Notes from SXSW: Days 6 & 7
Joshua Sikora | On Mar 20, 2016
Could there actually be more to learn about virtual reality? Turns out, yes! The last couple days of the conference took a more practical look at what’s possible in virtual reality today and where these new technologies will take us within the next decade.
Five Best Startup Ideas in VR/AR
Day six began with futurist Robert Scoble boldly predicting that within five years we will have mixed reality glasses that track our eyes, create photo-real overlays on the real world, allow us to type 20 words a minute with our eyes, and with one setting dial down the opacity so we’re dropped into a totally virtual world — all with the same device.
Shawn DuBravac, an economist and Head of Research for the Consumer Technology Association addressed concerns that VR would be another passing fad like 3DTV. The challenge with 3DTV was there simply weren’t enough use cases for it. If the technology can come together, DuBravac sees VR/AR as revolutionary because of the nearly infinite uses the new medium offers.
As one of the medium’s early pioneers, Nonny de la Peña has seen VR develop through this nascent stage. She’s optimistic as well, saying there are “too many minds, too much money, too many artists — that collision is creating an evolutionary soup for this new medium.”
Unsatisfied with flat, non-interactive 360º video, de la Peña is excited about volumetric capture. This new approach to capturing cinematic content spatially — called videogrammetry — is a way of filming in three-dimensions, capturing the physical shape of objects as well as their visual appearance. This will allow photorealistic interactive experiences, where you will actually be able to walk through a filmed scene in 3D space. Companies like 8i and lightfield camera manufactures like Lytro are pioneering this new technology and low-end photogrammetry options are already available as free apps for your smart phone.
Scoble pointed to new storytelling approaches in VR. One filmmaker at SXSW is currently developing a serialized TV show for VR, while major studios like 20th Century Fox are experimenting with interactive films. Dubravac expects that these new cinematic experiences will be highly addicting, because you will be able to revisit your favorite scenes again and again, each time from a new vantage point or perspective. The potential for engagement is higher than ever.
A few of the technological bottlenecks are being addressed by various companies. The data cable which tethers most VR headsets to a powerful computer should disappear within two to three years, Scoble predicts. De la Peña has seen tests of highly efficient image compression, which should allow higher quality imagery to be streamed to headsets in the next five years. Scoble also talked about how different companies are working to solve battery issues, from one example of a battery that can be fully charged in 30 seconds to others that are pursuing wireless ultra-sonic charging.
Can VR Deliver More Emotion Than Movies and Games?
Gaming is obviously going to be a big driver for VR/AR, but not necessarily in the ways most people would expect. While the “first-person shooter” is very easily paired with the first-person point-of-view of VR, the enhanced reality of the experience has not been positive. Brianna Wu, Head of Development for gaming company Giant Spacekat, explained that psychologists are seeing VR first-person shooters actually inducing trauma in players because of how realistic the experience is.
Nicole Lazzaro, a game design researcher and CEO of XEODesign, feels that what’s happening in violent games isn’t so much the positive empathy usually associated with VR, but rather a worrisome sense of embodiment, where you actually find yourself an active participant in actions you would not take in real life. Part of the challenge, Lazarro has found, is that the more interactivity there is, the less we absorb a story or emotions — the experience is more immediate, visceral.
As the producer of the Voices of VR podcast, Kent Bye has seen the best and worst of this interactivity. He points to the simple beauty of experiences like Tilt Brush and Fantastic Contraption as examples of truly engaging VR game experiences. Like Wu, Bye is very worried about violent video games being ported into VR experiences, citing similar research and anecdotal stories for how traumatic violence in VR can be.
Wu believes that as the technology improves, we will be able to deliver stronger gaming experiences. The success of the first-person shooter is in its simple reward mechanisms, which trigger dopamine responses, which make the experience enjoyable and addictive. Wu explained how eye tracking in VR could lead to new kinds of interactive rewards — the power of a character noticing you and naturally interacting with you in VR could be as powerful and compelling as the game mechanics behind action-based games today.
