By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)
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."
Public media's TurnstyleNews.com, covers tech and digital culture from the West Coast.