VR Developments from an Artist Viewpoint

On March 22, 2015 I attended the Virtual Reality Los Angeles Spring Expo along with about 1500 other people.  These are my thoughts and observations on the current state of VR.

Only one year ago a Virtual Reality meetup group was started by a 19 year old USC student (Cosmo Scharf).  Cosmo now has 5 co- founders who work with him. The fact that the meetup group has grown so fast is at least partially a tribute to how the new VR,/AR technology has caught hold of the interest and imagination of so many people. There is money being put behind all kinds of VR start up groups. On the conference floor was one such company, Wevr in Venice California.

A month ago I went down to see Wevr, and miraculously found parking right in front of their very cool cement floor digs in Venice. Lots of energy and the people I met and talked with were bright and energetic (Ben Miller was especially helpful). Wevr has recognized that currently the development of VR technology is ahead of the content to go on it. They have been developing special software for VR creation.  They have put out a call to artists to submit proposals for VR projects that they will consider funding. I believe $5 to $50,000 is the funding range. I am guessing they would like to become the biggest VR platform on the internet.

Years ago I started out my art career as an oil painter, never imagining that my fascination with technology and art would lead me to VR.  As an artist who has been working with VR I am hopeful that the technology can open up the art and entertainment world in egalitarian ways. I am fantasizing that an artist/digital animator, (I call myself a visual poet) such as myself will have the chance to create and sell VR clips to a mass market for a variety of uses. Besides from the obvious appeal to gamers, people will want to hear their music, see concerts, meditate, visit other worlds, visit with avatar friends, AI friends, step into paintings, see news stories, and full movies  while wearing headsets.  

This happening depends on millions of people having access to headsets, of which there are an increasing variety, everything from Google cardboard to the Samsung Gear VR and of course the Oculus Rift. The headsets will have to get more user friendly and convenient. On the Virtual Reality Spring Expo conference floor I stopped at the table of Homido. I found them interesting because they were selling a headset that could fit in Phones as well as Android phones. I tested out a headset and it seemed to work very well.

At the conference the speaker from Jaunt, Jens Christensen, raised the issue of the software development needed (calibrated cameras, computational photo algorithms, customized post production tools, ...). Jaunt is know for shooting live VR - they entered the market a few years ago and their first publicly released piece was a stunning cinematic VR experience of Sir Paul McCartney performing “Live and Let Die”. This performance and other VR pieces are available on their website. Jens also talked about placing a camera in the center of the scene, how lighting could not just be behind the camera anymore, the need for 360 degree set design, camera rigs, and the use of drones for shooting.  

How to tell stories in VR has been a hot topic recently as the normal distance between the viewer and the screen is no longer there. The viewer is immersed and part of the story, particularly if the environment is interactive.  Jens talked about telling stories in VR in first or third person. In first person you are involved in the story in a way you can’t be now in the movies. Where what you look or what you touch can change what happens. In third person you are a fly on the wall, but you are still totally immersed and surrounded by the world of the movie.

Another group on the conference floor was Xrez. Their image library is well worth looking at. They have been doing live shoots for domes and events and now are moving into doing cimematic VR videos.

 At an earlier VR conference. an early VR pioneer Jacquelyn Ford Morie, PHD said, “One of the defining aspects of true immersive virtual reality is that the participant has free will to explore and make decisions within the experience. It is not something to simply be seen and heard. It is more poetic than that. It can and should encompass as many senses as possible, including scent, which is so emotionally evocative. But above all, people should have the kind of agency to choose what they do, which only VR can provide”.

Different speakers at the conference talked about the importance of special 3D audio for creating a believable VR space. I know several composers who are trying to work that out now.

I got to the conference at 11AM when it was not crowded and I had a better chance of walking around the display floor. I was most interested to see the hardware solutions that different developers were using to insert interactivity into the VR. Of course the Sony PlayStation people were using the PlayStation controller. Other developers were using the Leap and Kinect. When I asked about the Intel RealSense camera many were interested but still in the beginning stages of incorporating it. I am also really looking forward to seeing more hologram work, in particular the new Microsoft HoloLens.

My impression is that Epic's Unreal game engine and Unity are the software packages currently most used to create interactivity in VR.

In the last bit of news, be on the lookout for the Hybrid Reality Group soon to be up on the web. We have started a collective of VR artists here in Los Angeles. I will be blogging about some of the artists in the future.

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