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Festivals Conferences MeetUps

VR Evangelism from the floor of a Russian Tech Conference

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At this moment of uncertainty, with tensions rising and accusations flying and an evil orange stooge puppet running for president, the people of Russia rather nobly invited VR Playhouse to come visit their country. They invited us to come talk about virtual reality at a tech conference but we like to think maybe also to broker a new kind of understanding between our country and theirs.

So we sent Dylan. He’s harmless and, if you squint, he could maybe look a little Russian. And Dylan, as he is want to do, spent a day chronicling his adventures:

9am: It’s morning in Moscow and I’m rolling out of the Marriott Novy Arbat with my fellow non-Russian invitees, on our way to the Open Innovations Forum. We’re an eclectic mix of “entrepreneurs” and “experts,” ferried to Russia to speak on the various stages and panels that the forum offers over the course of three days. It’s a forum aimed mainly at the country’s own growing number of tech investors. I can’t tell if it’s the jet lag but I sorta feel like chum.

10am: We arrive at the Skolkovo Technology Centre, one of several large and impressive-looking buildings dotting an otherwise barren landscape on the outskirts of Moscow. It is very grey and very cold out and all the buildings are equally grey and cold-looking and it all combines to create a vaguely dystopian vibe. The place is pretty cool though. It’s brand-new, like as in they had to rush to finish it in time for this forum, and it will eventually house hundreds of tech start-ups, each of which is subsidized by the government. There’s tons of office and lab space ringing a central area that resembles a really nice mall. I don’t know whether to be impressed or terrified.

10:30am: I’m looking for something distinctly Russian about this event; some bit of bleak poetry ripped from the pages of Tolstoy. The best I can find is a robot rolling around that kinda reminds me of the one from Rocky IV (and if you don’t believe that I was actively looking for Rocky IV parallels the entire time I was in Moscow, then you don’t know me very well). And also, they play this weird, calypso cover of “Gangster’s Paradise” like, 20 times over the course of the day that inspires a madness in me that is positively Dostoevskian.

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11am: Though it seems Russia still lags behind in pop music and pop culture-inspired robotics, in most aspects, cultural globalization is in full view here. It’s all pretty familiar once the day gets rolling. Everybody sits in beanbag chairs, there’s talks on triathlons as event marketing spaces, the emerging markets in sleep science, and seasteading. In fact, the seasteading talk deserves is own entry…

12:30pm: The guy giving the talk on seasteading comes from the Seasteading Institute, which counts Peter Thiel as one of its founders. This inspires a decidedly awkward moment in the morning shuttle when this info comes out and the guy has to do what is by now probably a pretty well-rehearsed tiptoe around the subject of Thiel’s good buddy Donald Trump. His talk is like an elaborate sales pitch that is as much about the religion of start-ups as it is about seasteading itself. He talks about start-up countries and nano-nations and declares that “start-ups change the world.” Nevertheless, the libertarian vibe of the seasteading movement is maybe a little foreign to this Russian audience.

2pm: I make friends! Shout out to Olga and Vlad, who talk about VR with the same wild-eyed enthusiasm as we do. Vlad is trying to get an immersive musical about the life of Rasputin made on Broadway and so he made a VR teaser for it which is seriously epic and would definitely get me thinking if I were a Broadway producer. Olga and I babble in a familiar way about the infinite applications for VR/AR until we get to cybersecurity at which point we both simultaneously agree that perhaps that isn’t a subject we should dwell on in the here and now.

3pm: Shout-out also to Sila Sveta, a company that delivers the day’s strongest pang of competitive jealousy. These guys look to be applying VR in really cool ways, particularly when it comes to live events. They, along with Olga and Vlad, offer pretty good evidence that Russia is in the VR game. They’re certainly selling it here. On my way to the airport going home, I see one of those building-length video billboards playing a commercial for a Galaxy Note 7 (em, guys, might want to check the news about that) and Gear VR combo, an ad that is repeated before every movie I watch on my Aeroflot Russian airline flight back.

