Google Closes VR Studio “Spotlight Stories”

In a blow to VR filmmaking, Google is closing their VR studio, “Spotlight Stories.” The popular immersive film studio shuttered with an announcement in Variety:

Google Spotlight Stories is closing its doors after over six years of creating stories and fine-tuning phones, screens, virtual reality and wherever we can get away with it.

A Brillant Run

Spotlight Stories may have only a small list of credits to its name for six years of operation, but the studio had a remarkable run. As Google noted in its statement to Variety,

Since its inception, Spotlight Stories strove to re-imagine VR storytelling. From ambitious shorts like ‘Son of Jaguar,’ ‘Sonaria’ and ‘Back to The Moon’ to critical acclaim for ‘Pearl’ (Emmy winner and first-ever VR film nominated for an Oscar) the Spotlight Stories team left a lasting impact on immersive storytelling. We are proud of the work the team has done over the years.

Spotlight Stories wasn’t born as a Google project but had its origins under Motorola (remember them?). In what now seems like another era, Motorola was experimenting with future forms of storytelling through mobile devices. With the acquisition by Google, it was added to Advanced Technologies and Products (ATAP) group.

In the years that followed, it produced a number of creative 360 videos and immersive experiences by artists such as Glen Keane, Justin Lin, and Jorge Gutierrez. At one point, the studio had over forty staff with additional visual effects production from external partners.

In 2017, Patrick Osborne’s “Pearl” took an Academy Award nomination and won an Emmy for Outstanding Innovation in Interactive Programming in 2017.  It was a moment when VR filmmaking seemed to cross a threshold, gaining industry recognition as work that was both experimental and serious. “Pearl” is widely available through VR headsets and on YouTube 360.

This year Spotlight Stories released the long-anticipated and beautifully rendered “Age of Sail,” directed by John Kahrs.

Google Closing its VR Studio

Recently, it’s been an amazing yet challenging time for immersive technology. We’ve seen a variety of pioneering projects at Sundance and elsewhere while Imax closed the doors on its VR centers. Augmented reality has suffered its share of woe, with three AR companies failing in a single month at the beginning of the year.

None of this should be unexpected in the development of an emerging technology. But it’s challenging when a major company pulls the plug on a well-funded project for artistic experimentation.

VRScout summed up our sentiments.

It’s a shame to see such an impactful studio terminated while in the prime of its life. Google made the decision from the very beginning not to monetize the work produced by Spotlight Stories, choosing instead to let the team focus entirely on pushing the boundaries of immersive filmmaking. The result is a catalogue of groundbreaking short films developed without a fear of failure. With VR and AR technology still in the process of gaining mainstream appeal, it’s imperative that well-funded companies such as Google continue using their resources to experiment and accelerate the market.

Someone needs to step up and fund creative work in VR, providing the space for experimentation and even failure. Despite the rapid advances in using VR in the medicine, engineering, and related fields, the real challenge for the medium lies in immersive storytelling. Film festivals such as Sundance and Tribeca play a critical role in funding creative work, but the major tech companies need to do the same.

We’re confident the story doesn’t end with Google closing its VR studio. But for the moment, it’s unwelcome news for artists willing to take risks with a new medium.