I’m about 10 meters below the surface, held in the gaze of a large, warm eye about the size of my head. The whale is 40 feet long and just a meter away from me, its eye panning and inspecting my presence. I’m standing on the deck of a sunken ship, its old rotted timbers still holding on the ocean floor. I can see schools of silvery fish moving on the currents. I can see the shimmering surface high above, more fish circling in the light of the sun as it filters down through the blue waters. With a sudden kick of its massive tale the whale darts away from me and disappears into the inky darkness. Again, I look up to the water’s surface and I’m struck by the scale and the depth of this liquid landscape.
My view flickers and goes pale. The sea is gone and I’m standing in an endless white room mapped with a thin vector grid-work. I’m back in the matrix, the holodeck, waiting for the next program to load.
This is Wevr’s immersive experience, theBlu: Encounter, through the HTC Vive virtual reality headset.
On the Shores of Virtual Reality
Based along the sunny shores of Venice, California, within reach of the nexus of cinematic storytelling that is Hollywood, Wevr was founded in 2010 as a VR content shop. Since then, they’ve taken $25 million in funding from a prominent set of investors that includes Samsung Ventures, HTC Corp (makers of the Vive VR headset), Palantir Capital, and Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy. My employer Orange is also an investor in Wevr. The money has underwritten Wevr’s growth into a prominent production house and an emerging distribution platform for professional VR content.
“Right now we’re seeing the first wave of consumer VR hit the shores.”
“We’re all about great content and signature experiences,” says Tony Parisi, VP of Platform Products at Wevr. “It’s got to be kind of edgy and pushing the envelope and challenging viewer’s perceptions. It’s got to tell a story.”
Lean with longish hair and often dressed in shades of black, Parisi has a bit of a rock star look to him. His voice affects the scratchiness of someone who’s both experienced and excited. “Right now we’re seeing the first wave of consumer VR hit the shores,” he says, referring to the public launch of Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. “The industry has spent about 2 years working hard to commercialize these systems. We’re now at a point where it’s getting real.”
Parisi quickly becomes animated when talking about the exuberance of the VR landscape. There seems to be a new tangibility to it all, not unlike the contemporary VR experience itself. “The thing about this technology is that it takes you someplace.” And this is the big breakthrough, the signature story of this new generation of Virtual Reality: it’s gotten less virtual and more real.
In a way, this is the second act for virtual reality. The 1990’s saw a wave of interest as computers started to render rudimentary 3D spaces. Magazines were covered with images of avatars, bulky helmets, and quirky digital imagery. It paralleled both interest from the US military and fascination by young cyberpunks in the burgeoning rave scene, lit up by works from William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Neal Stephenson, and the psychedelic philosophies of Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna. All of them saw humanity manifesting compelling worlds on the other side of the screen.
“A headset bigger than a salon hairdryer with the big helmet, and really low polygon lobsters flying around in a poorly-rendered space.”
“When I saw the first big VR demos I was captivated,” recalls Parisi fondly. “Jaron Lanier came and presented about VR and his VPL work, which was pretty advanced stuff at the time.” Lanier was becoming a cyber prophet of sorts. Between having founded VPL, the first commercial VR company, and speaking to college kids under a frock of dreadlocks, Lanier had a quirky credibility across the spectrum. Many of us were similarly captivated back then by what Parisi remembers almost comically as “a headset bigger than a salon hairdryer with the big helmet, and really low polygon lobsters flying around in a poorly-rendered space.”
Then and Now
Shortly after that in 1994 Parisi and his friend Mark Pesce went on to create VRML, the Virtual Reality Markup Language. “The attempt there was to create visual, full-3d graphics that could be delivered over the internet,” he notes. “You could run a web browser and see the graphics presented in the browser.” At the time, VRML further underscored the feeling that VR was quickly becoming a reality, even for the average Internet user interested in spinning up their own little worlds.
But VR would soon enter its own Trough of Disillusionment, relegated to research labs for another 20 years. There weren’t strong enough computers or cheap enough hardware. There wasn’t a willing consumer or enough literate 3D content creators. The Internet was still commonly dismissed as a niche fad. The gap between the cyberpunk fictions and the expensive, low-poly reality of VR seemed bigger than ever.
“We have an interactive generation who really understands and wants these kind of experiences.”
Now, of course, the Internet and its infrastructure are ubiquitous. 10 years of smart phone development has created a massive supply chain of powerful, miniaturized, and cheap components that have driven a hardware revolution. Palmer Luckey, the creator of the Oculus Rift, built his own garage prototypes in 2011 – at the age of 18 – and then crowdfunded the Oculus. It was good enough to attract the interest of John Carmack, the first-person gaming legend and founder of Id Software, the company that created a generation of 3D users and builders with the Doom and Quake franchises.
“We have an interactive generation who really understands and wants these kind of experiences,” observes Parisi, whose job it is to bring VR content together with an engaged and inspired market of users. “And we have a couple generations of folks that know how to design in 3D.”
