Awesome Rocketship's G8 VR installation.

VR’s Future: At Home and Abroad

on Wednesday, Aug. 24th

This piece needs to start with a confession.

Despite being completely enamored with virtual reality for the past three years I still don’t own a Head Mounted Display. Part of the reason is the cost: a top-of-the-line kit can run a few grand when all is said and done. That’s if you want to bet it all on one of the available HMDs. With two strong contenders in the market—Oculus’ Rift and HTC/Valve’s VIVE—it’s difficult to choose.

Over the next few months the choices are just going to get murkier: Sony has PlayStation VR, Google is spinning up their Daydream project, and who knows what 800-pound aluminum and chamfered edged unibody gorilla Apple might be forging in their secret laboratories. At least the Oculus/HTC battle will be a little clearer come this fall when the former’s motion controller solution is made available.

Yet what VR HMD to buy is pretty much the definition of a first world problem. Still: the relative shallowness of the consumer market at present didn’t stop 1.1 billion dollars being poured into the VR and Augmented Reality industry in the first two months of this year alone. (The largest chunk of that being put in the still in stealth-mode AR company Magic Leap.) At times it feels like no investor wants to be left behind on what has been foretold as the absolute future of media.

Which is why I was lucky when I got a chance to talk to Michael Yang of Comcast Ventures last week. Yang heads up that group’s efforts in the VR/AR space, and his dance partners are some of the best in the business. On the content side of things Comcast Ventures has backed Felix and Paul Studios and Baobab Studios, and they’ve made a bunch of strategic investments in social VR, live stream technology, and AR hardware. (more…)

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Visionary VR’s Mindshow: Virtual Reality’s Future Emerges In LA

on Friday, Aug. 5th

It has taken just a handful of demos to convince me of the potential of virtual reality.

The first was at E3 2013, when I had my first Oculus experience in the CCP booth. It was the demo that would become their game Valkyrie, which is pretty much the starter Pokemon of VR games. That experience opened up my eyes to the possibilities of the modern age of VR.

Weeks later came the second: as I stood in the Los Feliz living room of a developer and walked around a VR environment for the first time with my own legs. The third was my trip to Nonny de la Pena’s lab, where I saw how journalism could be revolutionized through recreations of powerful events. The fourth was in my own living room as I held a Google cardboard shell to my face while wearing Bluetooth headphones and found myself standing on a stage surrounded by U2.

The fifth great demo happened just this week, some 40-odd stories above the streets of downtown Los Angeles in the offices of Visionary VR. (more…)

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To Build The VR Education of Tomorrow One Scholar Turns To The Past

on Wednesday, Jul. 13th

There are plenty of folks in the education technology field who are excited about virtual reality as the next great educational tool. One team in England, however, is reaching into education’s past to bring a lost technology—the ars memoriae or Art of Memory—back.

Before the mass production of written text was a thing the art of memory was used by orators, actors and others to memorize and contextualize vast amounts of information. The masters of the form took this far past rote memorization and party tricks. One sophisticated technique involving the creation of personal

“memory palaces” from which facts and speeches could be summoned up at will.

The examples of this in antiquity revolve around Roman senators memorizing the features of the Forum, and then mentally imprinting the contents of their speeches on the virtual versions of the space. Actors would do the same with the theaters they worked.

Fans of the BBC series Sherlock may also be familiar with the concept, as the modern-day version of the great detective played by Benedict Cumberbatch has his own “mind palace.”

As someone who relates to information spatially the idea that one can develop this trait into a workable framework for learning is exciting. Which is exactly what Dr. Aaron Ralby, the CEO of a company called Linguisticator, is doing with the Macunx project.

Earlier this month he launched a Kickstarter to fund the Macunx VR project. The idea: to build a VR sandbox that could be used to create memory palaces that could, in turn, be used to teach multiple subjects. I spoke with Ralby at length about his plan, which has its roots in his background as a linguist and medieval scholar. He has since applied the techniques he researched about the art of memory to educational projects with young students, some with learning disabilities, and says that they’ve helped them tackle subjects that had been difficult for them before.

