Brothers Asaf and Eyal Geva were in high school when they first listened to the “Hippopotamus” comedy skit show on Radio Tel Aviv. Alon Gur-Arie, then a film student at Tel Aviv University, was making radio shows but wanted badly to be making movies. When he began working on his final project, “Hamosad Hasagur” (“Israeli Intelligence”), he looked for volunteers to do the special effects for the film. Asaf, who was in 10th grade, volunteered. “I taught myself 3D animation from the internet, and then I offered my services. It was the first time I created effects for a movie,” said Asaf.
Gur-Arie won support from the Israel Film Fund to turn the short into a full-length feature by showing a packed monthly screening of the short film at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.
The three have now taken their partnership into the world of virtual reality gaming.
Now college graduates with their own VR studio — Peanut Button — Asaf and Eyal Geva have developed a VR game based on a character from Gur-Arie’s latest film “Mossad.” Starring Tsahi Halevi and Tal Friedman, the film was inspired by comedies like “The Naked Gun” and “Airplane!” The game is based on Friedman’s character, Aharon Man, a parody of the Marvel Comics superhero Iron Man.
Since the film’s Israeli release, every evening Asaf, Eyal and their younger brother Noam go to Cinema City theaters in Glilot, Jerusalem and Rishon Letzion, setting up four stations in each. With a Lenovo Legion gaming computer and an Oculus VR headset, each gamer becomes a VR Aharon Man, parachuting from planes, deflecting missiles and contending with mercenaries throwing exploding smartphones. The goal: To stay alive.
“We like that we can promote Alon’s movie and create a complementary experience. It breaks the screen and gives people an opportunity to get into the movie,” says Eyal. “Are we an animation studio or a VR startup? We want to create content and we are discovering the precise model through doing.”
A Disney ride
Many people have written off the VR gaming industry, which hasn’t taken off despite early promise. There are many reasons for the absence of a run on VR units, including a lack of content, headsets that are hard to assemble and fears that heavy use would cause alienation among users, especially teens.
Experts in the technology say the real money is in augmented reality, because it’s more accessible. They can point to some major successes, most notably Pokemon Go.
The marriage between movies and VR was no accident. “Eyal took part in a reading of the “Mossad” script, and that’s how the idea for the game was born,” says Asaf. “After we sat and wrote a few sketches over two weeks, we went to Alon’s house with VR glasses, a desktop computer and the rest of the equipment to show him our prototypes. All the crazy sketches we made were raw, but he could imagine how it fit with his idea for the movie. He imagined the game as a Disney or Universal Studios ride. His eyes were opened.”
Gur-Arie brought the Gevas to his production company, United King Films. “We worked for a month on a demo, without knowing what would come of it and whether they would want it,” says Eyal. “Luckily, United was excited, too, and we began to work on the game.”
United put Peanut Button in tough with Lenovo. The Chinese computer giant supplied the equipment and the link to Oculus, which Lenovo makes for Facebook. United King, Lenovo and Peanut Button made a deal: The studio developed the game with the Lenovo equipment and agreed to place it in the Cinema City theaters, on a model of profit-sharing from the sale of tickets to the games. Halevi and Friedman signed on, lending their voices to the game.
A number of big names took a part in creation of “Mossad.” The well-known Israeli director Avi Nesher edited the script. David Zucker, who wrote and directed “The Naked Gun” and “Airplane!” came to Israel to serve as an artistic consultant. “It’s a lot of fun to play Hollywood in Israel,” says Gur-Arie. “Films such as ‘Jurassic Park,’ ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Star Wars’ have a VR game, and now the Mossad does too.”
“While working on the movie, Eyal and Asaf came with the offer for a game. Usually, VR games are based on movies belonging to huge studios and superbrands such as Disney and Marvel, and they made a game that is wonderful as a complementary experience. I like the game a lot, it looks like the beginning of something new,” says Gur-Arie.
Eyal, 30, Asaf, 28, and Noam, 22, were born and raised in Tel Aviv. They come from a tech family: Their father is a developer for Upstream Commerce, which develops technology for automated product pricing and analysis. It was recently sold to the online commerce giant Flipkart. Their mother is a biostatistician behind a data analysis startup. They have been deeply involved in gaming since childhood.
After serving in the Israel Defense Forces’ 8200 intelligence unit – an incubator for Israeli high-tech entrepreneurs and engineers – Asaf studied computer science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, combining it with animation studies at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. After he discovered VR headsets during the course of his studies, he decided to devote himself to the new technology.
“I bought my first VR kit in 2014 and used it to create my final project for Bezalel, and after that my marriage proposal,” says Asaf.
Eyal was swept into the world of VR through his film studies. After serving as a presenter for Army Radio, he worked in the television industry while he studied film and scriptwriting at Tel Aviv University. Near the end of his studies, he tried out a VR kit his brother gave him and helped him write the script for his final project.