Your Brain on Virtual Reality
In the final session of the conference, Kelly Gaither, Director of Visualization at University of Texas at Austin, looked at the history of VR and explained what pieces of the puzzle still remain. Using The Matrix and Star Trek: The Next Generation as examples of where we are headed, there are three areas that are being worked on right now to create the future of virtual reality:
- Dynamically reconfigurable: VR/AR can literally change how we use the space around us. In the same way that smart phones replaced the physical keyboard with a dynamically reconfigurable touchscreen, we will see this true of more and more of our real life. There will be no need for a TV or a computer monitor in this future — these screens will exist in virtual space, dynamically placed and sized wherever and however you want them. Need a larger screen, scale it up; need a second monitor, create a new floating window in front of you.
- Personalized: VR/AR will be personalized to each user. We already see technology learning our patterns and interests. New VR/AR technology will take this a step further, augmenting the world around us at a personal level. Just as we place “wallpapers” on our computer desktops, we’ll be able to customize the appearance of our office spaces and homes at a virtual level — changing artwork on the walls or even the color palette of a room.
- Conversational: Drawing on developments in artificial intelligence (AI), creating in VR should become much easier over the next decade or two. Researchers expect natural language controls to allow us to execute complex commands without needing to know programming or needing to use a keyboard.
We still have a long ways to go before all of these technologies are implemented and computers are powerful enough to deliver photorealistic 3D imagery in interactive three-dimensions, but Zoltan Nadasdy, a research scientist at St. David’s Neuroscience & Spine Institute, explained why even today’s rudimentary experiences are so powerful. All of reality is processed through sensory input — reality is perceived within the brain. VR succeeds because it takes over enough of our sensory input to fool our brains into thinking that what we are seeing is real. Even when it’s a low-quality image, there are enough perceptual clues that our brain believes what it is seeing.
Bruce McCann, a colleague of Gaither’s at U.T. Austin, explained that eventually all of these technologies could be replaced with neural interfaces, that bypass our external sensory input and deliver visual, auditory, and tactile sensations directly to our brain. These research scientists are excited by what could be accomplished with this approach, but McCann worries that these technologies could too easily be abused. “The big question,” he asked rhetorically, “Is why are we doing this?”
Throughout the conference, panelists described the promising medical uses for VR/AR, experimental filmmakers are thrilled by the empathy built through these immersive 360º experiences, game designers are inspired by a new level of interactivity, and businesses are already finding hundreds of practical uses for augmented visualizations. The potential for this new medium is limitless, but the power of it is also troubling — the power to give people false memories, the trauma induced from violent experiences, the physical dangers of tricking our brains, and the emotional risk of such a powerful narrative machine in the wrong hands. There is much to be excited about and much to be worried about. This is a medium we will all have to watch with interest, and responsibly engage with as much as possible.
I saw a number of films in the final days of the conference. Claire in Motion and A Stray were thoughtfully-made features, but both felt a bit too incomplete to leave a lasting impact.
American Fable was one of the most powerful films I saw this week. Described as a fairytale thriller, the movie is set in midwest in the 1980s and focuses on Gitty, a young girl whose world is turned upside down when she discovers a wealthy man is being held prisoner on her family’s farm. Eleven-year old Peyton Kennedy delivers an absolutely incredible performance, starring opposite Richard Schiff (“The West Wing”) and Kip Pardue. The film is Anne Hamilton’s directorial debut and she strikes a perfect balance of realism through naturalistic performances and fantasy through strong color palettes and careful production design. It’s a truly original work that is equal parts delightful, terrifying, and sobering.
The other incredible film I saw in the final days of the festival was In Pursuit of Silence — a beautiful and thoughtfully crafted film about the importance of silence in our lives and how easily it is destroyed in our modern world. It was a wonderful visual and aural escape from the frantic noise that permeated SXSW, yet I expect the deeper truths this documentary explores will stay with me long after this conference is over. Highly recommended.
It was a packed week, full of inspiration and creativity. I come home with new ideas, new challenges, and new opportunities to explore. At HBU, we’ll continue to embrace new technologies, while always keeping firmly rooted in the artistic foundations that have brought us here. Even amidst all of the flurry of groundbreaking virtual reality or revolutionary distribution models, the most profound experiences of the week were still the simple stories and thoughtful images that flickered on the big screen each night. Regardless of the tools we use, that remains our goal — crafting experiences full of goodness, truth, and beauty in every medium. If you’re not here already, join us as we pursue this goal…