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Five Things I Took Away From VRLA

on Monday, Aug. 8th

This past weekend I spent some quality time at VRLA—which all spelled out is Virtual Reality Los Angeles—the largest expo of its kind, boasting of 6000 attendees. Lines were long for the summer edition on Saturday—which is when the public had access to the show floor—as enthusiasts and the curious came to check out the latest in VR experiences.

It’s funny, now that VR headsets are available commercially you might think that the demand for VRLA tickets would wane. However, it’s still a lot cheaper to buy a day pass and spend some time standing in line to get a taste of the future than it is to invest in a computer capable of running VR software and the head mounted display that makes it all possible.

Here are five things I walked away from VRLA knowing.

1) Vive is beating Oculus, for now.

A lot can change in a year. The beginning of the virtual reality renaissance was synonymous with Oculus. After all, Palmer Luckey and company relaunched interest in VR thanks to the phenomenal success of the nascent company’s Kickstarter. Since then they’ve gotten gobbled up by a tech giant—Facebook—and found themselves with some surprisingly stiff friendly competition from not only Sony but the software company Valve, which teamed up with hardware maker HTC to unleash the Vive headset.

The Vive was everywhere at VRLA.

Maybe there’s a deal under the hood—Oculus has never had the kind of presence at VRLA that it has at, say, E3. (You should also see #5.) What was interesting, however, was that so many of the demo units being used by independent developers were Vive units. A lot of that has to do with the fact that Vive is supporting room-scale VR at the moment and Oculus won’t catch up to that until the Fall.

Still, this has to be a great feeling for the otherwise beleaguered hardware maker HTC. They’ve managed to become the cool kids on the VR campus. At least until Apple comes down from on high, Sony delivers some serious software on PlayStation VR, or Microsoft makes a choice as to what the next Xbox will support in terms of headsets.

2) Storytelling is finding its feet, but VR acting needs an upgrade.

I caught a handful of 360 videos while I was wandering around. Some were full CGI—like the gorgeous animated music video Pearl from Google Spotlight Stories. Others were commercial enterprises promoting TV shows, and still others were what’s known as industrials. Sadly, industrials are not 360 videos of 90s industrial bands. They’re corporate training videos and the like. There’s going to be a fair amount of money to be made in the VR training video and program business.

Now industrials have never been known for their acting. (I can say this because I once acted in an industrial and I hope to all that is holy that every copy of it has been wiped from existence. You try speaking corporate tech-speak when you have zero frame of reference for what’s being said and try to make it sound convincing.) The mixture of industrial-grade acting and VR, however, is an unholy abomination. Bad enough that the people who make this stuff know it’s bad.

I’m enough of an optimist—weird, I know—to see this as an opportunity, however. The refrain that I hear from just about everyone is that VR acting is theatre acting, not film acting… and that truism is slowly becoming convention wisdom which is in turn slowly becoming a point of departure for creative endeavors.

Now we just have to open the VR moviemaker’s eyes to the world of immersive theatre—something that more of the tech press has gotten onto this year—and we might be on to something.

3) Mindshow is really rad.

I wrote a whole article about Visionary VR’s freshly announced storytelling app Mindshow. Just go read that.

4) The devil is in the details.

While messing around with a demo made for General Electric by the VR division of Hollywood post-production heavyweight Deluxe I was struck by how much fun it was to jam two glowing spheres together.

I know that sounds weird, but while I have almost zero interest in an explanation of how materials science can make for a more efficient jet engine and yet I could have played in that demo all day. The little details make for the most compelling sense of presence. Developers don’t even—at this point—have to nail all of the details. Just getting a few right invites the imagination to jump in and do the heavy lifting. Which just might be the real secret to presence when all is said and done.

5) The rad t-shirt at the top of this post.

Hey, I don’t even own a dedicated VR headset yet—because I’m waiting to see who comes out on top this Christmas in terms of install base—and I’m not usually a fan of pirate themed merchandise but that t-shirt just called to me.

And for the record: I bought that t-shirt, no freeloading here, thank you very much.

 

(Bonus thing I took away: the word “rad,” apparently.)

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