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The Startup That Believes Secrecy Will Harm the VR Industry

"Sharing is what makes the field better."
May 27, 2015, 9:00amUpdated on May 27, 2015, 1:17pm
Screengrab: Hypernom.com

The virtual reality entertainment market is in a holding pattern, and Oculus Rift's CEO has gone on record as saying the reason is that "the fear is if a really bad VR product comes out, it could send the industry back to the 90s." At this crucial stage in virtual reality's second push to market in 30 years, which piggybacks on research that was done over the decades, companies remain secretive and yet stoke the hype around their products.

EleVR, a virtual reality research startup focused on creating content for browsers like Mozilla's VR-enabled Firefox that allows users to plug in an Oculus Rift, is entering this emerging market with a commitment to open source code and creative commons licenses, which allow anyone to build upon and adapt their work for new applications. According to Emily Eifler, one of eleVR's three core members, more companies should focus on improving the medium as a whole.

"We're not here to make other people's apps," Eifler told me after an eleVR demo at the IX Symposium for immersive experiences in Montreal last week. "We don't do that. All our stuff is open source and creative commons; go [make your own app]. Everything we do is open source, and we give everything away. That's how research works."

Some virtual reality companies have been incredibly secretive, sometimes to a fault. "One of the problems with virtual reality is that people are so secretive," Eifler said. "People sell billion dollar companies, and billion dollar products, on a secret that turns out to not be true. Lots of people think, oh, our idea is so special. Actually, no, sharing is what makes the field better."

While Eifler didn't clarify who she was referring to, last year saw one high profile case of two giants seemingly inventing the same wheel simultaneously. Magic Leap caused a stir with a cryptic advertising campaign that vaguely new, fantastic experiences in augmented reality. By the time Magic Leap's functionality was revealed, however, it turned out that Microsoft had also been working on its own version with the HoloLens.

Since eleVR's inception last year as a research group funded by German software company SAP, the small team of three—artists, math-heads, and code developers, all—have developed arty films meant to be viewed on the virtual reality-enabled web, and games like "Hypernom," an abstracted version of Pac-Man wherein you "nom" on colourful triangles by spinning around while wearing a headset.

It's weird stuff, but it doesn't need to be turned into a product and turn a profit by next quarter. Hopefully, Eifler said, this will allow the team to work on some of the more technical issues with the technology, like the "down" problem: at the zenith of a 360-degree VR video capture, there tends to be a weird-looking visual artifact because a close-up tripod is difficult to stitch into a coherent image.

Of course, it's worth noting that the money from this project, as research-oriented as it is, comes from a software giant. Eventually, the work done by eleVR will likely be turned into a product, and put in the hands of consumers. But, at the very least, hopefully it'll be something interesting, and VR won't end up being BS after all.

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