Inside the (We know what you're thinking, but it's really going to happen this time!) virtual reality boom
By Dorothy Guerrero | Illustration by Jungyeon Roh
Inside the (We know what you're thinking, but it's really going to happen this time!) virtual reality boom
By Dorothy Guerrero | Illustration by Jungyeon Roh
“Flying over Mars! Take a trek through a prehistoric jungle. Tour a house that has not yet been built. It's called Virtual Reality and all it takes is a special helmet and a glove and you're off.”
That’s the teaser to a 1991 episode of Primetime
on ABC that introduced viewers to the idea of a bold new reality, accessible through dazzling space goggles that transport you to another world. “It’s a computer-generated world where you see and move and feel,” the announcer says.
The camera whirls around an animated couple locked in a romantic embrace. Then, as the show’s opening theme music swells, the big question: “Will real life ever be the same?”
In the segment, a British man named Jonathan Waldern, the inventor of one of the first mass-produced VR systems called Virtuality, leans toward the interviewer, eagerly raising his eyebrows. “The goal of virtual reality is simple,” he says. “It’s total submersion; complete detachment from reality.”
It was an exciting time in computer science. Advances in graphics over the previous decade had emboldened developers to make a leap for the holy grail of computer technology. Sadly, the hardware was far from ready and this moment was the peak of both the public and the media’s over-inflated expectations. In addition to making you queasy, the VR equipment of the early ’90s was clunky, heavy, prohibitively expensive, and prohibitively geeky. Imagine strapping an early model Dyson vacuum cleaner to your head and you’ll get an idea of what Waldern looked like while demonstrating his machine on Primetime. Worst of all, the small amount of content available was also lame—a harlequin-patterned universe of floating cubes and blank-faced humans to which, sadly, no one actually wanted to escape.
Four years after that episode of Primetime aired, Nintendo breathlessly beat its competitors to the global market by launching the Virtual Boy. After just one year on shelves, the headset was discontinued and is now infamous as one of the company’s few splashy failures. Industry analysts and gaming critics pointed to the bleak black and red graphics and an unfortunate side effect that caused eye strain. According to a Digital Spy article titled “Nintendo’s Disastrous Foray Into VR,” the console would pause the game every 15-30 minutes and courteously advise players to take a break.
The challenge of creating virtual worlds is immense, though the notion has been knocking around in some form for centuries. Stereoscopic photography, the technique of layering images to create the illusion of depth, was invented in 1838. From Smell-O-Vision and the Virtual Boy to IMAX and 3-D movies, producers, developers, filmmakers, and game designers have been looking for a way to envelop our senses—to make alternate worlds not just compelling, but totally convincing. The trouble is, inhabiting reality as we do, we are all snobby experts on how full-immersion reality should feel.
In 2015, the key players in the emerging industry believe VR has reached a pivotal moment. The smartphone wars of the past seven years have vastly improved just about every aspect of VR, from screen resolution to directional components and processing power. They’ve also made it miniature and much more affordable. The time is finally right for the technology to break big, far beyond the gaming industry. So … could it be? After all the hype, is VR about to go mainstream?
The Wild West
André Lorenceau, BBA ’13, is a busy guy. From his home base in Paris, he’s been working on business development for a VR software studio called Innerspace. Now he is in Austin for about 48 hours, just enough time to give me a demonstration on a newly released developer headset from Samsung and the most buzzed-about company in all of VR, Oculus. Unlike other devices, it isn’t tethered to a computer. Instead, it uses a Galaxy Note 4 smartphone. That means a phone you wear on your face. Innerspace was one of a handful of companies selected to develop content that would be preloaded onto the Samsung Gear VR for its launch. The VR headset is the most portable to date and Lorenceau has just spent three months in South Korea preparing for its release. He and other insiders called it “Project Moonlight.”
It’s the morning of January 7, and reports of the terrorist attack at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris are just starting to break. Clearly rattled by the news, but otherwise pumping with the upbeat energy of a young man about to cash in on his considerable wits, Lorenceau unloads his backpack in our conference room.
This 21st-century headset is still fairly clunky, much bigger than a snorkeling mask. Wearing it makes me feel as elegant and in-control as a dog with a recovery cone on its head—but who cares? The experience is incredible. When the scenery comes into view, it takes some nudging from Lorenceau for me to look up, down, and behind me. Suddenly, I’m hovering over an iceberg in the Arctic, then sitting uncomfortably close to a pride of lions, and soaring over landmarks I’ve seen from more conventional angles at national parks. I get that rollercoaster-dropping sensation in my stomach over and over again, as if I’m being hurled through a physical space at great speeds. The effect is thrilling, disorienting, and calming at the same time, like inhaling nitrous oxide at the dentist.
