VRLA Summer Expo 2017 recap

Los Angeles has quickly become a hot scene for virtual reality. We have a new IMAX virtual reality theater, the Upload LA virtual reality training and networking space, and the VRLA Expo. The Expo took place this past weekend and I was fortunate enough to attend on Saturday, making it my second time at the event. By comparing the 2016 gathering to the 2017 gathering it’s clear that the Los Angeles VR scene is getting hotter still. According to co-founder of VRLA, Cosmo Sharf, there were “over 170 exhibitors this year, filling out the single largest hall of the L.A. Convention Center.” For reference, the first meeting in 2014 had 150 overall attendees.

The Keynote

The Expo has established certain patterns of behavior. They’ve marked Friday as the day for VR professionals and Saturday as the day for VR enthusiasts and consumers. Saturday begins with a talk by Cosmo Sharf, followed by a couple of industry-targeted sales pitches, and then by a comedian giving the keynote speech. My review of opening talks last year was that they were weird and uninformative. Now with another round to ponder I think I see a pattern: the Expo struggles with its identity. Cosmo speaks to the whole audience, the sales pitches are aimed at the industry, and the comedian is to lure a crowd. You’ve got consumers sitting through material that isn’t aimed at them. If the pro speakers were replaced with people selling consumer goods, like VR games for example, then you’ve got the pros sitting through material that isn’t aimed at them either. The VRLA opening speakers are selected to appeal to everyone and I don’t think they succeed all that well.

I think Cosmo gave a much more poignant talk this year than last. He brought up the idea of people wanting to flee into VR and never return and believes it to be the concern of many who are being made afraid of current events and the modern world. “If you stare out this fear window long enough you start to understand the world view that inspires questions about VR addiction. You start to sympathize with this vague fantasy people have of escaping into some imaginative VR utopia.” He used that as a springboard to talk about the nature of reality and our ability to shape it rather than just accept it for what it is. “Beyond the empathy machine, what if mixed reality is here to catalyze a massive shift in our world view; to help us remember the true power of our own consciousness and its co-created influence on reality? What if we re-frame VR and AR not just as new ways to have fun but as drivers of spiritual expansion and inspiration for improving life outside the headset?” When VRLA releases the talks to their YouTube channel, I think his is worth a listen.

Justin Roiland at VRLA 2017

The opening talk was followed by two speakers from Women in XR. They’re an organization working to bring more women into the hardware, software, creative, and business folds of VR. Then Hewlett-Packard discussed their new graphics cards and gave stage time to a few creators who’ve used them. The founders of Upload LA also spoke a few quick words about their new Marina Del Rey facility and the VR scene in Los Angeles. The keynote speaker this year was Justin Roiland. He’s best known for his work as co-creator, co-writer, executive producer, and voice talent for the show Rick & Morty. He’s got an off-the-wall sense of humor that he exhibited with a (purposely) really bad PowerPoint presentation utilizing dad jokes and bad cut-and-paste graphics. At the conclusion of the keynote speech they allowed entrance into the Exhibition Hall.

The Exhibition Hall

Put simply, the Exhibition Hall is a wonderland. It’s a darkened cavern with lasers and lights beaming out from its center, video game sounds booming from over-sized speakers, and happy glows on all the faces. As I stepped across its threshold there was such a wave of giddiness that it left me momentarily stupefied about what I’d like to see first. My plan was to walk to the back and criss-cross my way to the front.

Those laser lights

On the way to the back I passed by a metal van that looked like a rugged food truck, only instead of putting bowls of noodles over people’s heads they were putting VR goggles on them. It was the Exit VR van. I’ll write more about them later this week because they were kind enough to really chat with me. The one sentence version is they’re a van with a Vive inside and they let people play Steam games for free (and they’re rad people!).

The Exit VR van side by side with one of their pod installations
The Exhibitor Hall map for VRLA 2017

As I wandered to the back I was really struck with how much new stuff there was. I mean, very few booths were duplicates of what I saw last year. Categorically there were people selling and/or displaying headsets, face masks, editing and creation software and services, 360 camera gear, 360 videography and photography services, motion capture rigs and software, business to business software and services, arcade-styled haptic seating, corrective lenses to wear under the goggles, and more. Alongside all of that, the major headset manufacturers all had booths allowing people to try their hardware; if all you wanted was to spend time in VR there were plenty of chances here.

Wonderland isn’t found by poking your head into 10 x 10 booths cloaked in shadows and dark curtains. There’s a lot of good stuff to be found in those, for sure, but the stuff that makes you pull your camera out of your pocket is visible from across the hall. Here’s the stuff that got me snapping pics.

The Photos

People standing around and wearing headsets isn’t sexy. What is sexy is people sitting around and wearing headsets while in life-sized haptic rigs. Even sexier: omni-directional treadmills. VRLA had them all. Rank17 was showcasing the Odyssey VR kiosk. It looked like the cockpit of a spaceship or maybe an escape pod. It lifted and bumped its riders, who were wearing VR headsets.  3D Live had one of their “3D LED” screens there with a couple of reactive dune buggies in front of it. The screen allows for 3D viewing of its content without the need for any eyewear. The catch is that you need to be looking at it from the correct perspective. The dune buggies banked and jolted its riders, who were wearing VR headsets. Infinadeck had one of their VR treadmills on display. These things are crazy cool. It’s a treadmill that allows you to walk in any direction. It has a body tether to keep you centered on the treadmill, and likely to keep you from falling over as you adjust to walking on it.

The Odyssey VR kiosk for arcades – this thing raises, tilts, and bumps
3D Live full scale arcade VR – the cars react to turns and bumps while its riders wear VR goggles; people behind the cars get a 3D sensation from the oversized screens
The Infinadeck omni-directional treadmill – she can walk in any direction!

Being an owner of Gear VR, any time I see someone doing something with their headset that I can’t do with mine my attention is grabbed. The booth with people wielding swords while wearing Gear got me. The headsets and swords were fitted with LEDs that allowed the PhaseSpace camera to track their motion. They’re not targeting consumers, but rather motion capture and pre-viz markets and stuff like that. Nevertheless I liked what I saw (and I had a bit of jealousy).

Phasespace motion capture – seen here are two players with Gear VR and foam swords, their motion being tracked by LEDs and sensors

You don’t follow virtual reality without also following augmented reality. And when you follow A/R you most certainly hear of Microsoft’s Hololens headset. It’s been on my radar for quite some time. VRLA 2017 was the first time I got to see it in person. Alas, I didn’t commit to waiting in line for it and I haven’t stopped lamenting that fact since. They had a brightly lit display filled with crude geometric shapes that created a forest glade. Users donned the headsets and searched around for virtual Easter eggs.

Microsoft Hololens augmented reality Easter egg hunt

Very likely the coolest thing – the one that I didn’t know existed – was what Ultrahaptics had on display. They were showcasing their Touch Development Kit. It’s a speaker that emits ultrasonic sound directly up, for between 18″ and 24″. The ultrasonic soundwaves provide haptic feedback to your hands while your hands are in mid-air. This was such an astonishing claim that I had to try… and it works! I felt the sensation of placing my hand through a force field, of popping bubbles, and of turning a knob all without any physical contact of any kind. My friend tried the experience that required goggles and she was able to cup her hands and feel objects in her palms. Truly, here is technology so advanced that my brain determined it to be magic. These people are wizards.

Ultrahaptics – those squares on the table emit ultrasonic sound that you can feel on your hands; they create haptic feedback in mid-air!

Fumbled Plans

A few days before the Expo I spent time going over its list of activities and planned a full day. Indeed, I spent a solid ten hours in the Convention Center. My plan was to attend the keynote, visit the Exhibition Hall, attend more panels, then return to the Exhibition Hall and stay until they booted me. I had a friend with me who had a similar plan, albeit different panels. Once we were in the Exhibition Hall and had queued for a few experiences our timetables were busted. Lines for the good stuff were easily an hour long. We wouldn’t have seen and done much if we took intermissions for panels. This makes a strong case to me that next year I need to attend on both days. Hopefully they’ll offer some sort of press badge so that I can get in a bit cheaper than the pros (and hopefully this blog rates). Despite my plans going awry, spending six solid hours on my feet, and having a red ring around my face from all the headsets, I was still eager to get home and pull on my own set of goggles. VRLA is the flame of virtual reality and it brought me comfort and illumination and rekindled my love for the medium.