Penrose’s Presence of Mind
By building an in-world economic foundation on blockchain, the groundbreaking VR storyteller is primed to remain at the forefront of cross realities.
Hailed as “the Pixar of virtual reality” for its impeccable animation and technological advances, Penrose was founded by Eugene YK Chung, the co-creator of Oculus VR’s in-house film studio, and Dreamworks veteran Jimmy Maidens. The studio has won countless awards and no little acclaim for its breakthrough VR experiences, including stories such as Allumette and Arden’s Wake, and Maestro, its patented spatial computing development platform.
The rich virtual worlds that Penrose builds have an inherent logic that effortlessly immerses you within them. Its experiences are so engrossing that your role seamlessly transforms from being a passive viewer to becoming an interlocutor with the world itself. The effect is something that feels equal parts familiar and novel, and the juxtaposition of these two sensations results in something remarkable: You’re reminded of what it feels like to be alive.
While VR is the most common type of alternative reality experiences, the full community includes augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR), and is often classified under the broader XR label (cross or extended reality). This community values a phenomenon known as “presence.” Presence is the feeling of actually being somewhere, not simply viewing it, and is what makes virtual reality experiences unique. It’s also what makes creating them challenging because once you feel like you’re a part of the world, the internal logic needs to make sense to sustain a deep level of immersion. Penrose’s prowess in building coherent, organic worlds not only facilitates its powerful brand of storytelling, it makes them masters at fostering presence.
Now that it’s honed its skills in world-building, storytelling, and creating presence, Penrose is taking the next stride forward in its creative journey: empowering players to become storytellers themselves within its worlds through interactivity and community experiences. All of the creative talent and deep technical skills needed to achieve this grand vision suggests a desire from the studio to create a futuristic experience. What actually impels Penrose forward, though, is something much more primordial.
“Whether our tools are sticks and stones or bits and bytes, our focus has always been building and sharing thought-provoking experiences,” Chung says. “We have a new medium and technology to work with, and it’s very exciting in many ways. But at the core, what we’ve always wanted to do is tell stories that reveal a universal truth about humanity.”
The calculus behind Penrose leveraging VR technology to achieve this rings true. Experiencing virtual worlds that not only feel real (in the perceptual sense), but also maintain a coherent internal logic engenders a greater sense of presence, allowing a deeper connection to the world to be formed. This can then give rise to community and social interactions that are distinctly human, despite occurring in a virtual world.
“We’re ancient creatures that have evolved over time, yet there are fundamental aspects to being human,” Chung says. “When we gather around a dinner table today and share a meal, it’s simply a contemporary version of when people sat around a campfire hundreds or thousands of years ago with the herbs they gathered and the animals they hunted. Telling stories and playing games are also core to who we are as humans.” By creating new iterations of these familiar experiences, as well as entirely new ones unrestricted by the rules of the natural world, Penrose may be able to unearth truths that may otherwise remain hidden.
Leading up to the launch of Penrose’s first film, The Rose and I, Chung wrote a thoughtful essay about the tension that exists between presence and storytelling in VR. He made the astute observation that we fully disengage with our reality when experiencing traditional films, but in VR, we’re completely engaged with our reality—the virtual one. What, then, is the way forward for storytelling in VR? How can these opposing ideas be reconciled?
Penrose has found a subtle but ingenious way around this discrepancy that’s inadvertently become a signature visual style across its released works. Rather than trying to tell a story in an unbounded world that envelops you, the studio creates diorama-like scenes that can be inspected and explored without losing sight of the action. This clever approach not only directs your attention to the story, but also enhances the experience through your sense of presence, similar to how, say, experiencing a live concert is more powerful than watching a video of it.
Making these unique experiences takes an enormous amount of effort, and in its early days, Penrose only had off-the-shelf game development tools to work with. This resulted in a highly inefficient and disconnected process for work that greatly benefits from constant iteration and speed. “Our artists would model or animate something in one program, export it into a real-time engine, and then put on a VR headset to check that it worked,” Chung recalls. “It was like being a painter whose paint doesn’t go straight on the canvas.” And if an error was discovered, the whole process had to be repeated.
The studio’s engineers couldn’t help but notice the artists were struggling with the workflow, and set to work on a solution. The result was Maestro, Penrose’s bespoke development platform. It enabled the artists to do their work in real time and do so while working with others inside a live VR environment. This dramatic improvement in workflow and collaboration played a key role in the success of Arden’s Wake, which was awarded the first Lion for Best VR at the highly prestigious Venice International Film Festival.
Given its abilities, Maestro ended up being far more than a creation tool for Penrose, and has had a transformative impact on the studio at large, accelerating the pace of development and greatly improving collaboration all around. It’s proven to be even more valuable during the pandemic, providing a shared virtual meeting space for staff confined at home, while also enabling more organic, human interactions between them through — wait for it — presence. “In the era of Zoom fatigue,” Chung says, “it’s a very special thing.”
Penrose made its name as a VR storyteller, but its beginnings were only stepping stones in its greater mission to empower the pursuit of meaning. A key element of its future experiences is shared presence. “When you have the presence of other people, all of a sudden you’re able to tell stories that invoke meaning,” Chung says. “They can be more akin to the kinds of things people do and talk about in real life when they’re gathered together.”
Chung is hinting at something quite profound, namely the change in our perception of, and consequently our behavior within, virtual worlds when they’re bolstered by authentic human connections. This mirrors aspects of our real lives: We are social creatures by nature, and the stories of our lives are generated by the daily interplay between ourselves and the rest of the world.
Given the overlap, then, between our real-world experiences and those in the virtual world, what makes the latter different? What new potential do they proffer? An inherent benefit of virtual worlds is that there are no creative bounds to the frame of our virtual life stories. And guided by the right hand, VR narrative experiences can enrich our understanding about ourselves, others, and the world(s) we live in. These are areas where Penrose’s deft ability to construct convincing worlds and tell affecting stories comes into play.
There are other aspects to consider, too. Beyond the sheer composition of the virtual worlds and the stories they can encompass, Penrose is exploring ways to push presence to a plane that is currently untouched. This isn’t through better hardware or improved world-building, but through thoughtful human interaction design and in-world economic foundations built on blockchain. When all of the pieces culminate into a collaborative, consistent human experience, we won’t just know what it means for us, we’ll experience why it’s meaningful.