Strangely, after all that, the most captivating virtual world I experience is an empty movie theater with stadium seating. I sit in the middle of a row, watching the trailer for Interstellar. As Matthew McConaughey, BS ’93, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, says goodbye to our galaxy, the theater environment feels utterly authentic, even lonely. The adventure in the movie is nothing compared to inhabiting a room that doesn’t exist. As I look down I nearly jump out of my seat with delight. Hey, there’s my cup holder!
The effect is thrilling, disorienting, and calming at the same time, like inhaling nitrous oxide at the dentist.
In 2011, Palmer Luckey, an 18-year-old from Long Beach, California with a boyish face and (I’m just guessing) a stratospheric IQ, revolutionized the VR industry by building a headset prototype in his parents’ garage and founding his company, Oculus. In a Kickstarter campaign video, Luckey described himself as a VR enthusiast who set out to create the world’s best headset for gaming because there was nothing on the market that could give him the experience he really wanted—a way to plug himself into the matrix.
The campaign was started to fund the production of the Oculus Rift developer kit, DK1, the first head-mounted display to use immersive stereoscopic 3-D rendering to create a massive field of view. It also had “super-low latency head tracking,” or in layman’s terms: It didn’t make you sick.
People from all over the world contributed more than $2.4 million to Luckey’s campaign and, as a result, Oculus hired a team, rented office space, and got serious about getting the kit into the hands of as many developers as possible. In March 2014, Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion, a move that legitimized the technology and made entertainment executives sit up and start paying attention.
The Omni package from Virtuix.
From that moment on, it’s been a race among people like Lorenceau to make land grabs in an industry that most experts agree has unlimited potential. Many have compared it to the early days of the Internet, when it was clear the technology would change the world, but unclear exactly how. Oculus has partnered with other big companies like Samsung and Unity and has since released an updated version of its developer kit, the DK2. Other major gaming brands like Valve and Sony have announced plans to release their own headsets, and VR gaming accessories have been invented to involve the rest of your body. Virtuix is currently taking preorders for their Omni Package. For $699, you get a circular treadmill, a harness to keep you from falling off the treadmill, special shoes that “allow for extended gameplay and protect your feet during fast-paced battlefield action,” and a rack to hold your keyboard and mouse. The clunk factor doesn’t seem to bother avid gamers one bit.
Google has also thrown its enormous hat into the ring with Cardboard, a shockingly low-tech cardboard template that becomes a VR viewer when you drop in your smartphone of choice. You can either fold your own by printing out the instructions or order a pre-assembled version from manufacturers who are making hip-looking Cardboards out of aluminum, foam, and almost everything else.
As each new piece of hardware enters the market or pre-market, developers have another tool to help them push the technology in new directions. As I write this, professionals, hobbyists, and enthusiasts are tinkering away in that proverbial garage, developing the entertainment industry of the very near future.
Just a month after his trip to Austin, Lorenceau calls to catch me up. I ask how it’s been going at Innerspace. What’s new? Everything is new, he says. Since we last spoke, Lorenceau left Innerspace and started his own company, LiveLike. He already has five employees and a slick marketing deck for potential investors. He’s betting on an early premonition he had about VR, that it could transform the way we watch sports at home. He has developed an immersive experience that is a lot like watching a game from a luxury box inside a stadium or arena. Your friends can come too, provided they have a headset. He’s been traveling nonstop, pitching partnerships to major sports teams around the world. Next week alone, he’ll be in London, Qatar, San Francisco, and Maryland. “I don’t want to sound like I’m showing off,” he says, “but I realized there was an opportunity to do this faster and better than anyone else, and I took it.”
Lorenceau says that executives in pitch meetings have told him LiveLike is the most amazing thing they have ever seen and would be especially enticing for advertisers. Most importantly, he only has one other competitor in the space. “It is definitely the Wild West in that sense,” Lorenceau says. “There is a break-neck speed to the industry in general. But we are doing particularly well.”
