At the VRLA expo, it was clear that virtual reality hasn't yet lived up to the futurist hype surrounding it, but it still has the power to literally transport us.
Image by author.
When I attended the VRLA Summer Expo in August, I couldn't stop thinking about Elon Musk's speculation that there's a "one in billions" chance that we aren't living in a simulation. Musk draws a line of technological advancement from Pong to AAA games in 2016. He argues that if we made this much progress in 40 years, we'll someday be able to create simulations indistinguishable from reality. Walking around VRLA, I thought about where VR is now and how long it would take to create a Matrix-like existence: a simulated reality that everyone is a part of. At VRLA, it became clear that the hardware has a long way to go, but virtual reality is making an effort to invite everyone in.
VRLA—the world's largest virtual reality expo—is a biannual event held in Los Angeles. With more than 6,000 attendees and more than 130 exhibitors, this year's expo was the largest one yet. Everything from the traditional VR experiences (games, rides, and films) to the more experimental (like a VR rave) were on display. Before the expo floor opened, a line of hundreds snaked around a large part of the convention center. The floor itself felt like a theme park, with people patiently waiting in line for hours to try VR demos, from the unreleased VR game Star Trek: Bridge Crew, to Mindshow: the VR app that lets you make your own VR productions. You couldn't walk far without seeing someone in a headset, or waiting in line to wear one.
"VR and AR are trying to catch up with the OG-R," said Reggie Watts, the conference keynote speaker. (In May, the comedian performed a set in VR.) "I can't wait to put on a headset in my living room and be transported to my living room... in VR. That's where I'd like us to start." During his speech, Watts spent 20 minutes analyzing the projector menu. The hilarious contrast between everyday technology and the inaccessible headset was obvious. It was a reminder that even with the launch of consumer VR products, it's still a niche technology still very foreign to the vast majority of us.
In science-fiction stories, like Keiichi Matsuda's HYPER-REALITY, VR and AR are incredibly powerful, yet mobile enough to touch every aspect of our lives. But in the reality of 2016, consumer VR headsets still allow us to experience robust VR only from our homes. Currently, Facebook's Oculus Rift and the Vive (co-developed by HTC and Valve) are the major players in the consumer VR market, but both require a very powerful PC (and a lot of wires) for use. Devices like Google Cardboard Samsung's Gear VR utilize smartphones to offer mobile VR, but with what they gain in portability, they lose in power and input precision.
Based on the hardware showcased at VRLA, we have only inched closer to the dream of becoming cyborgs. Touch controllers are slowly becoming the standard, as most exhibitors understood that people want to use their hands as much as their eyes in VR experiences. While the Vive allows "room-scale" user tracking, it can only track user movement within the range of its stationary sensors—so don't expect to walk down the street in VR just yet. HP and MSI demoed computer backpacks that connect to VR headsets, so you can walk around without being tethered to wires, but these backpacks are as bulky as they are powerful. Unless a VR-ready PC shrinks to a size and price smaller than a Raspberry Pi's, VR won't become the Matrix in our lifetimes.
A panel titled "The Future of VR Hardware" put this in perspective. The corporate vice president of AMD, Roy Taylor said, "[We need] about 81 times more performance than we have today." When I asked the panel what they felt would be the ideal apparatus to experience VR, Taylor replied, "A pair of sunglasses... [with] a pair of either gloves or a body suit... We're going to need big powerful processing in the cloud... and unbelievably fast bandwidth." In Taylor's scenario, we turn into Jon Nada from They Live, able to alter what we see by putting Ray-Bans on. But Joy Lyons, chief technology officer of OSSIC, took a step closer to the sci-fi of Gibson and futurism of Musk. The ideal apparatus for VR, she said, is "a chip in the brain."
If making VR devices stronger and more powerful is the long-term goal for the VR industry, then the short-term goal is simple accessibility. VR's next big challenge is getting more people involved as both hardware consumers and software developers. The very first event of the expo was a workshop called "Girls Make VR," where teenagers learned how to create their first virtual reality scene with Unity, a free game creation tool. The expo also featured a bevy of new products: Visionary VR's app Mindshow, which allows amateur VR filmmakers to create cinematic sequences; HTC's Viveport, a platform that offers alternative VR experiences for non-gamers. On the hardware side, AMD announced its line of affordable VR-ready computers, which can be built for around $680, powered by their new graphics card, the Radeon RX 480 (which starts at just $199 if purchased alone).
For folks who don't own a headset and aren't interested in a Google Cardboard–like experience, more location-based VR is coming—think pop-up arcades for VR content. AMD unveiled its VR pod, Awesome Rocketship, which is set to debut in movie theaters, malls, and other locations across the country. VRCade showcased a wireless, multiplayer VR gaming experience with custom gun controllers and headsets. Fulldome Pro exhibited its gigantic hemispherical setup under which 20 to 30 people can comfortably recline and take in the audiovisual experience. Airflow, a flight experience that suspends you mid-air using a Hollywood-grade harness, is set to become an open platform for developers to contribute their own level designs.
Slowly but surely, VR technology is getting cheaper, more accessible, more versatile, and easier for non-developers to create VR content. Elon Musk might believe that technologies are moving us toward photorealistic virtual realities, but in actuality, broadening the pool of content creators will push a more raw, surreal aesthetic into the mainstream. And we may be better for that fact.
In his talk "How Neurons React to Virtual Reality," neurologist Mayank Mehta claimed that memorable spaces in VR might be good for your mental health. Mehta and his team, whose research concerns the relationship between VR and memory, created a VR rig for rats, an omni-directional treadmill that reacted to the rat's movements in real time by changing the visuals projected on the four walls around it. In other words, the rat believed the simulated space to be its own reality. According to Mehta, creating memorable spaces with rich visual cues is the key to activating the brain: "In the long run, I believe [this] can be used to use VR to make us smarter."
There were moments at VRLA where I took off my headset and felt like I had woken up from a dream. VR production house Cognition created a space using 12" sculptures by Kris Kuksi, transforming them into 24-foot-high columns ending in a massive temple-like edifice. Cognition uses a technique called photogrammetry, which involves recreating objects and spaces in 3D by assimilating photographs of the subject taken from every possible angle.
I was even able to virtually visit the Temple of Bel in Syria, which was destroyed by ISIS in 2015. The studio had recreated the site using hundreds of archival images sourced from the web. The future of the project is to allow users to decide the spaces they would like to see captured. Maybe someday capturing spaces with photogrammetry will be as easy as taking selfies.
Virtual reality is still in its infancy. Its rate of growth is slow, but the democratization of VR is already happening, resulting not only in more content, but in more diverse points of view. As the tools to create virtual reality trickle down to non-developers, virtual realities that are rough around the edges will accompany the photorealistic simulations that currently flood the industry. The near future isn't VR sunglasses or wearables you forget you're wearing: It's consumer-grade luxury electronics that will transport us to weird and exciting places.
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