The core system will be a toolset that lets anyone build their own memory palace on top of a Unity base. The development phases beyond that aim to build modules for specific subjects (e.g. languages, anatomy, history) and an instructor mode that would allow teachers to develop their own lessons and upload them into a global platform. As we’ve seen from other frontiers in technology the really interesting stuff starts to happen once you add user generated content into the mix.

The project is well on its way, having cleared its financial goal by almost double, and is going to be developed with the help of Westminster University. This means that the “free build” mode is guaranteed. As the project enters its final week the team is hoping to hit a stretch goal of £10,000— they’re a little over the halfway mark for that—and get subject modules built for the program.

While I’m excited about the prospect of tackling a language—maybe Japanese, which I’ve always wanted to learn—with the aid of spatial learning techniques my own selfish interests lay in the existence of the platform as a tool for organization and creation. As a fan of mind mapping techniques and data visualization I view a VR memory palace as the ultimate tool for teasing insight out of information.

Just another reason to be excited about our VR/AR future.

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AMD’s Roy Taylor: “VR is very, very much driving innovation” (VRLA)

on Thursday, Jan. 28th

While the movers and shakers of Hollywood were in Park City, Utah absorbing the Sundance VR buzz this weekend thousands of virtual reality enthusiasts and the curious descended upon the Los Angeles Convention Center for the VRLA Expo.

The more or less quarterly expo is the biggest VR event that is open to the general public. Not just in LA, but anywhere.

Scores of demos from startups and established VR companies alike drew long lines filled with eager explorers. The Expo was also the platform for some major announcements. StarBreeze, whose headset powers Overkill’s The Walking Dead VR experience had parked an entire RV inside the convention hall, announced that they are bringing a VR arcade to LA later this year.

This is just the latest sign that the momentum for virtual reality is strong. Even Apple’s CEO Tim Cook in this week’s investor call said that he believes that VR is not a niche market.

Yesterday I was able to speak to Roy Taylor, Corporate Vice President Alliances at Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), and Adam Levin, Business Director of the VRLA Expo, about the state of VR in 2016.

“I think this will be the year that will decide whether VR is really gonna fulfill its promise, or will become a fad,” said Taylor. “It’s a make or break year I think.”

Taylor isn’t talking about sales of head mounted displays, however. While the tech press, and even parts of the mainstream media, are looking to throw cold water on VR’s heat by focusing on sales numbers, the fact remains that the vast majority of people have yet to have a single VR experience, let alone a decent one.

As a computing technology VR is still in its infancy, with the activity focused heavily on the  content creation side of the market. Both the enterprise and consumer markets have barely begun to develop. If computing technology is going to take off the enterprise is a definite factor. Which is something we are just beginning to see with projects like Audi’s VR showroom.

“The ability for businesses to use them, or that consumers are satisfied with the experience will decide whether they go forward,” said Taylor That’s why I think it’s make or break. Even thought the total volume of headsets, I don’t believe, will be as large as some would hope. I don’t think that matters. I think what matters is how good the experience is going to be when they get them.”

What will make the market this year, according to Taylor, is groundbreaking content that wouldn’t be possible in any other medium.

“We haven’t yet seen anything—I don’t think any of us—that’s so compelling that we just can’t be drawn away from it. I believe that this year we will see something like that.

“I’m aware of so many projects that are so close, There’s a very talented young director in Hollywood called Kevin Cornish and he showed at VRLA an experience that is based on what’s called gaze activated content.”

Taylor described the experience to me as play on the liar paradox: two characters are presented to you, and it’s up to you to determine which one you think is lying. Based on who you spend the most time looking at—that’s where the gaze activation comes into play—the story unfolds from there. A subtle twist on the idea of “choose your own adventure” and one that adds a valuable tool to the inventive storyteller’s kit.

