2016 is going to be remembered for a lot of things, too many, really. One thing it doesn’t seem to be on track for being remembered for is as “the year virtual reality broke through to the mainstream.”
While the first wave of major consumer head mounted displays have gone on sale from industry pioneers Oculus and HTC/Vive the market is still the playground of early adopters and developers. Some corners of the tech and business press have been eager to bury VR but as a conversation I had with AMD’s Corporate Vice President of alliances, Roy Taylor, reminded me the industry is still in its infancy.
As Taylor likes to point out, it took more than a decade and a half to go from the first motion picture cameras to the arrival of the Nickelodeon ushered in the movies as a mass medium. We’re “about five years in, in relative terms,” Taylor asserts. (more…)
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One of the more interesting things about virtual reality is that it is going to be the first consumer medium whose distribution platform is native to the internet.
Oh sure, websites are native to the internet, but the web pages of which they consist are riffs on print pages with embedded elements. We saw plenty of those during the CD-ROM era of multimedia efforts. While every other form of media—from music to video games to movies—have developed distribution ecosystems to either supplement or replace their traditional channels VR is starting online by default. Even “out-of-home” VR attractions are powered by networked solutions.
A lot of the lessons of what does and doesn’t work in internet distribution have already been learned. That’s true if we’re talking about streaming services like Spotify and Netflix or App Stores like Apple’s. The long term smart money is on whoever can establish strong content distribution platforms for VR.
There will be those who will try and own the ecosystem from top to tail the way Apple does with the iPhone. It’s been a lucrative path for them to say the least, but it’s not the only one. Some of the current tension in the high end at-home Head Mounted Display market comes from the battle between Oculus and HTC/VALVE to have the superior store for game content. HTC/VALVE entered the battle with a leg up: they had Steam, which is pretty much the personal computer video game marketplace. Oculus has Facebook’s cash reserves and reach into a billion-plus internet users lives in their back pocket.
Who controls the hearts and minds of early adopters of high end HMDs is important, but it is far from the only battleground. Games and other deeply interactive experiences will have enough variables within their technical requirements that the distribution platforms for them will likely see a tighter integration with the hardware makers. Or to put it in plain terms: platform exclusive games won’t be going anywhere for a few years, if ever. Sorry, fellow gamers.
Straight up 360 video experiences, on the other hand—whether they are music videos, feature length films, or live streams of unfolding events—will benefit from some cross-device standards.
Which brings me around to Jaunt. (more…)
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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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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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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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This weekend the New York Times shipped a special surprise out to its subscribers: a little piece of the future. Specially a Google Cardboard viewer, which lets people turn their (sufficiently powered) smartphone into a VR viewing device.
If you’re one of the people who got a viewer this weekend—or perhaps, like me, you bought one of the View-Master branded plastic versions for kicks—you might be wondering just what you can do with it.
That’s where this little overview comes in.
The NY Times VR app features a few smartly produced 360 video documentaries, and it’s that format of virtual reality content which is starting to really take off. It turns out that being able to “teleport” into a far off location can be immensely compelling, and filmmakers have begun to develop enough of the grammar of the form to tell stories.
Below you’ll find reviews of some of the apps that are available for Cardboard viewers on Apple’s iPhone platform. Almost all of the ones discussed below can be found in the Google Play store as well—and the Android platform actually has a lot more versatility when it comes to Cardboard apps. (Google is the one who is pushing this form, after all.)
All of the following apps are free, and I recommend using with nothing short of an iPhone 6.
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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 nominees are out for the second annual Proto Awards, which “honor the efforts of trailblazers in immersive media.”
Hosting this year’s ceremony in Hollywood is comedian Jonah Ray.
Jonah is the co-host of The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail on Comedy Central and of The Nerdist Podcast with nerd impresario Chris Hardwick. I spoke with Jonah Ray over the phone yesterday, about the hosting gig, VR, and what surprises have come from hosting a show in the back of a comic book store.
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(Bonus fun: the concept art that is running with this article? It’s by Syd Mead, the guy who designed Blade Runner.)
As we’ve been watching the Virtual Reality market spin up over the past few years the spotlight has almost entirely been on hardware. When you consider that the first heavy-duty consumer hardware isn’t on store shelves yet this makes a lot of sense.
Back in January we hit the point in the hype cycle where the content going into all these head mounted displays became important. In fact, as CES opened it was feeling downright sparse. Luckily the dam broke at Sundance a few weeks later as Oculus announced they had started their own story studio. Since then we’ve had even more announcements from all kinds of players.
What’s clear is that the VR market is opening up all kinds of doors, bringing in talent not just from the usual suspects—game studios and media conglomerates—but from indie creators and even more unexpected corners.
Take an announcement that might have slipped by you today, amidst all the Apple Music talk and Epic Games unleashing a VR tech demo: a veteran themed entertainment company—the people who designed Jurassic Park: the Ride and Terminator 2 3D—have plans to leap into VR with both feet.
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Two years ago the first Virtual Reality Los Angeles meetup began as a modest affair, at least by Hollywood standards. A volunteer group of virtual reality enthusiasts assembled via Reddit by USC student Cosmo Scharf took over the motion capture stage of Digital Domain. They gave a hundred curious souls a glimpse into the exponentially accelerating world of virtual reality.
Flash forward to today, when the Meetup group has long sense evolved into The Virtual Reality Foundation and are announcing their next VRLA Expo, this time at the Los Angeles Convention Center and with a target capacity of 3000 people.
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