Virtual Reality: You'll Believe A Geek Can Fly

Virtual Reality: You'll Believe A Geek Can Fly
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By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)

This past weekend in Sylmar, a neighborhood in the far north end of Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, a few hundred curious nerds descended upon New Deal Studios, a production company and special effects house who played host to the latest Virtual Reality Los Angeles event.

Companies on the cutting edge of the virtual reality scene--from Oculus VR to Sony and a host of smaller companies in between--showed off their latest wares. Some of it is consumer-ready, while other companies are essentially giving sneak peaks at what they believe will be the future of entertainment.

If the flying simulation I got to play with at the start of the event is any indication, they just might be right.

The simulation was the whole of the demo being offered by WorldViz, a Santa Barbara based software maker who sells a VR toolkit called Vizard. They had set up an Oculus Rift (specifically a Development Kit 2) with a pair of wristband controllers. Really just a wire tucked into wrist sweatbands.

The woman running the demo gave me a quick tutorial on how to fly: put my wrists together and I'd move forward in the direction they were pointing. Raise them up to go up, down to go down. Pull my wrists apart to hover. If I wanted to turn, I should move my feet as well (this proved to be the only tricky part).

Inside the Rift were two cartoon mitten representations of my hands. This sim had no other representation of the body, but I didn't need that: I was flying. Within seconds I was twisting and turning as I thrust my fists first high in the air and then low. Every moment channeling the hundreds of issues of Superman I've read.

I'm sure I looked ridiculous, but the great thing about having the full diving-mask of the Rift on your face is that you cannot see people's reactions to how silly you look. The isolation is a feature, not a bug. After a couple of minutes I was asked to come in for a landing. It was over all to quickly.

Short demos, however, do not an entire new medium make. Luckily for the enthusiasts at this third VRLA meet-up more than one company present is staking their whole existence on the dawn of virtual reality being as big as the start of the personal computer era or bigger: from the plans being made it's clear the evangelists think that VR is the next TV.

Which explains the existence of JauntVR. This is the Silicon Valley firm that has built a computationally based VR camera. That sounds complicated because it is.

The current camera is a near-sphere that has three "eyes" on any given point in its field of vision. The image is pulled in, and then assembled by algorithm into a--mostly--seamless image that can be viewed from any angle. The viewer is "stuck" in the camera's position, be that on a tripod or attached to a steadicam, but from that position the user can turn around and look at anything.

A fairly long demo was available which took me through a number of scenarios: an empty pool where a BMX rider was practicing tricks, whizzing by "me" as "I" sat in the middle of the pool. The only concession to the irreality of the image was a digital "sticker" of the company logo at my invisible feet, which marked the limits of the Jaunt's field of vision.

Short clips of vistas, a close-up concert, a horror movie like scene, and a string quartet were also part of the package. During the vista I was able to spot a seam thanks to the sudden appearance of a man out of thin air. This was a bug, but the uncanniness of the effect suggests a glitch that clever storytellers will exploit over time.

The close-up concert glitch was more annoying: a seam lay right over the body of one of the performers, and I could create a weird shadow-like effect by moving my head side-to-side as I stared at a cabinet.

Of course, this is an early iteration of the technology and I went in with a Q/A mindset: wanting to find bugs. The overall impression was that Jaunt VR is on to something, and on to something far faster than anyone really expected.

Jaunt VR's Vice President of Content Scott Broock--formerly of Wired, Nickelodeon, and ABC News--was on hand to talk about the short film that New Deal Studios is making using his company's technology. New Deal's co-founder Matthew Gratzner stood on stage with him to walk some of the attendees through the process of shooting World War II combat short The Mission VR.

Gratzner spoke off-stage about his approach to directing the short, which called upon his experience in theater. Like a few other VR pioneers I've spoken with Gratzner says that live action virtual reality has a lot in common with theater, requiring tight timing. There's a deep irony to the notion that the latest and most high tech of all filming techniques is driving directors back to the old ways.

"This could become an actor's medium," Gratzner told the crowd. With there being no fixed focal point for the camera there's no single place for the actors to play towards, so they instead get to play with each other. This is a dream for some actors: to just get lost in the reality of the scene.

Audiences will need actors to step up their craft if they want to see the reality of virtual reality, something that was proven by accident in the demo Kite & Lightning gave.

The company is investigating cinematic VR by creating stunning--and I really mean that--VR landscapes using CGI. I got to see a piece that is billed as a cross between "Dante's Inferno and Pirates of the Caribbean," the operatic Senza Peso. The "Pirates" part comes from the dark-ride style of the piece. After an initial float-through the user is situated on a boat which flows through a series of beautiful magical landscapes. There was much joy in peering into crystal clear water and watching lava flow.

Less impressive was the acting, which felt like something from 1990's CD-ROM games. I know that this Senza Peso is just a tech demo, but physical acting that came off as "indicating"--Look! I'm going Mad. Mad I say!--and the giant head of a sneezing "God" figure played by an uncommitted actor threw me right out of enjoying the fantastical vistas.

The stakes for acting are higher in VR than in television and the web, because VR is a less passive medium than those two. The viewer always has the ability to look somewhere else inside the world of the story. This creates a kind of fragility to the story world--god VR tricks you into thinking that you are there, and bad acting breaks the spell. There's a magic at work here that lies along the same track as IMAX and traditional theatre: experiences that at their best envelope you in the fictional world.

The ability of the viewer to look anywhere is another obstacle, one that may prove to be solved with sound. Immersive sound design which can guide a viewer to the action will be a necessity moving forward.

A Venice-based company called Specular Theory is experimenting with VR sound design. A mock-up of a scene from American Beauty which put the viewer at the dinner table with the voices--if not the images--of Kevin Spacey and Annette Benning hinted at some of the power of a well thought-out VR audio design. That was an adaptation of existing work, but it was good enough to illustrate the potential for something that was recorded specifically for the medium.

Specular Theory had another demo in their back pocket, of video that was triggered based on where the viewer was looking. This wasn't game-engine or CGI footage, but a live action reel using some quick and dirty compositing. It is a different way of thinking about the attention problem: by giving the user a little bit of agency--look where you want, we'll wait--the filmmaker regains the power to tell the story they want to tell.

My last stop at the event was at the table for the

Sixense STEM controller. They had a lightsaber demo running, and I couldn't resist. The controllers had a good weight to them, and made decent proxies for my hands in virtual space. A virtual representation of the controller base station made orienting my body simultaneously in the real and virtual world possible--something that no other embodied VR control scheme has accomplished in my experience.

Once again I was back in the Rift, not caring if I looked stupid as I threw my body through the motions of being a Jedi Knight training against a sensor remote. While the demo gave people the option to use two sabers at once, I spent most of my time using Form III, Soresu, "The Way of the Mynock."

Yes, that's a thing. Look it up.

All in all high temperatures and long lines meant this wasn't the most comfortable of expo-style experiences, but much of that can be chalked up to VRLA's explosive growth. The group started up just this year, and is already pulling in members by the hundreds. Events may wind up tapering down once VR devices are in consumers hands--some say as early as next year, possibly sooner--but the founders of VRLA are taking steps to be part of the scene for a while.

The founding members have formed the Virtual Reality Foundation which announced that they will be presenting awards during the upcoming Oculus Connect developers conference. Dubbed "The Proto Awards," they've already pulled in Nvidia as a sponsor and will be holding the ceremony at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

That just happens to be where the first-ever Academy Awards were held.

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