4:45pm: I have my panel. I am one of two non-Russian speakers on a panel on seven. I can understand everything through a headset feeding me a simultaneous translation, but not many of the Russians have such a headset. Meaning, unless they speak English, they have no idea what I’m saying. So, I can’t really say how effective I was. I can say that the conversation focused on the economics of VR and every proud capitalist’s favorite VR question du jour: how in the name of Yakov Smirnoff are we going to make money off it?

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7pm: The day is done and I ride the shuttle back through impenetrable traffic in the Moscow night. The woman sitting next to me is imploring her friend to come with her to Hong Kong, and the barren landscape outside is now pitch black. Every so often we roll by a big towering bloc of a mall with the football field-sized video screen lighting it all up, playing ads for virtual reality machines. They look pretty cool. Terrifyingly impressive. Impressively terrifying.

VR Playhouse is going to SXSW!

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Here’s a piece of news that we’re very excited to share:

“The Surrogate,” a narrative, virtual reality experience VR Playhouse co-produced
with Peter Flaherty and Logan Brown, is a finalist in the VR/AR category at SXSW’s Interactive Innovation Awards.

Melding 360-video with a computer-generated explorable environment, The Surrogate immerses viewers in the consciousness of a female protagonist whose point of view they control as they explore the photorealistic passageways snaking behind the walls of a modern house. The viewer can see into the rooms of the house through a series of portals in which live action, hemispherical videos offer an immersive vantage point. The viewer is able to choose how they experience the narrative by moving through the passageways autonomously, deciding how they follow the action, and which rooms they look into at any
given time.

As the story begins, we learn that our protagonist suffers from an anxiety disorder caused by a proliferation of information and visual stimuli present in the story’s near-future setting. After struggling with the disorder and experimenting with various treatments, she ultimately decides to hire a “surrogate” to assume her physical presence, allowing her to retreat into the safe confines of the constructed passageways.

Reflecting some of our own most prevalent cultural fears and afflictions in the digital age, The Surrogate tells an important story in new and exciting ways and we’re thrilled to be sharing it with SXSW community!

VR Playhouse is at Sundance – Days 6 & 7: New Frontiers

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Our last two days at Sundance were probably my favorite, and not just because we were all kinda exhausted and spent more time than usual lounging around in sweatpants in front of our condo’s fireplace, which is, let’s face it, why anyone is drawn to a wintery vacation environ like the one Park City offers in the first place. Also though, I went through my two favorite VR/AR experiences of the festival on Wednesday. The first was from ILMxLAB and used 3D projections and motion tracking to create an immersive Star Wars Holo Cinema scene for its audience to enter into. The second was called Real Virtuality. You play this with a friend, each of you wearing a whole litany of sensors to track your actual movement as you work together to complete tasks and advance through a virtual world composed of familiar, genre settings like a deserted spaceship or an underground tunnel crawling with spiders.

They were both immensely fun and awe-inspiring for their own reasons but one trait they shared and one that was reflective of a lot of the VR/AR we saw at Sundance was that neither was trying to recreate reality for us. They weren’t interested in fooling us into thinking they’re anything other than what they were. The Holo Cinema projected its images on to physical walls, which means we never forgot where we were physically, though we did feel that physical space transformed. Real Virtuality had the same pleasant, mediated sense of dissonance, existing inside an animated world but with an emphasis on actual, physical action that consistently reminded you of your actual physical presence, where you stood, and how your physical body related to your virtual one. It was a good reminder that as virtual reality evolves, the realities it presents are going to look and feel less and less like our own.

And then on Thursday, we went skiing. #nogogglesneeded

VR Playhouse is at Sundance – Days 4 & 5: Party On!

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Monday and Tuesday were sorta open-ended days for us. We knew there was going to be a lot to do but we didn’t quite know when we would do them or how we would do them or even if we could fit it all in before we dropped dead from exhaustion and malnutrition (an outcome still very much in play). So, in the interest of my own sanity and longterm health, we’ll fire off some quick highlights from days 4 & 5:

In The Eyes of the Animal: This is a VR experience from the fantastically named Marshmallow Laser Feast offering a kind of impressionistic take on life from the perspective of an animal. It’s a great example of the kind of reality that the VR industry is increasingly trafficking in, one that doesn’t adhere to any kind of naturalism but rather tries to capture the inner life of its subject. The title becomesstatic1.squarespace almost ironic, in that it’s not really the eyes that we’re inside but the brain. And so the world around us isn’t seen with any kind of photorealistic clarity but instead appears through streaks of light and arrays of pixels and shadowy renderings. And all of this is experienced while wearing a massive helmet with green moss and vegetation sprouting out from one end, as if your head were a giant egg and all of nature was exploding out from it.

