VR World 2017 reveals a whole new universe
VR World was two days of tips, tech and talk on what might well be the most disruptive audio-visual tech of our lifetimes
The VR World conference was held this week at London's Olympia Conference Centre. But to call it VR World is a bit of a misnomer - like the term "VR" itself. Exhibitors and delegates at the conference seemed to be reaching for another term to describe this brave new world of communication - mixed reality, augmented reality, immersive content - but none of them quite captured the entirety of what "VR" has to offer.
When we speak of "VR", we are groping for a blanket term to cover a range of techniques for creating and experiencing a synthetically generated environment. These can incorporate a grab bag of techniques including 360 video, stereoscopic imagery, immersive sound technologies, motion tracking, animation, and haptics (technology which uses the sense of touch to provide information and feedback).
Olfactory experiences and temperature control can be employed too and with different viewing technologies these can be experienced individually or in interactive groups. One stand at VR World featured an immersive "sensory reality pod" by Dutch company Sensiks. The pod included not only immersive 3D 360 degree video and sound, but scents and temperature differences as well.
There was a fascinating range of tech on display at VR World, but what was especially striking was not the variety of tools, but the range of industries employing them. Education, manufacturing, travel, robotics, architecture, and even mental health, were at least as prominent as entertainment and gaming. If you come out of a traditional media production development background, you might walk the aisles of VR World and wonder what it could possibly have to do with TV.
Twenty years ago broadcasters and studios looked at the internet and couldn't imagine how it would have anything to do with producing or viewing movies. They are in danger of making the same mistake with VR. The field may seem niche now, but it won't be for long.
From one perspective, content production, delivery and viewing world already is "virtual". The internet itself is a kind of virtual, presented to us via a restricted two-dimensional interface. With greater connectivity, innovative software, and new viewing technologies, that 2D internet space is going to expand into the world around us into a perpectual immersive virtual reality. The world and "content" will appear to occupy the same 3D space around us. Now, we won't be walking around 24/7 with goggles on, but we will, within ten years, be see the real world as a canvas for painting virtual content on and in.
Using augmented reality models in training and education has been the mission of Pearson, whose impressive glasses being demoed at VR World, allowed for a fascinating level of interactivity with content. Their technology was trialled among Australian secondary school students. Exercises included the constructing of a periodic table of element using virtual bricks representing each element. The students were able to interact with and manipulate the 3D models floating in space at the front of the classroom. Other applications allowed students to see the result of a trigonomic function in 3D space live before their eyes.
Virtual reality can help physicalise abstract concepts or to draw a 2D schematic world into a 3D world that we can more readily manipulate and interact with. It can give us perspectives and open up ways of experiencing and ways of working that are hard to tease out of the 2D, flat-screen world.
Solutions for construction and architecture were also exhibited. VR has had particular appeal for real estate developers, builders, urban planners and architects. Being able to move through an architect's proposed building in a virtual environment, reveals flaws or opportunites that are hard to bring to the unaided imagination. Changes can be made, innovations tried and their results immediately experienced and analysed. The possibilities for production design are exciting, but also consider the benefits in designing a broadcast control room, a cinema, a mixing stage, or the possibilities for rehearsal in a space which actorsmay
VR is also being investigated for use in treating trauma and phobias. Being able to give people a realistic, but safe, experience to augment or reassess their inner life is a fascinating application for VR technology. Creating an immersive world for another person to visit, consider, ponder, establish new connections, starts to bring VR applications into the realm of philosophy.
The possibilities inherent in VR documentary and factual content - including news - are obvious, and go far beyond 360 degree video. 360 video news offers a wider experience of the environment and setting, but with the addition of 3D modelling and interactive graphics, newscasters have a chance to become the educators they are supposed to be. Whether there will be the imagination, expertise or budgets for that kind of journalism is another matter.
Delivering these new varieties of content will require new types of technicians and artists as well as technologies. It will require new ways of thinking and new ways of engaging with audiences. In short, it will require difficult changes which many existing tech companies and producers will find it uncomfortable to make. But the content future will exist in a virtual realm, our smartphone bricks will be replaced by a 360x360 content sea that will always be a tap, or a blink, or a finger-snap away. Are you ready?.
Highlights from the show
At one of VR World's four conference theatres, Alchemy VR's Liz Biggs talked about producing the first VR film to win a BAFTA, David Attenborough's Great Barrier Reef:
Vicon showed off its live motion capture technology:
Foundry showed its Cara VR plug-in for Nuke. Cara allows for easy stiching and compositing of 360 degree video. The sexy monitor pictured is HP's Z34c 34 inch ultra-wide curved display:
AiSolve showcased WePlayVR, a highly immersive - and frightening - virtual reality game demo, which ran on a backpack PC:
Opto displayed this lightweight, smartphone-powered VR headset with built-in speakers. A magnetically attached front allows for fast and easy access to the phone. Opto also showed off a prototype headset for industrial use:
Dell showed off its new 2y inch touch-screen work surface, the Dell Canvas. The canvas includes an onscreen "Totem" control dial:
Smart Goggles offers branding opportunities for cardboard VR viewers:
Toia showed an unsettlingly realistic training simulation for dental injections. Robotic arms provided haptic feedback and delegates got to feel what it would be like to accidentally poke a needle into a human cheek: