Once I was in an audience where one of the panelists asked the crowd how often we’re in virtual reality. By a show of hands some had never tried it, others had only sampled it, while some were monthly or weekly users. The panelist was a daily user of VR and the point he was making was that it had become somewhat unremarkable to him, it being a normal part of his job, and giving him a different perspective compared to the audience. It took effort on his part to understand that to the majority of users the tech was still new, exciting, and magical. I don’t mean to sound like a tool when I say this, but that’s sort of how I felt about VRLA 2018.
I enjoyed my third time visiting the expo, spending about eight hours at the convention center and seeing all there was to see. I’ve gained the perspective of noting what is different from year to year. The big changes this year were that there was one big theater for presentations, that the geography of the theater and exhibition hall was improved (separated by a door instead of hallways), and that there was a LOT more virtual reality to try in the exhibition hall. The first and the last of those changes are worth discussing.
As usual the keynote on Saturday was all over the place and rather messy. Co-founder Cosmo Scharf is not a natural on stage, which is completely okay, and is only so coherent with the direction that his talk goes, which is not okay. This year he was trying to hold up the vision of VR that was portrayed in the movie Ready Player One and say that virtual reality can do better than what we saw there; rather than people retreating to hide in VR as the world is perceived to decline they will find utility in VR that allows them to improve the world and its governments. It’s a great point to make but he didn’t take an effective route to that message. Instead he revealed his political leanings and took shots at what he opposes. I admit that I agree with much of his point of view, but this stage isn’t the place for it and he needs a tighter focus.
What followed the opening address, as usual, was a series of sponsors talking to the crowd and then a “personality” giving some witty closing. In its entirety it was about an hour and twenty minutes, and had the final act been able to perform it would have gone longer. I rather enjoyed listening to Charlie Fink hawk his book. I am excited about Ricoh’s special announcement: they’re letting developers write and sell plug-ins for Theta cameras. Disney’s Jon Snoddy gave a poignant talk about VR’s coming uncanny valley. As the immersion gets more and more realistic, it will get less and less realistic to be alone in virtual reality. He compared VR to a theme park, stating that part of what makes a theme park fun is screaming on the rides with other people and the laughter and smiles of others. If VR doesn’t populate properly then it will fail to bridge the valley from “full-body immersive VR” to “perfect living story world,” and instead will land in the space of “cognitive dissonance from a true reality.” The tech demo from Skydance Interactive ran into technical difficulties and was unsuccessful, Intel was a snooze, and Jake Roper / Vsauce3 failed to entertain with his talk asking us to question if life is real or a simulation. Even though I liked parts of the keynote, it was a long eighty minutes.
The hall in which the keynote occurred was huge. In previous years the keynote occurred in a smaller room with a live stage and an overflow room with a live video feed. As much as I prefer the giant hall for the keynote, it meant that there were fewer smaller rooms being used for other talks. As a result there was a smaller palette of subjects being discussed and none of them were of interest to me, not really. None of the discussions felt aimed at consumers and none of them touched on my interests enough to pull me out of the exhibition hall. Okay, the one that was raffling off a laptop and goggles got me but that was for the prize only and not for the subject matter.
The exhibition hall brought it this year. It was huge and full of VR experiences galore. As usual they keep it dark and moody, with lasers and other lights flashing around the high walls. There are musical beats that come from parts unknown. As you scan around there are corrals with people free-roaming, guns in hands and goggles over eyes. You see tilting platforms, rumbling seats, and doohickies at every turn. The room gives off a general vibe of being an arcade from the future. The effects of having so many VR experiences is that lines were shorter than previous years and that more experiences could therefore be tried. It’s a win for people wanting to really try it all.
I’m rather selective when it comes to what I try. I stick my nose into every single booth, but I put on few headsets at the expo. This is mainly because, like the panelist who does VR every day, I’ve seen a lot of this stuff before and I know what’s novel. Your tower defense game? Your VR poker? Pass and pass. Virtual reality doesn’t improve those games to me. Shoot-em-ups and jiggly haptic things aren’t “musts” to me. I’m really in it for creative tools or experiences that can only exist in virtual reality. What got my interest was PanoMoments and Virtual Room, among others. The former is a new type of photo format. It takes 360° video and makes it into something akin to a GIF-like loop. The image is static except for when it experiences motion. If you’re on a phone or tablet then a finger swipe gets the image to move. A mouse click and drag works on a PC and a turn of the head works if you’re wearing goggles. All images are edited and hosted on their site and, depending upon your membership level, you’re able to embed them on your own site. Their attendance was an attempt to find investors. Virtual Room is a shared VR experience. They had four people don goggles and work as a group to repair a damaged spacecraft. You’re able to see each other, talk to each other, and pass objects to each other all in a virtual space. They have locations on five continents with more coming soon (their Hollywood location just opened). These are new-to-me experiences. This is the stuff that tempts a burgeoning VR snob, like myself. The good news is that VRLA always has plenty of new-to-me, even if it’s not the big flashy stuff that makes it feel like an arcade.