“I realized that virtual reality gave me greater creative freedom than film, and especially student films, most of which are written and filmed the same way,” said Eyal. “In VR you can do exactly what you want.”
In 2015, the brothers established their studio and began creating content alongside their day jobs. “At first it was a hobby, and only a year ago we left our jobs,” says Eyal. “During the week we worked, on the weekends we participated in mass development events.”
When they began developing Aharon Man, their brother Noam joined them. Asaf taught Eyal to program on the Unity development engine, and taught Noam to do quality assurance. When the time came to build the game and characters, a friend of Asaf’s from Bezalel joined them. They registered the studio as a business only two months ago, while developing the game.
Today, Noam runs the operation in the field: He runs between the theaters and operates the gaming stations, trains the ushers who operate the games and collects user feedback.
“We had wanted to make movies in virtual reality, that’s the dream and we need to solve it on the content, computing and operational level,” says Asaf. “We want to take it to somewhere for entertainment for the whole family, not only the children but also their parents. Our audience is people who like to see Spiderman movies in the theater, and we bring them content in Hebrew.”
The Gevas give part of the credit for the game to their parents and friends who helped them. “It’s always good that there’s a circle of people who provide support,” says Noam. “It was like a band that starts out playing in bars, and at first the audience is friends and family: Every two weeks we brought them to try the game and get feedback. We tried to get our grandfather to try the virtual reality glasses, but we didn’t succeed. Our parents played and liked it. They also contributed the [gas] for the car for all our running around.”
To improve in developing virtual reality games, the brothers ordered the new virtual reality kit from Oculus. “What is hard in developing on VR is that every year you need to improve or redo, because a new and improved version of the kit comes out. Every model takes another step forward, and they come out with high frequency. You need to be flexible,” says Asaf. They Gevas say they tried different models of game development, but the virtual reality games were the best fit in terms of economic feasibility. “We believe this industry will grow and there will be demand for high-quality games,” they say.
They still haven’t cracked the business
For years Facebook, Microsoft, Samsung and HTC have been promising us that VR is already here, but the technology has only managed to attract a small part of the gamer community.
Jack McCauley, one of the founders of Oculus, recently said he didn’t expect Facebook to succeed in this area. Facebook still hasn’t been able to solve the problem of nausea and dizziness that gamers feel while wearing the glasses. Most gamers prefer to spend a long time in a shared game alongside their friends, while the headsets completely cut them off from their surroundings, said McCauley.
Facebook bought Oculus in 2014 for $2 billion, and has still not seen a return on its investment. After the purchase, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg presented his vision for the product: Users will create human avatars, based on their own faces, and they can meet their friends and play along with them – but the company has still not developed content for such shared games.
Facebook’s sales figures show that the company is treading water in the virtual reality business. Since May 2018 the company sold 2 million Oculus Go units, the simplest and least expensive version of the headsets – which cost $200 each.
The Quest headset, which came out in May, sold only 1.1 million units, and only 500,000 units of the Rift model have been sold since the beginning of 2018, according to figures from the SuperData Research market research firm. In comparison, in 2018 alone, Sony sold 17.8 million PlayStation 4 consoles and Nintendo sold 17 million Switch gaming systems.
As part of the attempt to sell more Oculus headsets, Zuckerberg took a virtual tour of Puerto Rico using his avatar after Hurricane Maria in October 2017. He was criticized by people who accused him of the cynical exploitation of the disaster to promote the technology. The company recently closed its VR film library because of a lack of interest in such movies.
The Gevas are not deterred by the slow progress. “Without a doubt, in another five years a movement of parents against VR will arise,” says Eyal. “They will say that this disturbs the children’s view of reality. We expect a public controversy, the way they accused computer games of being a trigger for murder in schools in the United States.”
Asaf says they watch the market and have a feeling something is missing. “They talk a lot about VR but the content that masses of people will want to see is missing – and this is not just games. People expected VR to bring them into the ‘Matrix’ – a completely realistic experience – but they still haven’t cracked how to do it. For now, we are trying to take it into the entertainment world. We create a lot of material to fill the space that doesn’t have substance. We have the chutzpah too to think that we know how to do it.”
“For cinema too, it took decades until they understood the right length of a feature, what’s a theater, and how this industry continues to change too,” says Eyal.
The Pixar animation studio has come a long way, too. They say the management of the studio came to director George Lucas in the 1980s and he asked them to prepare reports for their accountants, he said. “Who thought at all about computerized animation? We aren’t trying to convince those who are against it, but to give those who like the industry content and meaning. I always am jealous of people who were the first to do something new in cinema – those who blew up bridges to film a movie. Why do the Jews control Hollywood? Because at the beginning cinema was something low, at the margins, of immigrants. You need to be an outsider to rejuvenate the establishment.”
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