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When Will Virtual Truth Transform Truth?

When I attended the VRLA Summer Expo in August, I couldn’t stop thinking about Elon Musk’s speculation that there’s a “one in billions” chance that we aren’t living in a simulation. Musk draws a line of technological advancement from Pong to AAA games in 2016. He argues that if we made this much progress in 40 years, we’ll someday be able to create simulations indistinguishable from reality. Walking around VRLA, I thought about where VR is now and how long it would take to create a Matrix-like existence: a simulated reality that everyone is a part of. At VRLA, it became clear that the {hardware} has a long way to go, but virtual reality is making an effort to invite everyone in.

VRLA—the world’s largest virtual reality expo—is a biannual event held in Los Angeles. With more than 6,000 attendees and more than 130 exhibitors, this year’s expo was the largest one yet. Everything from the traditional VR experiences (games, rides, and films) to the more experimental (like a VR rave) were on display. Before the expo floor opened, a line of hundreds snaked around a large part of the convention center. The floor itself felt like a theme park, with people patiently waiting in line for hours to try VR demos, from the unreleased VR game Star Trek: Bridge Crew, to Mindshow: the VR app that lets you make your own VR productions. You couldn’t walk far without seeing someone in a headset, or waiting in line to wear one.

All of this (Virtual Reality) begins in ancient times, when the Internet was first discovered.

In 1994, Mark Pesce and I worked with the world wide web development community to create the Virtual Reality Markup Language, also known as VRML. The goal was to develop a standard way to represent 3D virtual worlds connected through the burgeoning Internet: Habitat cum Snow Crash as front end to a potentially world-encompassing web.

It didn’t matter that the modems were 14k dial-up, the computers ran at 60Mz (that’s with an “M”) and that the “web” at the time was AOL, CompuServe, and Prodigy. We had a vision, and nothing could stop us. We roped in big companies like Netscape, Silicon Graphics, Microsoft, and IBM to come along for the ride.

Fast-forward to 2004. VRML had gone bust years earlier, but I managed to sell my VR startup before the crash (yay irrational exuberance!). I took an extended break from pushing 3D rocks up virtual hills, and moved on to other things. Then, possessed by God knows what, I dove back into a 3D project. This time it was X3D, the successor to VRML featuring “modern” graphics and XML (because everybody was doing it). The idea was that broadband infrastructure and {hardware} had caught up to the vision. We still needed a plugin because 3D didn’t come natively in a browser. But, no problem: we were up to the task. We built some cool demos, including a kick-ass shopping experience in partnership with eBay.

They put us in front of Zuck, who promptly threw up all over the idea of 3D shopping in eBay. “Why is this better?” he requested.

We spent the next two years pitching investors who didn’t get it. I could barely see through the blood streaming past my eyes from beating my head against the wall so hard. And then, something wonderful happened: Second Life made the cover of Business Week, and a new virtual world land grab ensued. I wiped the blood off, dusted off my pitch, brought in a hotshot Valley CEO and promptly raised $10 million from top venture firms to fund Vivaty, a browser-based virtual world. Good things come to those who wait, I guess.

Ultimately, Vivaty came up short, a victim of internal misalignment, strategic misfires, and goofy product decisions… but mostly timing. 2009 was a bad year to try to raise a B round. The VCs were all jumping out of their second-story windows over the recession. We sold our great technology to Microsoft and moved on.

(Little known story: during those lean years, we pitched Accel, who had just pumped $13 million into Facebook. During due diligence, they put us in front of Zuck, who promptly threw up all over the idea of 3D shopping in eBay. “Why is this better?” Why indeed? Needless to say, that deal died stillborn. But no matter: we eventually got our funding from people who got it.)

Fast-forward again to 2014. WebGL is here, there, everywhere. Phones and tablets do kick-ass 3D. There are no more reasons to not build great shared 3D experiences. We have the rendering, the broadband, and a huge base of multimedia-savvy developers. Oh, and Oculus VR is now Facebook, thanks to a $2 billion deal that was just this week approved by the FTC.

In one stroke, virtual reality has been validated, vindicated, and safeguarded for a new generation of entrepreneurs. Those of us with a passion for creating anything virtual are now free to try virtually anything regarding new types of user interaction and out-of-the-box business models. And I’m back at it, thinking about how to launch a VR startup.

What a difference a decade makes. Er, two decades.

Tony Parisi is an entrepreneur and software architect. He has developed global standards and protocols, created noteworthy software products, and started and sold technology companies. He is the co-creator of the VRML and X3D ISO standards for networked 3D graphics, and continues to innovate in 3D technology. A version of this article appeared on his blog.

“VR and AR are trying to catch up with the OG-R,” said Reggie Watts, the conference keynote speaker. (In May, the comedian performed a set in VR.) “I can’t wait to put on a headset in my living room and be transported to my living room… in VR. That’s where I’d like us to start.” During his speech, Watts spent 20 minutes analyzing the projector menu. The hilarious contrast between everyday technology and the inaccessible headset was obvious. It was a reminder that even with the launch of consumer VR products, it’s still a niche technology still very foreign to the vast majority of us.

