LA Start-Up Redefines The Future of VR Play


By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)
It has taken just a handful of demos to convince me of the potential of virtual reality.

The first was at E3 2013, when I had my first Oculus experience in the CCP booth. It was the demo that would become their game Valkyrie, which is pretty much the starter Pokemon of VR games. That experience opened up my eyes to the possibilities of the modern age of VR.

Weeks later came the second: as I stood in the Los Feliz living room of a developer and walked around a VR environment for the first time with my own legs. The third was my trip to Nonny de la Pena's lab, where I saw how journalism could be revolutionized through recreations of powerful events. The fourth was in my own living room as I held a Google cardboard shell to my face while wearing Bluetooth headphones and found myself standing on a stage surrounded by U2.

The fifth great demo happened just this week, some 40-odd stories above the streets of downtown Los Angeles in the offices of Visionary VR.

That's the company that was founded in part by a chunk of the founders at VRLA--the industry advocacy group that started out as a collection of like-minded folks on Reddit and has since become the team behind the largest VR expo on the planet.

The latest edition of VRLA takes place today at the Los Angeles Convention Center, a mile and a half from Visionary's offices. I stopped by early to see what they have been working on for a year-plus in what's commonly known in tech circles as "stealth mode."

What little I had gleaned from previous interviews with Visionary's Creative lead Jonnie Ross had led me to believe that they were working on a way to do cinematic storytelling in VR. A smoother form of editing that would overcome some of the obstacles that had been encountered so far. Given that a lot of people are chasing the same goal, I didn't walk into the office with great expectations.

The Visionary offices are sandwiched between floors of some of the biggest law firms in the city, with divisions of big banks just a few doors down. It's a strange place to find a start-up of artists, filmmakers, and coders. Incongruent, to say the least, but this is the way tech goes in LA: it pops up in the oddest places.

I met with Ross and Visionary's CEO Gil Baron, a veteran of the visual FX industry who worked on signature pieces like The Matrix and the American version of The Ring. We talked for a few minutes about the company's time in stealth mode and the twists in the road that had led them to where they were today.

Ross told me that they would be announcing their first VR app at VRLA on this Friday, and providing a first look experience. They call it Mindshow, and it's centered on telling stories in VR. With that done, it was time to head to the demo room.

I still had no idea what I was in for.

In what had once been either a windowless office or a supply closet Visionary had set up an HTC/Valve Vive play space: a couch, a desktop computer, a crate with the Vive headset and controllers waiting. Screwed into the drop panel ceiling were two of the Lighthouse sensors that make room-scale VR possible. As a demo space it is humble, to say the least, and that's perfect for what I was about to experience.

Before loading in the demo I began in a basic "white space" where--with the Vive firmly in place--I was handed the two Vive controllers. The fidelity with which they are rendered and tracked in the system never ceases to amaze me. Having these two controllers so well rendered adds a level of trust to the sense of presence. Well grounded in the basic VR state the demo started up.

A voice told me that someone had sent me a show and that I could use the controller to see what it was.

Soon I was in a cartoon desert reminiscent of Vasquez Rocks, which has seen more than its fair share of sci-fi movie productions. A crashed rocket ship filled up a nice chunk of the horizon, and a character wearing a classic "starship crew member jumpsuit" stood a few feet in front of me.

The voice told me that by hitting a button on the left controller I could start the show. I looked down and sure enough, the thumbpad on the left controller had turned into a big "play" button. I pressed it.

The character sprung to life. Talking into a wrist communicator and identifying himself as the captain. Then, without warning, he turned to his left and began shouting in terror and threw up his arms in self-defense.

At nothing. The captain was reacting to nothing. For a moment I was sure that something was wrong. That the computer wasn't rendering something. I looked around: empty space.

Then the friendly voice chimed in again. It suggested that we give the captain something to be afraid of. Like an alien. An alien appeared in front of the captain. Tall and green. Somewhere between goofy and scary. A pointer beam extended out of the right controller and the voice told me that I could point at the alien, pull the trigger and take it over. I swung the beam back and forth like a lightsaber blade for a second to get a feel for it--and because I like pretending things are lightsaber blades. When the beam touched the alien it became highlighted. I pulled the trigger on the controller.

A soft cut and now I was standing where the alien had been. A mirror floated in front of me: I was now the alien. I waved my arms in the mirror. Yup: alien. The voice told me that the triggers operated my hands, I pulled them and saw my alien claws close. Then the voice told me that I could change facial expressions with my right thumb. I did that. I made noises.

I was the best cartoon alien ever.

The voice told me when I was ready I could hit record. This would let me play out the alien's role opposite the captain that had been left for me. With giddy glee I hit record.

What Visionary has created with Mindshow is simple and profound. It's a virtual reality puppetry tool that turns motion tracking devices into performance capture tools. Every part of what they've built is intuitive: point at a character and you can jump into it. After playing the part of the alien I was allowed to jump into the captain. The final app will allow friends to share scenarios and build off each other's work. An endless game of make-believe where the way to win is to amuse each other.

The best thing is that the app doesn't require the kind of patience or knowledge that, say, making machinima does. You don't have to be an aspiring animator or have access to 360 camera rigs to start making VR stories with Mindshow. There's nothing to learn. You don't even need to have any artistic or musical talent, as some of the creative apps that have gotten buzz require.

All you need is to let yourself be a little silly: and since you've already put a big black mask on your face in order to access VR you're pretty much halfway there before launching the app.

Since I first started checking out demos I hadn't believed that user generated content would really be a thing in VR. When I heard people talk about it all I could hear is Silicon Valley "wisdom" being aimed at a medium that no one truly understood. Visionary turned all that on its head for me. By the time I pulled off the Vive I knew that I wanted to do this again. That I wanted to have friends who owned headsets so that we could trade scenes with each other back and forth, all while looking forward to the day when bandwidth was good enough to do this kind of thing in real time.

With Mindshow the team at Visionary hasn't invented a new way to play in VR: they've brought the make believe we all know into the new medium and laid the foundation for a bright future as a company.

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