to him (and easy to port assets over to a VR capacity). “I look at what Brendon has done with the Blendo Games, like Thirty Flights of Loving and Gravity Bone, and the way he takes nonlinear, filmic storytelling techniques and puts them in these weird little ancient, id Tech-powered games is really novel and neat,” said Smith of why he chose Chung as a guest. “So shining a light on what these small independent creators do and letting them show their work in a way that was not possible before is really exciting to me.”
“shining a light on what these independent creators do”
Beyond The FOO Show, Smith wants FOO to be a platform for cheaper, more efficient creations in VR. Like how soap operas, talk shows, and the like are filmed in an extremely controlled way. That’s the primary goal for FOO, to create a platform that’s essentially edited before even flipping on a camera or putting on a headset. A format that fits a mold and maybe has some minor tweaks here or there, but that’s it. “[Where] it comes out essentially live,” Smith said. “I want to build a technology platform that makes creating that kind of content easy enough that almost anyone can do it.”
The FOO Show won’t be without its challenges. From the inevitable IP issues that might come along as bigger titles are possibly featured as guests, to the more technical issues. Like how to implement a 2D game’s world to an episode (“I’d love to bring [something like] Orwell in”), and make that interactive enough for viewers.
Smith is still wildly optimistic about VR. He found himself wowed the first few times he sat down with it, but cites using the HTC Vive with two controllers as a major turning point. It was only then, Smith told me, that VR really clicked for him. “On the same scale as the Windows PC in the 90s, and the touch screen in the 2000s, this technology has the potential to change the world,” Smith said. And maybe, he hopes, FOO can be the first step in changing its entertainment too.
You can check out Smith’s Kickstarter for The FOO Show here. Also, the preview episode of The FOO Show featuring Campo Santo’s Firewatch is available on Steam for free. The FOO Show will officially debut in December.