When Nick DiCarlo, MBA ’07, Life Member, first started working on product strategy for Samsung in 2007, the company was still making flip phones. Now he is the vice president of immersive products and the man in charge of the tech giant’s VR strategy for the United States. From his office in Dallas, he says that for the past year, his team has been working on the big VR conundrum: Nobody will make exciting content unless a lot of people have goggles, and nobody will actually buy goggles unless there is a lot of exciting content to consume. Samsung has decided to address the content shortage by creating Milk VR, a streaming service that delivers short-form, mostly live-action VR content to subscribers.
“We’re trying to give everybody something new to see every day,” DiCarlo says. “The clips are all like 3-minute, 5-minute types of things. It’s enough to get you to try the goggles, but it’s not going to fill your whole evening with entertainment.”
DiCarlo and his team are focused on fostering the daily VR habit—making it just as much of a thing as checking your email or watching Netflix. “There’s a big hurdle to jump,” he says. “You’re in ski goggles, you’re sitting in your house, you’re totally lost in the environment … and we’re thinking, how can we make [that] as mainstream as possible?”
One way, he says, is to keep things simple. “Right now if you use virtual reality, you might use a keyboard, or a mouse, or a gamepad, or a joystick, or you might wear a really big glove. And that is totally great if you are really passionate about virtual reality, sight unseen. But it’s not really the easiest way to get people to adopt something that they haven’t proactively decided they’re in love with. So we’ve got to give them experiences that are accessible. Video is very accessible. It doesn’t matter if you’re old, young, male, or female, everybody watches video.”
But producing that video isn’t so simple. Special stereoscopic 3-D cameras must be used to capture live events and narrative films before they can be enjoyed virtually. Companies like 360Heros have started selling rigs that are essentially a crown of GoPro cameras held together by 3-D-printed plastic. A pair of cameras, spaced apart roughly the same distance as a set of human eyes, captures the action in every direction and the footage is laboriously stitched together in post-production to create the immersive effect. The first company to streamline or even eliminate that stitching process will no doubt become an industry leader.
In the Samsung Studio at the South by Southwest Interactive festival in March, DiCarlo introduces me to the company’s latest in mobile VR hardware, the Gear VR Innovator Edition. It’s targeted to content creators and developers, but anyone can buy it on Samsung’s website for $199.99. We walk right past a long line of badge-wearing techies who are salivating as they wait for a demo. The Milk VR room in the Samsung Studio is dark, with only the glow of blue LED lights and next-generation flat-screen televisions to light the way. After strapping on the shiny white headset and a matching pair of headphones, I’m sitting around a makeshift barbeque grill at the base of a snowy mountain with a few other die-hard, very tan snowboarding buddies (VR is old hat to me now; I can tell I’m one of them). We’re relaxing next to our boards and my new friends are fueling up with burgers and some prominently placed bottles of Mountain Dew. Suddenly a helicopter lands, the dudes wave me over to board it, and we fly to the top of the mountain. Now I can say I know what it feels like to snowboard down a black diamond course—minus the freezing wind in my face or any aerobic effort whatsoever.
The second Milk VR video is something I have seen before, only from a vastly more boring angle, the Saturday Night Live 40th-anniversary special. In this short clip, Jerry Seinfeld is doing a Q&A bit with the audience, which is made up almost entirely of very famous people. It was funny when I first watched it on my laptop, but now I’m perched on top of the television camera, right there in the studio between two sections of the audience. To my left, about four feet away, sit Larry David and Adam Sandler; to my right, John Goodman. Behind me the cue card guy is squatting out of view and I can see people running around backstage for costume changes. Seinfeld is doing his shtick, but I stay focused on the famous crowd and catch a sweet glance between Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas. When I watched Seinfeld’s routine the first time, I could only see the stage and famous faces the editors decided to cut to. Now I have a better seat than Steven Spielberg.
A scene from Milk VR; Nick DiCarlo in the Samsung Studio at SXSW; a viewer gets a demo of the Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition
Short video clips are one thing, but many believe that feature-length films could be VR’s next natural progression. What this will mean exactly for moviegoers remains to be seen, and there are more questions than answers. Will we wear goggles at the multiplex? Will there still be a multiplex? Can filmmakers tell a linear story when the person watching it is free to ignore the dilemma of the main character and go poke around the scenery instead? The response to that last question at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was a resounding: maybe so!
Several short films at the festival seemed to be pushing the notion that narrative storytelling is the next VR frontier. Reporting from Sundance for The Verge, Bryan Bishop wrote: “Earlier today Oculus announced Story Studio, its in-house production team dedicated to producing virtual reality movies … Despite how much we’ve all wanted to it to happen, nothing has stood up, raised its hands, and shouted ‘I’m the project that proves this crazy thing could actually work.’”
