Noah J Nelson on Monday, Sep. 14th
Next week the second annual Proto Awards, which honor “trailblazers in immersive media” will be given out in Hollywood by The Virtual Reality Foundation. The VRF also produces the Virtual Reality Los Angeles Expo, and at the most recent VRLA we spoke with some of the organization’s founders about the emerging medium, the sudden prominence of the Expo, and their individual passion for all things VR.
We begin with Cosmo Scharf, the former USC-student whose post on Reddit started the ball rolling on the Meetup that would become VRLA.
The first time I spoke with Cosmo Scharf was at the first VRLA, which took place on the motion capture stage at Digital Domain, one of LA’s legendary visual effects firms. It was a brief conversation, and a few weeks later we followed it up with a formal interview.
Since that first VRLA Scharf’s life has become wrapped up completely in the exponential bloom of VR. On the Saturday morning of the most recent VRLA Expo—the event has grown by leaps and bounds in its first year and a half—we met in a room inside the LA Convention Center that had been set aside for the press. Scharf wore a VRLA branded T-shirt that made him look like the college-age volunteers who helped keep the event running smoothly, in his hand a walkie-talkie that was his link to the event’s machinery churning away behind the scenes.
A big leap from the food truck and Apple Keynote aided talks of the first event.
“Something I talk about at the end of my opening remarks is that everything happens faster than you expect in the VR industry,” Scharf told me as we sat together above the show floor. “We went from (Oculus’s) DK1 to Crescent Bay in like a year. Everyone here is exceptionally excited to make this happen and I think that’s the reason why everything feels like it’s happening so fast.”
Inside the world of VR enthusiasts the acceleration is marked in increments of immersion: growth spurts that open up new possibilities to creatively engaged minds. When pressed, however, Scharf acknowledges that the view outside the convention hall might not be the same.
“There is kind of an interesting disconnect where the people inside the VR industry feel that everything is happening fast but I feel like maybe everyone outside it is looking at it from a distance and thinking that it’s happening slow. Like waiting for it to come out. Waiting, Waiting, Waiting, Waiting. People have been waiting since the 80’s and 90’s. But I think this next year is going to be really interning beca finally we’ll have consumer products on the market.”
That disconnect might turn on the very public nature of the development cycle of the now Facebook-owned Oculus Rift, which has been followed in kind by consumer focused awareness campaigns from Sony and HTC/Valve for their own head mounted displays. Not to mention a seemingly endless supply of smaller companies looking to make their own splash in an emerging market.
“It is kind of a weird thing. It’s kind of like knowing about the iPhone in 2004. The Rift: people have known about for three years now but it’s still not out. The only reason why people know about it now is that it was necessary for it to become a thing for them to reach out to developers and people to start making content for this because otherwise there’d be nothing to play.”
A chicken and egg conundrum that has created a rabid demand from those initiated into the VR world. Developers and the deepest VR enthusiasts alike chase the elusive state known as “presence”—that state where disbelief in what is being seen is brushed aside by the mind and you’re just there.
Scharf’s own first real brush with presence involved one of his biggest fears, with a demo that was built for Oculus’ Crescent Bay prototype.
“You’re looking down a hallway, kind of a Night at the Museum sort of thing. There’s like a T-Rex all the way at the end. It turns a corner and walks towards you and then it like stops in front of you, and bends down and walks over you. I was literally on the floor staring up at it screaming because I’m kind of afraid of dinosaurs.”
In some ways Scharf is VR’s Cheerleader-in-Chief in Los Angeles. His enthusiasm for the form comes through in his opening remarks at each VRLA and seems to carry over into the event itself. There’s a seat-of-your-pants optimism to the event that seems to generate directly from Scharf’s soul. At times it’s hard to believe that the Convention Center, the exhibitors, and the looming awards show is all actually happening.
“When I first had the idea to start VRLA I had zero idea how I was gonna pull it off. When I was gonna do it, who I was gonna work with. It all just kind of came together magically because I was able to find other people who cared about it. I think the reason why we’ve had so much success is because we realized VR was going to be a thing before everyone else. A year… pretty much like a year’s worth, a year and a half worth of time before everyone else. We honestly just are lucky to be a part of it and to be able to be in a position to put on these events because I do think that if we hadn’t done it in LA someone else would have.
“I try to piece out how much of our success is because of what we do and how much is just VR itself being this really cool new thing that virtually everyone wants to try.”
Somewhere out in the multiverse there’s a world where the Oculus Kickstarter never happened, and I wondered what the Cosmo Scharf of that universe would be up to if he’d never encountered VR.
“I was going to school at USC for film production and that’s what I was really interested in in high school. In becoming famous on YouTube and making films and movies that people cared about. At the same time technology in general has been a huge passion of mine. I’m just obsessed with computers and phones, Apple, etc. And also, entrepreneurship. I’ve always been coming up with ideas for apps, websites, and now VR content.
“So I mean in an alternate universe I’d still be at USC. I actually just dropped out this year to work on VRLA and Visionary and the Proto Awards. Because that’s where my heart is right now and that’s what I want to focus on.”
“Visionary” is Visionary VR the start-up that Scharf and his VRLA co-founders Jonnie Ross and Adam Levin founded at the start of this year. At the moment the company is in that classic start-up “silent running” mode.
“We make software for storytelling in virtual reality. What that means specifically we hope to tell people about sometime soon. But I can assure you it’s frickin’ awesome.”
In the meantime Scharf has next week’s second Proto Awards on his plate, which help cements The Virtual Reality Foundation’s near the center of the growing immersive entertainment ecosystem.
Tomorrow in the series: Adam Levin, The VRF’s CEO.