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For 600th episode, ‘The Simpsons’ unveils a VR ‘couch gag’ that points to the future of TV

🕐 2 min read

First Pikachu, now Homer Simpson.

Could SpongeBob or a Minion be next? Because iconic yellow cartoon characters will apparently be our highly visible guides into our techno-entertainment future.

On Sunday night, just several months after virtual Pokemon took the real world by storm, we were treated to another step of cartoon trailblazing from the realm of VR.

“The Simpsons” celebrated its 600th episode Sunday – a prime-time run second only to “Gunsmoke” in TV series history – and the show made the occasion especially memorable by opening with a couch gag that can now be viewed in 360-degree virtual reality.

Powered partly by Google, the VR version of “Planet of the Couches” – an opening gag that’s a takeoff on “Planet of the Apes” – can be experienced on a mobile device and a $5 cardboard viewer. (Or as the “Simpsons” writers say: “Brought to you by the inevitable marriage of computers and cardboard!”)

“We had this couch gag planned, and then we were approached by Google,” the show’s David Silverman, who directed the gag, tells The Washington Post. He says it was tricky to try to adapt this opening to the needs of VR immersion, but that Team Google – including Jan Pikaba and Karen Dufilho – helped put it all together, including the technical “scaffolding.”

Google uses its trailblazing “Spotlight Stories” mobile experience to allow the viewer to scan the entire 360-degree scenes for visual jokes. In this case, it’s a land where humans are the enslaved, couches are the puffy overlords — and Homer is our Charlton Heston, right down to the famed climax of a beach scene.

(Silverman notes that this marriage of technology and parody seems fitting, since “Planet of the Apes” itself felt like an effects breakthrough when it landed in 1968. That era’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” has also inspired “Simpsons” writers.)

The “Simpsons” VR project certainly feels like a forerunner. Given the creative possibilities, TV series should flock to offering virtual-reality experiences – with animation neatly positioned to make the most of all the immersive potential.

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