Dan Deacon: We sorta stumbled into this DJ’s set on Monday night while looking for a warm place to dance. And boy did we. The guy started off by playing the entirety of “Under The Sea” from The Little Mermaid, which is an awfully good way to endear yourself to VR Playhouse. He then ripped through some amazing numbers while simultaneously playing the role of camp counselor, setting up various little games that encouraged/forced you to dance and commune with your fellow Sundance attendees. In terms of sheer exuberance and joy, the Dan Deacon experience takes the cake.

The Treachery of Sanctuary: This was the flashiest of the VR experiences at Sundance, created by virtual reality Digital Revolution Installation At The Barbican Centrecelebrity Chris Milk and situated in its own, giant tent. True to his reputation, the experience was aesthetically stunning; a triptych of giant white panels fronted by a shallow pool of water. Standing in front of the first panel, you watch your own silhouette dissolve into an animated flock of birds. In the second panel, the birds return, attacking your shadow and ripping it apart into nothingness before you. Finally, in the third panel, you are fully transformed into a bird, encouraged to flap your wings and fly away.

Mr Pig: Hey, we saw a movie! With all the virtual reality at Sundance, one could be forgiven for forgetting that there are actual films here. I think we kinda did. But we pulled it together to go see the premiere of this lovely, quiet little film directed by Diego Luna about a father and daughter (Danny Glover and Maya Rudolph) on a road trip through Mexico to deliver the father’s prized hog to a buyer. Granted, Luna’s five-minute monologue about artificial insemination practices at hog farms during the talkback was maybe a little unnecessary but the film left its mark in at least this weary, psychically-fragile blogger.

The No-Name Saloon: This is a bar on Main Street in Park City. It’s giant and loud and crowded and it has a lot of random crap on the walls. It also become our de facto late night HQ over the last couple of nights. There, we drank and offered up demos of our content and drank and schmoozed and drank some more. Like I said, death by exhaustion and malnutrition is still very much in play.

VR Playhouse is at Sundance – Days 2 & 3: Demo Derby!

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Days 2 and 3 were all about the demo. We planned to go big at the VR Fest event on Sunday, bringing with us an HTC Vive, complete with some new sample content we banged out in a week; an Oculus showing “The Surrogate,” a narrative piece we helped develop that combines CG with 360 video; and, of course, a Gear stocked with a bunch of our work from the last year and a half. Now that means two computers, two monitors, 3 headsets, a tracking system, cables galore, our big flashy sign and so on and so forth. And we took all this on a plane, which automatically means something or somethings is bound to be screwed up when you arrive at your final destination.

So Saturday became a day of troubleshooting. We went to the friendly neighborhood Best Buy twice. Various members of the VR Playhouse team banged their heads against various walls throughout the day. Tequila eventually made an appearance. It was all worth it though, because we had an amazing Sunday. It was a long Sunday, to be sure; roughly 13 or so hours of demonstrating our experiences to the frenzied hordes at Sundance, but we met great folk, hung out with great friends, schmoozed our little butts off and converted a lot of people to the church of VR.

VR Playhouse is at Sundance – Day 1: We saw a moose!

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We’re here! At Sundance! We’ve got content to show and content to see, and merriment will ensure.

So we’ll be posting here everyday with some initial impressions on what we’re seeing (some VR but, mainly, celebrities!!) and on what we’re doing (demoing! schmoozing!! skiing!!!)

So far, we landed last night at 9:30pm, were at our condo by 11:30 and arrived at the New Frontiers Premiere Party at midnight which, if nothing else, shows our steadfast commitment to a gathering. And then when we were being dropped off afterwards, we saw two moose, a baby and a mama, like 50 feet away from us. This was absolutely the thrill of the evening, might even be the thrill of the week. Those animals are huge! I would not, for any amount of money, get in between that mother and that baby. Super majestic, a good omen and a good reminder now that we have arrived at Sundance that reality, very often, is way cooler than anything we can come up with in VR…which is not to say we won’t try, because Moose VR is definitely happening.

