Noah J Nelson on Tuesday, Sep. 15th
Continuing our series of interviews with the founders of The Virtual Reality Foundation, which presents the second annual Proto Awards next week.
Yesterday’s edition featured Cosmo Scharf, today’s focuses on Adam Levin, CEO of The VRF.
My first encounter with Adam Levin is one he wouldn’t remember. It was in the lobby of the Lowes Hollywood Hotel on the final day of last year’s Oculus Connect—the first annual developers conference focused on the emerging virtual reality platform. Levin was talking with a VR developer about a subject near and dear to my hear: sound. As an audio nerd, and nosy journalist, I couldn’t help but ear hustle. (That’s a technical term, by the way, you’d probably just call it eavesdropping.)
Levin spoke to the developer about experiments that he was a part of to produce music videos within VR and the unique opportunities that offered. It was one of a dozen similar conversations that were taking place in a lobby where every other comfy chair was occupied by a t-shirt clad computer software engineer cradling a some generation of Oculus development kit. The lobby of the Lowes felt like the morning after the world’s most gloriously nerdy slumber party.
Where the Lowes lobby felt cramped the mezzanine of the Los Angeles Convention Center, where Levin and I met to talk about VR and the many hats he wears in the nascent industry, was blissfully above the fray. It was likely the only respite Levin had on the day of the second Virtual Reality Los Angeles Expo.
That day his role was of “guy who was holding it all together” as Levin was never far from the walkie talkie that kept him tethered to the production team, stopping at one point to check a patron’s wristband to make sure they hadn’t wandered into the wrong room. The event has grown in leaps and bounds in its first year and a half, and I asked Levin what the biggest challenge has been in keeping up with the growth.
“The challenge,” said Levin, “is six people who have very demanding full time jobs coming together once a week on Sunday evenings and pulling all this together.”
Levin holds the title of CEO of The Virtual Reality Foundation, the entity that evolved out of the initial VRLA meet-ups. Nor is that the only title he holds.
“I’m the COO (Chief Operating Officer) at Visionary VR, which is a start up working on virtual reality software. Then I’m also a partner at Headquarters Music which is a production music house that does film scoring and music for commercials and stuff like that.”
(For more on Visionary see our previous interview with Cosmo Scharf.)
His partner status with Headquarters was the hat Levin was wearing when I overhead him at Oculus Connect last year, so I had to dive in. This is what happens when you put audio nerds together. Everything becomes about wavelengths and microphone arrays.
“Headquarters is putting together music and sound design for projects that were working on at Visionary. Obviously headquarters is getting into scoring for virtual reality and spatialized music.”
That’s the top level overview, but it’s easy from the outside of the VR industry to overlook the impact of sound. The illusion of presence is as dependent on what users are hearing as they are seeing.
“We do some omni-binaural recording—that is positionally aware recording—that gives you a sense of space because, not to dive too deep, but stereo is a myth. Stereo is what we decided music sounds like, but if you’re in a room it doesn’t like it does in headphones.
“So with this omni-binaural recording you can record what you’d be actually taking in in a room and match it to the rotation of your head within the virtual world. That’s one of the things we’ve been working on. We’ve also been working on spatialized music mixes that take advantage of omni-binaural audio and its principles.”
With our own geekiness sated, I turn the topic to my current big concern about VR. I’ve begun to worry that the view from inside the VR and gaming bubbles is distorting what the actual interest in the tech is. (This was before I got down on the show floor and saw a few things that reminded me of just how far the tech has already come.) Some of this concern comes from conversations I have with—often tech savvy—friends and peers who either haven’t tried VR or did and failed to have a “Come to Jesus” moment.
Levin doesn’t share my fears.
“I think that there are multiple strata of awareness. I don’t think for example my parents and their friends could have told you what virtual reality was even from a visual standpoint. They wouldn’t have known that it’s a thing that goes on your head. Maybe until the Time magazine cover. So I think even when it feels like there is awareness building within the community I think—in a broad sense—I don’t think the awareness is there yet. We’re approaching a crest of widespread awareness, but I don’t think that we’re there yet.”
That awareness is something that is bound to follow the commercial blitz likely to start next year. For those campaigns to have lasting impact, however, the hardware is going to have to mature into something the non-technically minded can handle. This is the evolution that Levin is anticipating the most.
“Ease of use for the general public,” is key he says, “because I think its gotta be easy for people to adopt it and guess what: my mom doesn’t know how to update her runtime. So that’s i think the biggest thing is ease and interoperability. It’s got to be like when you get a new USB inkjet and you plug it in it says ‘I think you just plugged in a USB inkjet.’ It’s gotta be like that.”
The other thing about VR Levin is looking forward to?
“Taking a break from it on my honeymoon. No, I say that only because I have VRLA, my wedding, and the Proto Awards all within a month of one another. So I’m very stressed out right now.”
The VRLA Expo is behind us and The Proto Awards are just a week away, so don’t worry, Levin’s stress level should be back down to normal human levels shortly.
Tomorrow in the series: VRF Board of Directors member Jessica Ward.