In science-fiction stories, like Keiichi Matsuda’s HYPER-REALITY, VR and AR are incredibly powerful, yet mobile enough to touch every aspect of our lives. But in the reality of 2016, consumer VR headsets still allow us to experience robust VR only from our homes. Currently, Facebook’s Oculus Rift and the Vive (co-developed by HTC and Valve) are the major players in the consumer VR market, but both require a very powerful PC (and a lot of wires) for use. Devices like Google Cardboard Samsung’s Gear VR utilize smartphones to offer mobile VR, but with what they gain in portability, they lose in power and input precision.

Based on the {hardware} showcased at VRLA, we have only inched closer to the dream of becoming cyborgs. Touch controllers are slowly becoming the standard, as most exhibitors understood that people want to use their hands as much as their eyes in VR experiences. While the Vive allows “room-scale” user tracking, it can only track user movement within the range of its stationary sensors—so don’t expect to walk down the street in VR just yet. HP and MSI demoed computer backpacks that connect to VR headsets, so you can walk around without being tethered to wires, but these backpacks are as bulky as they are powerful. Unless a VR-ready PC shrinks to a size and price smaller than a Raspberry Pi’s, VR won’t become the Matrix in our lifetimes.

A panel titled “The Future of VR {Hardware}” put this in perspective. The corporate vice president of AMD, Roy Taylor said, “[We need] about 81 times more performance than we have today.” When I asked the panel what they felt would be the ideal apparatus to experience VR, Taylor replied, “A pair of sunglasses… [with] a pair of either gloves or a body suit… We’re going to need big powerful processing in the cloud… and unbelievably fast bandwidth.” In Taylor’s scenario, we turn into Jon Nada from They Live, able to alter what we see by putting Ray-Bans on. But Joy Lyons, chief technology officer of OSSIC, took a step closer to the sci-fi of Gibson and futurism of Musk. The ideal apparatus for VR, she said, is “a chip in the brain.”

If making VR devices stronger and more powerful is the long-term purpose for the VR industry, then the short-term goal is simple accessibility. VR’s next big challenge is getting more people involved as both {hardware} consumers and software developers. The very first event of the expo was a workshop called “Girls Make VR,” where teenagers learned how to create their first virtual reality scene with Unity, a free game creation tool. The expo also featured a bevy of new products: Visionary VR’s app Mindshow, which allows amateur VR filmmakers to create cinematic sequences; HTC’s Viveport, a platform that offers alternative VR experiences for non-gamers. On the {hardware} side, AMD announced its line of affordable VR-ready computers, which can be built for around $680, powered by their new graphics card, the Radeon RX 480 (which starts at just $199 if purchased alone).

Evolution of VR (L to R): wired to the pc, mobile VR, backpack with touch controllers, sunglasses with gloves and audio necklace, chip in the brain. Image by the author

For folks who don’t own a headset and aren’t interested in a Google Cardboard–like experience, more location-based VR is coming—think pop-up arcades for VR content. AMD unveiled its VR pod, Awesome Rocketship, which is set to debut in movie theaters, malls, and other locations across the country. VRCade showcased a wireless, multiplayer VR gaming experience with custom gun controllers and headsets. Fulldome Pro exhibited its gigantic hemispherical setup under which 20 to 30 people can comfortably recline and take in the audiovisual experience. Airflow, a flight experience that suspends you mid-air using a Hollywood-grade harness, is set to become an open platform for developers to contribute their own level designs.

Slowly but surely, VR technology is getting cheaper, more accessible, more versatile, and easier for non-developers to create VR content. Elon Musk might believe that technologies are moving us toward photorealistic virtual realities, but in actuality, broadening the pool of content creators will push a more raw, surreal aesthetic into the mainstream. And we may be better for that fact.

In his talk “How Neurons React to Virtual Reality,” neurologist Mayank Mehta claimed that memorable spaces in VR might be good for your mental health. Mehta and his team, whose research concerns the relationship between VR and memory, created a VR rig for rats, an omni-directional treadmill that reacted to the rat’s movements in real time by changing the visuals projected on the four walls around it. In other words, the rat believed the simulated space to be its own reality. According to Mehta, creating memorable spaces with rich visual cues is the key to activating the brain: “In the long run, I believe [this] can be used to use VR to make us smarter.”

Kuksi’s sculptures in VR transcend the inherent scale limitations of the sculptural medium, elevating them to the architectural and epic. A collaboration between Kris Kuksi (artist) and Brian Pope (founder, the Arc/k Project). Image courtesy of Cognition

There were moments at VRLA where I took off my headset and felt like I had woken up from a dream. VR production house Cognition created a space using 12″ sculptures by Kris Kuksi, transforming them into 24-foot-high columns ending in a massive temple-like edifice. Cognition uses a technique called photogrammetry, which involves recreating objects and spaces in 3D by assimilating pictures of the subject taken from every possible angle.

I was even able to virtually visit the Temple of Bel in Syria, which was destroyed by ISIS in 2015. The studio had recreated the site using hundreds of archival pictures sourced from the web. The future of the project is to allow users to decide the spaces they would like to see captured. Maybe someday capturing spaces with photogrammetry will be as easy as taking selfies.

Virtual reality is still in its infancy. Its rate of growth is slow, but the democratization of VR is already happening, resulting not only in more content, but in more diverse points of view. As the tools to create virtual reality trickle down to non-developers, virtual realities that are rough around the edges will accompany the photorealistic simulations that currently flood the industry. The near future isn’t VR sunglasses or wearables you forget you’re wearing: It’s consumer-grade luxurious electronics that will transport us to weird and exciting places.

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