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3 Takeaways from VRLA 2017

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Before I get too far, did anyone else notice that the girl in the image has no way of seeing where she’s going? I don’t think it would be funny for her to crash, but the concept of this picture is hilarious.

On to some (Virtual) Reality and VRLA.

According to the organizers, VRLA is the world’s largest VR and AR expo in the world. Of course, I didn’t have any expectations that this event would even be comparable to something like the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) which, for those that have never attended, is a behemoth held in Las Vegas at the start of each year. CES spans multiple, massive halls at the Las Vegas Convention Center and has more recently taken over numerous meeting spaces at hotels on the Strip.

No, despite being the largest event of its kind, VRLA is no CES. Held at the LA Convention Center, the festivities were contained to a relatively small footprint. All of that said, I was still impressed by the size of the event. There were close to 200 exhibitors and major sponsors like Microsoft (HoloLens), HP, Unity, Facebook (Oculus), HTC (Vive), and many more were active participants.

I had the chance to speak with dozens of exhibitors, experience numerous, well, experiences, and attend 4 different panel discussions. I also listened in on part of John Riccitiello’s (CEO of Unity) Keynote. Overall, I learned a great deal, which is a compliment in that I’m not completely new to VR or the world of immersive content. My company (gomarchingpenguin.com) has worked on several immersive and mixed reality projects. So I wasn’t coming into the event a complete novice.

By the same token, and for the sake of humility, I’ll assert that I’m no “expert”. I say that partially because I think few can truly claim the title of expert at this stage of the game. The space is too new, too experimental, and too undefined. So, while I wish I had a magic ball in front of me to predict the future, all I can say is that these are my well-thought out observations after a couple years in the space:

1. Powerful / Smart / Well-funded People and Companies are backing this movement. This may sound like a no-brainer given some of the names I’ve listed off thus far. However, sponsorship of events or attendance by some industry VIP’s alone is not always an indicator of significant backing at a trade show. Big name sponsors are often a staple at trade shows, simply because it is an advertising channel for them. Why I say that there is proof of major backing is because of the depth of the information, case uses, and case studies that were represented.

For example, Riccitiello’s Keynote itself focused less on the flash and sizzle of immersive. Rather, it was a jumping off point for discussing infrastructure for the future of immersive. Riccitiello spelled out a well-articulated roadmap with a long-term horizon, predicting that we are still 2 years away from really having the pieces together for convincing and adoptable immersive experiences. 2 years, in technology world, is a long horizon! In taking this position, Riccitiello indicated that Unity, along with all of the major players in the space, are truly eyeing this as the next big thing. And he was clear, there is still a lot of work to be done.

2. Immersive is nascent in a way nothing else has ever been in consumer technology. New technologies and platforms predictably go through life cycles. They start small, driven and supported by early adopters, and from there they gain momentum. This is nothing new. What’s different about immersive is how much it is pushing the boundaries of our technical capabilities. It is the convergence of multiple technologies and fields. Immersive is video production, CGI, development, manufacturing, haptic technology, psychology, anatomy and more. This convergence is all further complicated by the need to deliver immersive in a real-time fashion. It all translates into a laundry list of challenges for the major players. You have limitations with CPU processing power, GPU processing power, camera capture resolution, stitching and more. These technical limitations breed a host of consumer challenges like cost (e.g. computer, headset, content), health (e.g. people getting dizzy / sick) and portability. It’s a lot to think about, work through, and get right.

So, I wasn’t totally shocked to see that many of the experiences I went through at VRLA had issues. Several of them crashed or had to be re-started. Some had resolution issues. Others had basic stitching issues. And one in particular made me so sick that I was still lying on my bed with a headache 6 hours after the experience on a Friday night. I’m not naming any of these experiences by company because I know first-hand how hard it is to do what they are doing. I also know how limited they are by technology. And so, that’s why it’s re-assuring that we have #1 above. We need better infrastructure to get to the next level.

3. Augmented Reality (AR) is coming fastest. The event is called “VRLA” and yet there were exhibitors for 360° Video, Augmented Reality (AR), and Virtual Reality (VR). From a marketing standpoint, I get why the organizers chose “VRLA”. If I was in their shoes, I probably would have done the same. There is a tendency to group these technologies together and refer to them as VR. The alternative is “immersive”, but ImmersiveLA doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as nicely. The semantics aside, defining what we are talking about when it comes to immersive, is valuable, important, and a logical next step in the process. It’s important we start to differentiate these technologies both as industry practitioners and consumers. That way, we are better able to talk through what we’re building and experiencing. For more on definitions / distinctions within immersive, you can refer to an article I wrote last year: 2016 is the Year of 360° Video (and VR).

Perhaps the most important reason for distinguishing the “what” is the fact that AR deployment and use is going from walking to running while VR is just starting to crawl. The funny thing is that most of us aren’t even talking about AR. While Microsoft quietly builds its network for HoloLens, Snapchat has built its entire business around AR with more than 160 MM active users and Facebook is quickly following suit with its close to 1.9 Billion active users. Meanwhile, even optimistic estimates of VR active users capped out at less then 50 MM in 2016. So, it is almost an understatement to say that AR has already arrived (even though it’s masquerading as the rebellious step-child of social media). With AR many of the technical challenges I referenced in #2 above either aren’t an issue or have already been taken care of. Adoption is natural and more attuned to everyday life. You need a smartphone and nothing else. No headset. No pimped out computer. So if anything, it may be time for 360° Video and VR to take more cues from AR. Because pretty soon, Augmented Reality may just be referred to as Reality.