“We have supercomputers in our pockets,” he continues. “So now the idea of delivering 3d over the Internet is trivial.” He’s been involved in the development of WebGL, a widely-distributed rendering engine for 3D in the browser, and published Web GL, Up and Running for O’Reilly Media. “There are 3 billion devices—handsets and computers— out there that can render WebGL.” Parisi has continued to help drive the ecosystem with 2 more O’Reilly books – Programming 3D Applications in HTML5 and WebGL and his most recent Learning Virtual Reality.
“It starts with a locked-down, vertically integrated kind of system that can just deliver a really good experience for the consumer.”
Great Storytelling in VR
As anyone who has donned an Oculus or Vive and experienced a professionally-produced immersive environment can attest, the platform for virtual reality is here. This time, it’s about understanding what content works best, what human factors need fine tuning, and how the industry can deliver more and better experiences to people. And this is why Wevr and many other VR content shops are grabbing tons of venture funding. It’s why many Hollywood studios are making moves into VR. And it’s why distribution platforms like YouTube are supporting the new format.
Parisi has a keen sense of how the industry is moving to support and curate the first wave. “It starts with a locked-down, vertically integrated kind of system that can just deliver a really good experience for the consumer.” VR production is big-budget, requiring teams of professionals versed in 3D design, storytelling, brand marketing, and engagement. “The industry is working very much in this siloed model right now, delivering high-end applications and controlling it through app stores and approval.” As an aside, he notes how real the stakes are. Bad VR experiences can leave users underwhelmed at best and literally nauseated at worst. This is especially problematic in the early stage of adoption when stoking market demand for a $500 headset is critical. The anecdotal reporting of early adopters can make or break the traction, hence the tight control being exerted over production.
Big brands are also shaping the business narrative while the market is getting established. Parisi says this is about “understandable business models so people know how the business is going to work.” It’s another critical component in helping content producers have greater confidence in getting a return on their efforts. “You don’t have to make a big leap if you’re an investor or publisher who’s funding a VR title.”
“There’s very much a brand flavor to what Wevr’s doing.”
Wevr has partnered with Lionsgate Entertainment to build a virtual property for the Keanu Reeves film John Wick. The user becomes Wick, suddenly under attack in a hotel. You duck and dodge, taking advantage of the room-scale markers on the HTC Vive. Another collaboration called Waves, with independent filmmaker Ben Dickinson, features Reggie Watts. In this piece, Dickinson, who’s about to release a provocative short film on augmented reality (also featuring Watts), returns the user to the unintentionally-humorous 1990’s-era of VR in a self-referential comedy with Watts as the tour guide.
Both Waves and theBlu: Encounter – that friendly whale I met – were featured at the Sundance Festival. Ridley Scott and Stephen Spielberg are developing VR experiences as Hollywood advances on the latest story telling platform. Wevr is helping the industry create curated experiences but they’re ultimately building a platform for all sorts of creators. Their app Transport, currently in pre-release, is a marketplace for cinematic VR experiences. It’s a way for Wevr to connect users with the curated, professional content of the first wave players. But Parisi has always been involved in the democratization of VR.
The hardware now seems to be in place and the price point is low enough to draw the first wave of early adopters. Many of the human factors have been overcome; at least enough to ensure most users will have a seamless experience. The business models are moving into place, led by entertainment and gaming giants, with astonishing amounts of capital fueling the ecosystem. Distribution channels are opening up and high-visibility partnerships are emerging around big media franchises. The focus now is on driving the content into new territories and tempering the market exuberance with enough focused restraint to guarantee high quality.
We humans seem compelled to create, to manifest our imagination and to share it with the world. Virtual Reality offers the potential to invite others to literally step inside our minds. It’s been taunting us from the near-edge of science fiction for decades and now, as we find ourselves surrounded by screens and computation and woven with networks and media, it may be ready, to undergo the formality of actually occurring.
It’s an exciting and frightening prospect for a species that has seemed to be on the edge of transformation for some time. What future are we about to step into that may enable so much freedom if we only step out of the reality we know? As the first wave of consumer VR crashes on the shores of our evolution, we’re likely going to find ourselves confronting a new set of social and psychological challenges. And yet it seems that we’re about to step into a kaleidoscope of virtual realities transposed on top of our own home world.
The pale office walls around me disappear as I don the Vive, my ears covered with headphones and my vision replaced by the infinite white grid of this new matrix. A menu of possible worlds floats before me. I reach out to open the next doorway into wonderland.
Chris Arkenberg leads research, strategy, and communications for Orange Silicon Valley, and teaches Disruptive Technology for CCA’s Strategic Foresight MBA program. He is a co-organizer of “Through the looking glass: Hollywood and Silicon Valley get immersive” Orange’s upcoming forum on the state of VR.