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The moose in question

VRLA #3 | A Breakdown of VR’s Biggest Meet-Up To Date

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The following is a live blog from VRLA#3, the third virtual reality meetup in LA. It was by far the most ambitious meetup to date (basically, a mini conference).  The original postings are on the Oculus subreddit. I’ve cleaned the posts up a bit.

Initial impressions from VRLA. Tons of people from what appears to be all walks of life, converging in the deep valley of Los Angeles. Many booths set up with people showing off their games, their inventions, and companies. We have an extensive roster of presentations going from 2:30 to 8 PM. Should be very interesting, and hopefully I’ll get a seat. This thing is mobbed. They have been providing free water though, which I think is pretty decent of them, and they seem to have plenty in stock. Like I said, more to come as the day goes on.

1st presentation: Jaunt talks “The Mission”, their 10 minute short film

Notes:

  • more theater than cinema
  • long shots, not a lot of cuts
  • not a ton of post, what they shoot is what you’re going to see
  • 2 day shoot
  • used steadicam and tripods
  • they actually dropped the camera from a parachute for opening shot (very cool)
  • actors are playing to other actors, not a crew or audience
  • used 2 360 cameras in most scenes

2nd presentation – Unity 5 VR

Notes:

  • more designers than gamers in the audience
  • long intro explaining unity, let’s get to the meat of this!
  • unite 2014 is a conference for unity, apparently that’s where we have to go to get actual information
  • He’s showing how to use unity 5. Think I’m going to check out the booths. Apologies for the snark, it’s very hot in here.

3rd presentation- 3D audio with VR SFX

Notes:

  • sound is crucial in VR
  • what makes 3D audio (or “audio presence”) — Distance and direction
  • who is using 3D audio? Only AAA game development and then only sometimes
  • are surround sound and 3D synonymous? No, more clarity in terms of distance and direction
  • headphones are better than a surround sound speaker system, bc speakers introduce distance conflicts – the speaker is far from your ear
  • most microphones don’t capture spatial cues (place, direction)
  • audio should sound like it’s in the same space as you (e.g. Whispering behind you)
  • vr experiences should use headphones
  • spatial plugins can recreate directional audio when it’s been lost during recording. — GenAudio (guest speaker) now introduces AstoundSound, their spatial audio plugins

OR you can use:

  • Binaural recording, or omnibinaural microphones: apparently it is good for recording fast moving sounds – you copy the way your body heard a sound, it has two ears. And you get “spectral color”
  • When to use one or the other? If you like analog (like a sound designer) you’ll go with the mic. If you’re a programmer, you want plugins.
  • The mic is good for fast moving audio. Low processing For optimum CPU performance.
  • Plugins are way cheaper. Sound sources are vertical mobile which the mics haven’t mastered.

Good presentation.

4th presentation is an Unreal demo.

This would be hard to live blog. Also, phone is dying.

5th presentation: Freedom360

The owner showed the various freedom 360 rigs and his impressive 360 videos. His rig and products are well designed. We bought some gear.

6th presentation: DoDoCase

These little cardboard mobile VR viewers were a huge hit today. For $25, you can have an awesome VR experience using your smartphone. They sold out of all their cases within an hour. I’m going to get one when I get home. What a great way to share VR with people without then having to make a huge investment? Most people were gone by this talk. Chris Milk was hanging out and talking with people.

Final thoughts

It was a great day. I talked with a lot of very enthusiastic people. I can’t say that I came out of the meetup with a slew of new information regarding the Rift or VR, but I did get a cool picture of the VR community around Los Angeles. It was way more diverse than expected – All ethnicities and genders, young, old, a great mix. The DoDoCase being so easy and fun to use was a surprise. I came out with a new respect for 3D audio and how powerful it can be when used well inside the rift + headphones. The majority of the rift development and attention is still in gaming. Video is a very small community. But after today we can band together more easily to get over some of these initial workflow issues (shooting, stitching) and hopefully get some cool content out soon.