Facebook's latest virtual reality (VR) device, called Oculus Quest, gets good reviews. It offers "six degrees of freedom" of movement, which pushes the boundaries of user interaction with content. There are no messy wires. Apps download straight to the device and WiFi connects users for multiplayer games.
But there's a glaring flaw. Comic book superheroes are notably scarce in VR content, which seems odd because comic book fans are super-passionate about their make-believe worlds. That makes comic books one of the original VR formats. As anyone who's been to Comic Con knows, fans love "interacting" with their superheroes.
The Oculus content line up isn't the only evidence that superheroes aren't yet at home in VR. Panel discussions on "comics in the digital age" at the New York Comic Con focus on web-based platforms supporting the traditional panel format, like Line WebToon, which feels like the stone age at this point.
Experts cite two reasons why comic book heroes can't yet find a home in the brave new world of VR.
1. Game developers need coding skills, and those skills readily carry over into VR, says Chris Pruett, who works with third-party content developers as the director of ecosystem at Oculus. Comic book creators, in contrast, are artists and writers, not coders.
2. The big entertainment companies that own the most successful comic book content don't want to give up control of characters and story lines, says Jaron Lanier, author of Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality.
Early on, VR pioneers like Lanier talked with Hollywood studios about a potential marriage. The studios loved the idea of putting viewers in a 3D landscape. "I said that is not really the spirit of VR. In the spirit of VR you become the character," Lanier said. Hollywood's response: Forget about it because that takes the story away from us.
Signs of progress
Still, this mindset is slowly evolving — to the delight of comic book fans. Progress should continue thanks to Oculus and private companies paving new ground. Consider the following three trends — which likely will ultimately support revenue growth at entertainment content and platform companies ranging from Walt Disney Co. DIS, -0.18% and Sony SNE, -1.06% , to Facebook FB, +0.27% , Netflix NFLX, +1.54% , Amazon.com AMZN, +0.12% , Apple AAPL, -2.05% , and AT&T T, -0.40% .
1. Marvel Entertainment, a division of Disney, collaborates with Oculus to offer "playable characters" through a lineup called Marvel Powers United VR. Multiplayer games lets users "turn into" superheroes to carry out missions, battling Marvel villains along the way. Superheroes also are leaping into video games. A Sony video game called “Marvel’s Spider-Man” is one of the company’s most successful titles. It has helped power profits at Sony's videogame business, picking up where hardware left off.
2. Indie comic book creators should see Oculus as a playground. The device ships with a browser that can play third-party content rendered in a 3D VR format, says Pruett. Browsers aren't built for speed, so the VR quality is not as good as with "native apps" written to run directly on the Oculus device.
But indie comic book creators also can go the native code route, Pruett says. A thriving indie developer community of smallish teams of a half a dozen people or less produce some of the most successful VR games, without financial backing from big studios. The popular “Beat Saber” and “Superhot” VR games are examples. Small indie teams "are the authors of some of the best content we have today," Pruett says.
There's no reason to think this can't happen for comic books, in time. "When we take a media from traditional sources into VR we have to reinvent how it works. We understand how video games translate into VR. We don't understand it for comic books yet," says Pruett. Artists and developers are still feeling their way, but there's probably someone in a garage somewhere right now who is inventing the new model.
3. Upstart private companies are developing technology to help comic book artists pave the way and make some money in the process. For example, Madefire — which presented at New York Comic Con last year — offers a basic "VR" platform for comic book artists to develop ideas, in a format called "motion books." Madefire CEO and co-founder Ben Wolstenholme likens the final product to walking through a popup book.
Madefire tools are free, but if creators charge money for content they split it with Madefire. The company has tens of thousands of books on its platform, including content from Marvel and DC Comics, a division of AT&T. Dave Gibbons, an artist who worked on popular Watchmen and Superman books, explains what Madefire does in this short video. .
Madefire collaborates with a private VR headset maker called Magic Leap, to put content into Magic Leap's augmented reality (AR) format. AR creates the illusion of 3D images projected into the real world that users can interact with. Think holograms. The Magic Leap One device is similar to Microsoft's MSFT, +0.61% HoloLens headset.
Unless you are a big investor like Alphabet GOOGL, +0.12% , which has pumped money into Magic Leap, it is difficult to invest in private companies like Madefire or Magic Leap. But they're worth watching, because they might go public some day.
Like Oculus, these companies serve as content farms for entertainment giants hungry for content, as their business model shifts towards the "over the top" subscription revenue streams, said Madefire’s Wolstenholme. "Comics are a source of new intellectual property (IP), franchises and storytelling material," he added. "Public companies are interested in comics because they are building subscription services that need new IP."
Marvel, for example, is pulling its content from Netflix to put on the Disney+ platform. That means Netflix will have a big hole to fill. Amazon has a similar need on its video platform and Apple is a player in the content game. To the extent that Oculus and companies like Madefire welcome superheroes into the world of VR, they'll play a role filling the content gap at these giants. Said Wolstenholme: "We believe this era is all about new and original IP, and we are built to create that." .
At the time of publication, Michael Brush had no positions in any stocks mentioned in this column. Brush has suggested FB, DIS, NFLX, AMZN and T in his stock newsletter Brush Up on Stocks.