After six years, Google is shutting down Spotlight Stories, its in-house immersive entertainment studio. What exactly was Spotlight Stories, you ask? Fair question. Unless you’re an avid virtual reality enthusiast, there’s a good chance you’ve never even heard of Google’s attempts at creating 360-degree short films for smartphones.
An email from the studio’s executive producer obtained by The Hollywood Reporter reads, “Google Spotlight Stories is shutting its doors after over six years of making stories and putting them on phones, on screens, in VR, and anywhere else we could get away with it. The opportunity to contribute to story, animation and tech has been like winning the lottery. You’ve all played a part and I’m so so proud of the work we’ve done together. Congratulations! My deepest gratitude to all of you.” Meanwhile, Variety also cites a source saying staffers would get the chance to apply to other jobs within Google, and that most artists employed by the studio were contractors hired on a by-project basis.
The studio was initially inherited when Google bought Motorola back in 2011. Over the past six years, the studio has released 13 short films, some of which were pretty flashy and associated with some big names. In 2015, the studio teamed up with Fast and Furious director Justin Lin for a hyperrealistic immersive short film called Help involving aliens invading Los Angeles. It’s also collaborated on projects for The Simpsons, Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, and with Aardman Animation (the studio responsible for Wallace and Gromit). It’s also produced Pearl, which received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short Film in 2017.
In a statement emailed to Gizmodo, a Google spokesperson did not directly address the Spotlight Stories’ future and instead championed the divison’s accomplishments.
“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,” a spokesperson said. “We are proud of the work the team has done over the years.”
While there’s no doubt that Spotlight Stories created some gorgeous films, it may not have thought through the whole “how do we make money off this” thing. According to Variety, Google invested significant funds into the studio, but it didn’t give any directives on how to monetize the short films. Six of the studio’s film are only available through the Spotlight Stories app (the rest you can find on YouTube), and when was the last time you actually saw anyone with Google Cardboard or a Daydream VR headset in the wild? And what good is pushing forward the immersive storytelling medium if... nobody is aware of or even watches your content? It’s not a problem limited to Google. In 2017, Facebook also shut down its award-winning Oculus Story Studio—another in-house VR short film studio.
It may just be that despite creating gorgeous VR content, there just isn’t enough affordable and accessible hardware out there to justify creating such labor-intensive films. And until there is, VR short films are essentially flashy, proof-of-concept gimmicks that you say “Huh, that’s kinda neat” and forget about 10 minutes after watching.