“There’s  never been anything like it,” said Taylor. “I think we’re going to find some content this year like that… something really compelling where we say ‘Wow. VR can do something you just couldn’t before.”

As one of the leading chip makers—both CPUs and GPUs—in the computer industry AMD’s interest in VR is far from academic. The company is the headline sponsor of the Expo, and has taken an active hand in shaping the technology within the VR industry on both the creation and consumption side of the VR equation.

That even extends to 360 video, because while there aren’t any chips in the 360 rigs themselves, there’s still a need for massive processing power as part of the workflow.

“Once you’ve caught the image you then need to stitch together the import from each of the cameras That stitching requires powerful graphics processors as well. So we have an interest in the content creation industry which is why we’re working with all of the major movie studios very, very closely right now.”

VRLA’s Levin sees the potential as reaching out being the scope of the major studios.

“Moore’s law is on the side of VR,” said Levin. “You can for $349 buy a Ricoh Theta Cam and shoot spherical video. These are things that were out of reach of the general public months and years ago and are now very, very easy. I think that we’re on the verge of seeing the same sea change in terms of creators that we did when the availability of easy to use smart phone video really catalyzed the YouTube creation explosion.”

According to Taylor, we’ve only begun to see what AMD has up it’s sleeve for VR. The company is readying the second version of its LiquidVR technology, which helps resolve latency issues. The heart of Advance Micro Device’s business, however, is silicon.

“In terms of the hardware, the chips themselves, we already have some parts that are nearly finished which were designed with VR in mind from the get go. Some completely new products that are just for content creation.”

The history of the computing business has been a series of virtuous circles with hardware innovation sparking software advances which spiral back to the hardware. Each side pushing the other forward. So I asked Taylor if something similar was already underway with VR.

“VR is very, very much driving innovation,” said Taylor. “Very much.”

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A Few Notes On The Proto Awards

on Wednesday, Sep. 23rd

Last night’s second annual Proto Awards—which are given out to honor innovation in Virtual Reality—was quite the show.

If you want a full list of winners you can head to the site for The Proto Awards. What you’re about to read are just my subjective impression of the affair: from the churros on the tables to the comedy bits on stage that didn’t always land true.


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on Monday, Sep. 21st

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

Previously in the series: Cosmo Scharf, Adam Levin, Jessica Ward, John Root, and Jonnie Ross.

So for this last interview with the founders of The Virtual Reality Foundation we’re going to cheat. A little. We spoke with the five others at the last Virtual Reality Los Angeles Expo in August but our chat with the sixth Beatle, James Bairian, was done over the magic of email. Not even some kind of fancy VR email. Just the regular stuff.

We hope to get a chance to talk with Bairian in real-space this week at The Proto Awards on Tuesday night. Who knows, maybe we’ll see you there too.


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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.” (more…)

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John Root Headshot copy


on Thursday, Sep. 17th

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), and Jessica Ward.

Sometimes the start of something big can all be about being in the right place at the right time. In the case of the Virtual Reality Los Angeles Expo and it’s offspring that right place was Reddit, and the right time was early 2014.

The people who were there: Cosmo Scharf—the USC student who thought it was a good idea to start a VR meetup in LA and John Root. Root was the motion capture supervisor at Digital Domain, one of the biggest visual effects companies in the Southland. Root saw Scharf’s post.

“At the time I was sort of leading Digital Domain’s effort to get into VR,” said Root when we met at the recent VRLA Expo, “and thought that this would be a great way to make a splash in that world.”

A splash it certainly made.


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Adam Levin Headshot


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.


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The Virtual Road To The Proto Awards Part I: An Interview With Cosmo Scharf

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. (more…)

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To Build The VR Education of Tomorrow One Scholar Turns To The Past

There are plenty of folks in the education technology field who are excited about virtual reality as the next great educational tool.



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