For Virtual Reality Creators, the "Wild West" Age Is Over

The 2017 Vision VR/AR Summit spent two days in Los Angeles spotting emerging trends in immersive technology.

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May 15 2017, 9:15pm

Image courtesy of Unity Technologies.

With over half the world's population currently in possession of a smartphone device, and that number slated to grow exponentially every few years, the question of locating a global audience for mobile content is essentially a moot point—that audience already exists. But what makes a breakthrough contribution to a universal device, especially as virtual and augmented reality continue to evolve on the platform?

The intersection of reach and innovation made itself known throughout the 2017 Vision VR/AR Summit, held in Los Angeles during May. Through demos, breakout sessions, and keynotes over two days, companies such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Oculus announced their latest ideas for VR/AR, while speakers such as Chris Milk, Richard Dawkins, and Baobab founder Maureen Fan presented their perspectives on the burgeoning industry.

The second-annual event was organized by the game development platform Unity, who, like Unreal for the past few decades, has become a go-to engine for developers to build their projects. Now, they hope to continue that streak as the VR/AR industry nears an inevitable breakthrough in the realm of smartphone technology.

Maureen Fan speaks at the Vision VR/AR Summit 2017. Image via screencap.

"What's hindering the dramatic explosion of VR and AR mobile consumption is content, and content being meaningful to people," explained Unity's chief marketing officer Clive Downie to Creators, referring to a "when, not if" scenario for global mobile VR/AR usage. "I think we're in a prolonged pioneering and exploration phase right now, where creatives are just still trying to match the sheer power of this new medium and solving problems in new ways. We're seeing more and more points of light."

Several of these beacons were showcased during the Summit's main keynote. Chief among them was Google's announcement that their AR smartphone project, Tango will be natively integrated with Unity, allowing developers to more rapidly build and test their concepts. Elsewhere, the company ScopeAR debuted technology that would scrap physical training manuals and instead teach employees in an intuitive, smartphone and tablet-generated AR interface.

Downie also forecasted that stereoscopic cameras will soon become the new standard on mobile phones, as opposed to the add-on workarounds currently available. "You can look at the spec sheets for handsets that are coming in the next 12 to 24 months, and you can make a pretty good prediction that they're going to have stereoscopic cameras," he said. "More powerful GPUs (graphic processing units), the software to optimize those GPUs without any battery degradation—all of that is coming."

Unity's Tony Parisi and Natalie Grant were also on hand during the keynote to demo new advancements in 360 video, which has become the most accessible format for gamemakers and filmmakers (Samsung Gear VR, Google Cardboard). Parisi expressed wanting to turn the experience from a "lean-back, passive experience" into more of a real-time interactive workflow, which Grant showed the audience on a large projection screen. In a real-life 360° environment peppered with CG objects and characters, the two separate spheres of content—the environment and the CG elements—were able to be manipulated and rendered in real time.

Image courtesy of Unity Technologies.

Stunning results also extended to the Summit's demo floor, which featured work from leading companies like Baobab, Vuforia, Scatter, and Within, founder and CEO Chris Milk's high-profile venture. Taking up the entirety of Within's booth was Life of Us, their two-player interactive experience that premiered at Sundance New Frontiers earlier this year, which guides the viewers through a seven-minute journey of evolution. Meanwhile, Tender Claws (Danny Cannizzaro & Samantha Gorman) demoed Virtual Virtual Reality, their witty mystery VR satire for the Google Daydream headset; and Microsoft brought Hololems, an AR Hololens game where the player shepherded CG Lemmings off and around existing furniture.

The experiences hit varying degrees of immersion, but as Maureen Fan, CEO of Baobab (Rainbow Crow, Invasion!), explained during the keynote, it's the emotional connection of VR that distinguishes it as its own medium. "With VR our vision is, "Can we have the empathy of film, the agency of games, but the motivation of real life? [Can you act] because you actually care about these characters...not because you're trying to win, not because your ego?"

Panel topics during the Summit—including "VR Journalism: 360 Storytelling and the New Era of Reporting," "Docs and Devs: Combining Expertise to Improve Life-Saving Medical Training With VR," and "Sex, Violence & Propaganda: Ethical, Conundrums in VR"—also delved into the types of considerations VR/AR cracks open with every new update. They signaled a clear, rapid progression from the talking points of VR just a year or two ago, when creators and developers favored a 'Wild West' analogy of forging new frontiers in technology. A basic foundation and workflow has settled in since, but the medium still remains ripe for invention—or simply a slight tweak of retro devices like Smell-O-Vision.

More information on this year's Unity Summit can be found on their website, where you can also view a recorded live stream of the conference keynote.

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