But Bishop had just watched and been made a believer by Lost, a computer-animated film about a robot that has a runtime of anywhere from five to 10 minutes, depending on the whims of the viewer. “That stand-up-and-shout moment?” Bishop said. “It’s arrived.”
Another VR standout at Sundance was Project Syria, a documentary-style film that drops the viewer into the country’s modern-day conflict. Around the same time, Variety reported that just about every major studio—20th Century Fox, DreamWorks Animation, NBCUniversal, and Lionsgate, among them—had begun creating its own original content.
Buzz Hays is the lead instructor for UT3D, UT-Austin’s comprehensive 3-D film production program, which was the first of its kind in the U.S. when it launched in 2013. His primary job at Sony was to evangelize 3-D, and he is the founding chairman of the International 3D Society. So he is a 3-D glasses guy, not a goggles guy. He is also a skeptic when it comes to Hollywood and VR and has a very basic question for the industry: Has the audience really asked for this? Hays says the trouble with so many people trying to transform the art of storytelling is that storytelling isn’t really broken. “There are a lot of great demos out there,” he says, “but the narrative form—going all the way back to people sitting around a campfire—is about hearing someone’s point of view, and VR takes that away. It basically makes the viewer the camera operator and that is a tough situation. In my experience, at the end of the day, people want to sit back, put their feet up, and be told a story. They don’t want to work too hard for it.”
"It is definitely the Wild West. There is a break-neck speed to the industry in general."
Making sense of the noisy industry chatter and the rapid succession of hardware and software releases is exhausting, and it still feels a lot like déjà vu. Virtual reality is a hyper and unpredictable universe where lots of intelligent people have headsets, but no one has a crystal ball.
But in a quieter corner of reality, the Forty Acres, an undergraduate Radio-Television-Film student named Esteben Zaldivar is working on a project that could have major implications for the future. Zaldivar has shaggy brown hair and a perpetual look of gee-whiz gratitude on his face. His voice is quiet and he has a tendency to end sentences by tapering off and shrugging his shoulders, a gesture that says: Well, that’s what I think anyway.
He doesn’t have the backing of major investors, a fancy marketing plan, or a website with a countdown clock to his project’s launch date. But he has an exciting vision for how we can use VR to enhance the world we’ve already got.
Zaldivar was looking to make the most out of his final semester at UT, so he ordered the Oculus DK2 right after it was released. “This is the time to be adventurous with your ideas—your early 20s,” he says. When he first held the device in his hands, Zaldivar struggled to figure out where to start. One night at the dinner table with his parents, his dad said, “Why don’t you do something prehistoric?” and it flipped a switch. “Sometimes the people who give you the best ideas,” Zaldivar says smiling, “are not the people you would expect.”
Zaldivar's Hominim creature design.
He began building Hominin, an interactive environment and educational game that puts students in the world of Australopithecus afarensis, an extinct human ancestor. In 1974, a scientist nicknamed a newly discovered fossil of the species “Lucy.” Zaldivar found two professors in UT’s anthropology department who agreed to consult on the game and help him make the hominin and the African Rift Valley in the Pliocene Epoch look and feel like the real thing. He spent hundreds of hours sculpting the main character with an animation program called Maya and dressing up her world with realistic day and night cycles, weather systems, and wildlife. According to his design brief, players will see the world as Lucy did while interacting with the ecosystem and traversing across great distances, from forests to grasslands. He gave me a preview of the game’s first level, which he recently showed off at the SXSW Gaming Expo. I’m standing next to a large tree in the middle of an untouched landscape. The wind blows through strange-looking flora and a butterfly crosses my path. The hominin stands alone in a field, waiting for something or someone to come along. The graphics are still rough around the edges, but the potential is clear. Using VR to meaningfully explore the places we read about in textbooks, to bring them to life, could change the way we learn.
One day soon, Zaldivar says, he’ll start his own company, too. He’ll always love gaming, but education will be his big play. He thinks VR could give us access to museums around the world, take us back in time to witness historical events, and give us vivid encounters with the natural world—all from the comfort of a classroom desk.
Imagine, he says, wandering around Venice during the Renaissance, stepping inside Leonardo da Vinci’s dusty workshop, and looking over his shoulder while he sketches his next great invention. “Maybe that could be something for the future?” Zaldivar shrugs his shoulders again. “If I can visualize something, I think I can make it happen.”
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