VRTO Reinvents the Tech Conference
We may still be in the early days of this New Reality Renaissance, but you’d never guess it walking around VRTO (Virtual and Augmented Reality Toronto World Conference & Expo). There was a palpable buzz among attendees and speakers—excitement for the chance to gather with a bunch of like-minded pioneers and enthusiastic futurists.This was no accident. Executive Director Keram Malicki-Sánchez designed VRTO specifically to turn the existing conference model on its head, reimagining it to prioritize deep thinking and discussion. Everything was curated for quality—all speakers and booths had to demonstrate how their ideas, work, and/or technologies sought to push and innovate the form.So, as you can probably guess, VRTO was a blast. Here’s a taste:Steve Mann isn’t quite like the rest of us. Literally. He’s spent the past 42 years in wearable augmented reality. He’s the best living representation of a post-human cyborg—and a veritable genius to boot—so it’s no mystery why he’s been called the “father of wearable computing.”And for 12 years, he’s been advocating a code of ethics regarding how we proceed with these new technologies as a society. It’s actually really basic stuff that impacts all of us, like agreeing to create new tech without malicious intent and establishing what information we should have a right to keep private. So to kick off the conference, the Torontonian delivered a keynote explaining his ideas and presenting this code. Afterward, there was a panel discussion, a follow-up Q&A, and then a town hall meeting to amend, clarify, and ultimately ratify the code.And after some fierce discussion, the “Toronto Code” was indeed ratified.To be honest, this was a nerd’s fantasy. First thing in the morning of Day 1 and we were able to participate in the making of history—and that energy set the tone for everything that was to come.But Mann wasn’t the only one with big ideas to share. Malicki-Sánchez claimed he’d handpicked the “hotheads” and radical thinkers working to push the boundaries of VR for VRTO, and he wasn’t kidding. In gathering all these wild minds under one roof, he engendered a contagious spirit of progressive thinking that evinced itself in the various other keynotes and panels.Brett Leonard, director of Lawnmower Man (the first film to feature virtual reality) and a host of other exciting upcoming media, shared his “5 Laws of VR,” what he learned from an accidental meeting with Joseph Campbell on the Northern California coast, and how VR is a female medium. In proof, Canada Film Centre (CFC) Chief Digital Officer Ana Serrano gave an incredibly lucid breakdown of how minding historical precedents in the present moment will be key to helping us create a positive virtual reality future. And Phil Lelyveld drew from his experience as the VR/AR Initiative program lead at the Entertainment Technology Center with USC’s School of Cinematic Arts to shed insight into Hollywood’s transition to VR and how that will shape the medium’s future, including an interesting note about the impact of the rapidly blossoming Chinese market.And that was just the keynote speakers. Panels hit a wide spread, ranging from VR game design, the future of mixed and augmented reality, ways to to fund productions…and much, much more.Speaking of which…Venn.Agency is doing some of the most incredible people-forward work in VR, and this was especially notable in the “A Hacker’s Guide to the Metaverse” hackathon, hosted by CTO and Co-Founder Alu. A floor below the expo, the hackathon offered aspiring and accomplished hackers alike lessons and workshops for building a decentralized virtual reality web via Janus VR [janusvr.com]. In case that doesn’t mean a whole lot to you, here’s why it should. You know how federal agencies and corporations (Google, Facebook, Amazon, et al) can surveil you with impunity and track your habits? Working together to build a decentralized web would limit their capabilities and make the Internet a safer, faster platform for sharing in the hands of the people.Channeling the same spirit, every booth had something exciting to share.Realtra offerred stunningly crisp volumetric virtual reality, what Partner/Producer Michael Gibson calls, “immersive mise-en-scene.” By comparison, if most of the VR you’re encountering is VHS, Realtra is Blu-ray. And even that comparison doesn’t quite do it justice. To be in one of Realtra’s demos is the dream of VR. In one demo, I stood along a cliff wall next to a climber catching his breath. From outside the headset, I was encouraged to walk “over the edge.” I knew full well that I was standing on solid ground, but I still took tentative baby steps. It was that compelling.The Qualia: Zen Eagle experience, a coproduction by Mobio Interative and the CFC, inverts the typical game experience by giving you a taste of your own brainwaves. How, exactly? Before you begin, you link up to an EEG monitor, and the readings are translated into a real-time “Calm Level.” The entire experience is so serene, which, in addition to making for a respite from the many high-intensity game experiences in VR, also gives you the clearest sense of yourself and your individual path to mindfulness. There’s something key at the heart of Qualia—using VR to help us understand ourselves and each other in totally novel ways. I discovered, for instance, that a friend was an ace under pressure, clocking in 99% calm levels during dives.Speaking of the CFC, they’re up to some incredible work for the future of VR. (Color me a jealous American). In addition to partnering with filmmakers and producing work like “The Closet,” featured at FIVARS, they co-authored “Pulse on VR” with Omers Ventures (in collaboration with Nordicity). The study intends to “map out the key players in VR content creation and technology development…develop projections of VR opportunities, and increase the overall understanding of the VR ecosystem.” Again, really thoughtful work that will impact best practices in VR—especially important as it enters the mainstream.On the opposite end of the “calm” spectrum: imagine watching competitive sports from the vantage point of the athletes—live. That’s what EYE-live is cooking up for Averge Joes everywhere: a taste of the action through their Athlete’s Broadcast Network platform. At VRTO, they demoed the Hahnenkamm Race in Kitzbuehel, one of the most dangerous downhill slaloms in the world. As you can see from the video below, this includes relevant statistics, as well as the chance to see what even the skiier cannot—what’s behind and above them at any given moment. The implications with this technology for broadcast sports are enormous.Virtual reality has the capacity to bring about all new kinds of social engagement in the “lifeworld.” This is where companies like VR CO-OP and Metavrse come in. The former provides a space for Torontonians (and beyond) to collaborate and the resources to facilitate collaborative environments. The latter partners with companies and brands to develop innovative solutions involving VR and 360° content, ranging from live event streams, installations, marketing, branding, videos, photos, and other interactive experiences.One such application might be Globacore’s Escape Tomb VR Experience, a conference favorite in the form of an Indiana Jones-style escape room, which shows the possible applications for room-scale social gameplay in virtual reality.As a heavy user of the “Games” function on my TI-83+ Silver in high school, I was especially partial to their PowerCube VR game, an immersive homage to Tetris.As the FIVARS pavilion confirmed, there’s a vanguard of filmmakers who have already begun carving out their own methods for producing 360° film and VR. But we still face many obstacles in production and post-production. Is there a way to track viewers’ attention and orient it toward a desired focal point? Check out DEEP Inc’s Liquid Cinema. What about if you want to create and edit 360° video in Adobe AfterEffects? Mettle. Real-time 360° VR headset monitoring while editing? Dashwood Solutions. And these are just a few quick examples to whet the appetite—each of the above offers a host of intuitive applications in VR.And it wasn’t just virtual reality at VRTO. Industry-leader HTML Fusion let attendees imagine the future of computing in augmented reality with Microsoft’s AR headset, the HoloLens. In seeing how a fingerflick can change the color of a lamp’s light in the physical room, users could begin to imagine its myriad future applications. VRVANA‘s blended reality headset turned the real world into VR; you saw your own environment via the camera on the headset, and then could augment it in a number of ways. Among a roster of options, you could turn your environment into a green-and-black “matrix” or pilot a helicopter around the space using a controller.@JesseDamiani is locked into the matrix pic.twitter.com/6YtxX28mKk— Zzzaaaaaaaaaaccchhhh (@z_laked) June 25, 2016It’s impossible to keep your inner child from spazzing out when you see what Game Pill is cooking up. A crowd favorite was “Special FX Master,” a combination of hardware and tablet interface to let children (or adults—nobody’s judging!) create augmented photographs tailor-made for sharing. For instance, don their unique headband and your friend can snap a picture of you in a snazzy augmented helmet. Or if you’d prefer, showcase your stone-cold calm in the face of your enemies as you brandish a fiery blade. It’s all a click away. This playful sensibility points to a world in which new technologies actually expand avenues for socializing in real life.Prior to the conference, Malicki-Sánchez explained the selection process behind FIVARS:It’s an experimental festival that forces the question of the submitters, ‘What novel mechanics are you introducing with your project?’ It’s kind of a jerk thing to ask. Like, ‘Wow, it’s not good enough that I made a good 360 video that tells a good story, now you want me to introduce a unique mechanics to that?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, for sure, try something and fail at it miserably and let’s learn from that.And the FIVARS pavilion delivered. 15 stellar works were exhibited, each pushing the form in novel ways.“Knives” and “The Closet,” festival favorites, soundly disproved the notion that there’s no place for cinematic 360 with directorial vision. Both experimented with editing, atmosphere, and perspective to great success; both ought to be foundational texts for anybody looking to study storytelling craft in virtual reality. In Adam Cosco’s “Knives,” a wife begins to suspect her husband is stepping out on her and scours their apartment for proof. She discovers a lead that proves difficult to unlock, that is, until a peculiar salesman shows up… The black-and-white aesthetic and gleeful discomfort channels Hitchcock in a contemporary setting, and the intuitive editing style guides us throughout a house and neighborhood. The effect is that “Knives” achieves what many have said is impossible: simultaneously sustaining a singular vision and a fully immersive environment.“The Closet” explores the nuances of an intimate space: one house, and for the most part, one room. We open on two men hanging out on the couch when they hear a hammering from within the closet. The refined minimalism engenders palpable dread and claustrophobia. Director Ian Tuason brings a filmmaker’s eye to story presentation in VR—focal points of each “shot” explore the room from a new vantage point. In particular, the integration of the room’s verticality (employing both “low” and “high” perspectives) builds an atmosphere that brought the house to life—and not in a warm-fuzzy way.Cream360 is also doing incredible work in this arena—their “Agnus Die!” is not to be missed—but the standout piece was the Wild Things VR experience, which is out of this world. Or more accurately: quite of this world. In it, we find ourselves in Bali with Dominic Monaghan (Lord of the Rings, Lost) for his Travel Channel show of the same name, and we’re put face-to-face with a king cobra, the largest venemous snake in the world. Face-to-face doesn’t do it justice—we’re on the ground, looking right up at the thing—which, surrounded by a crew and a wrangler, is understandably in full strike mode. When you take into account that this creature’s sting can take down an elephant, imagining the moxie to pull off such a shot is a downright miracle. Add illuminating infographics into the mix and you’ve got yourself one hell of a riveting, informative experience. This is the future of adventure travel.Many have pointed to VR as an outlet that will bring about a renaissance in SFX (practical effects rather than computer-generated VFX), and in a similar vein, Wild Things shows how daring “real-life” experiences will carry incredible cache.“Irrational Exuberance: Prologue” points to another frontier of VR: the intersection of games and ambient storytelling. You begin this room-scale experience surrounded by rock. As you venture about the space and move your arms, you realize you can break the rock—you’re inside an asteroid!—affording you progressively clearer views of the breathtaking expanse of outer space. This piece foregrounds exploration as the storytelling device—the more you move, the more you discover new properties of rocks and crystals, and the more you come to wonder about what you’re doing there and who you are. This is something unique to virtual reality—an embodied experience in which the story is inferred from an environment and created in the mind “of the beholder.” If this is only the beginning, I can’t wait to see what’s coming next.Things get trippy in “Neural Path” and “Dream Time,” two experimental selections that pave the way for arthouse 360. Michaella Vu’s playfully macabre “Neural Path” is reminiscent of Terry Gilliam. Tapping archetypal motifs of theft and revenge, it places its two protagonists in an increasingly bizarre escalation of events that culminates in a psychedelic nightmare. “Dream Time” is a cross between meditation and mescaline, channeling surreality through abstracted visuals—a sky of morphing puppy eyes, a dark silhouette inching toward you from way down the road, a slice of pizza at your feet. The sustained dream logic here asks viewers to dig into their own psyches and discover what these image-narratives activate in them.Speaking of trippy, “Waiting for Big Benny” combines poetry and horror to form something uniquely, wonderfully sinister. Clocking in well under 2 minutes, Roberto Sosa is able to craft a living, breathing forest in which a little girl with a shifting face (something akin to stop-motion) jumps and gesticulates as she awaits the arrival of the eponymous Big Benny.—If there’s any takeaway from VRTO, it’s that you can’t put a price tag on authentic passion. The speakers were genuinely excited to engage, discuss, and share what they’ve learned; it’s not often you have such intimate access to such accomplished, generous leaders in your field. The attendees were equally inspired. I found myself at meetings with people who’d been strangers just prior, where we engaged in the sort of high-level conversations I crave—whether over a pork belly bánh mì or a HopBot.I guess what I’m saying is, VRTO was the dream of a tech conference. I can’t wait for next year.