on Friday, Sep. 18th

Jonnie Ross Headshot


Continuing our series of interviews with the founders of The Virtual Reality Foundation, which presents the second annual Proto Awards next week.

Previously in the series: Cosmo Scharf (founder VRLA), Adam Levin (CEO of The VRF), Jessica Ward, and John Root.

A year and a half ago Jonnie Ross had an idea: a meetup for virtual reality enthusiasts in Los Angeles. The only problem? Someone beat him to the punch.

“I discovered a post online that someone had started the meetup that I was going to start,” said Ross. “I was like, [expletive], some kid got it, and I was explaining it to a friend of mine and he was like ‘Uh, that’s my roommate.’”

The roommate in question was Cosmo Scharf, and after meeting he and Ross decided to join forces to put on the show. They found another ally in John Root (see our last interview) and the rest… well you know the next line.

The return of VR was a crisis point of sorts for Ross. He had spent the previous half decade pulling together resources to make his first movie, and then the opportunity to get involved with what looks to be the next big shift in entertainment asserted itself.

“It was a thrilling moment and a really difficult decision.”

One that appears to have paid off. Ross is both one of the founders of The Virtual Reality Foundation and of Visionary VR, the start-up he put together with VRLA’s Adam Levin and Scharf. Of all the board members of The VRF, Ross most deeply projects the archetype of the dreamer.

“Going back probably five years ago I’m starting as a filmmaker and a storyteller, to see the ceiling. The issue is that you can work your ass off and if you’re one in a million you’ll be lucky enough that your work will have that impact. But that thing that existed in the 80’s for music videos, or the 60s/70s for film of having a cultural impact with what your doing? That is really difficult to find right now.

“VR represents this whole new start.”

Where we stand with immersive media does feel like a start. Especially here in Los Angeles. It’s not just in the tech, film and games industries, but in the rise of escape rooms and the global interest in theme parks. There’s an energy here that it is possible to tune in to. At least that’s what I get to see in my reporting.

Yet there is something else I see that gives me pause: a perceptual rift between the proponents of VR and those of AR—augmented reality—that seem to want to put the two technologies at odds. I brought this seeming conflict up with Ross.

“I think that’s one of the big misconceptions about it. It’s a spectrum. At one end is reality—the place where you exist right now—at the other end is Virtual Reality the place where were completely consumed in a another world. In the middle is AR. It’s a composite of both.”

Microsoft, in the demos of its HoloLens technology, likes to use the term “mixed reality.”

“Mixed reality is one of the terms that’s totally a fair way to describe it and totally makes sense. It is mixed reality. You’ve got elements that are unreal layered on those that are real. So if you think of it as a spectrum it makes sense.”

Ross also believes that AR devices are further away on the horizon than VR.

“The problem is so much more difficult. So it’s going to take a but longer to actually work out in the real world and actually do that Terminator 2 thing where I’m walking up to the bar and it recognizes everything. But when it does practical applications are off the chart in terms of the kind of information you can have overlaid on your world.”

Practical applications is something Ross is excited about. The HTC Vive demo for Tilt Brush—think MS Paint in VR—is one of his favorite ways to convert people into VR believers.

“It’s the thing that you definitely witness people’s mind change about VR around.”

Also getting Ross’ seal of approval is Valve’s Aperture Science demo.

“Dude. You’re in Portal. Period. And it’s definitely in a class of its own in terms of the kind of experience.”

The HTC/Valve collaboration and Oculus are, in Ross’ view, neck and neck for leading the industry.

“They’re nearly identical right now to the layman. If you’re not deep in VR and you’re not studying the specs involved and you’re not really hyper-attuned to that stuff you’d feel like the best version of Oculus Rift and the best version of HTC Vive are very close.

“But the Portal demo is one of those few experiences from the big boys where they have their hands already on the tools and they know how to make it nearly perfect. The total effect is just of being transported into a video game. Of being able to wander around and interact with things, it’s kind of crazy.”

Monday in the series: James Bairian.


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