10 Apr VR is About to Take Off- Musings After Attending VR LA

There’s no denying that VR has been a hot topic on the tongues of many out there, some with serious ambitions, others mostly with empty ones. I recently was able to attend an event in Los Angeles by the name of VR LA, which was started by a small team of people passionate about VR, including . The event started exactly a year ago today and now has blossomed into an event that has hundreds of attendees and very very long lines. The first event was held at Digital Domain‘s offices in LA and has graduated to being held at the JW Marriott in Downtown LA over the course of only a year. There are also other VR meetups like SVVR (Silicon Valley VR) but that event doesn’t seem to have grown as quickly as VR LA even though it now boasts almost 2,000 members. SVVR’s last meetup had about half the attendees that VR LA’s last expo had, which seems to indicate that the content seems to be driving the majority of the interest in VR.


The rapid growth of this event is a strong indicator of how quickly VR is growing and where it is growing the strongest. Oculus recently moved their offices up to Menlo Park into the new Facebook headquarters, but they still maintain a significant presence in Irvine, since that is after all where most of the content for VR is being made. There are tons of VR startups involved in VR LA, and the event itself is a great way to get a feel for where VR is right now and where its going with game developers showing off their latest games as well as content producers showing off their latest VR films. There are also VR hardware startups that show off their latest hardware at VR LA and this is complemented by all of the big hardware and software vendors supporting them during the event.

Major Players

At the last VR LA event, called the VR LA Spring Expo, Jaunt, AMD, Sony PlayStation, 360 Heros, Crytek, Epic Games and Leap Motion all had presentations that gave a detailed explanation of where they are going with VR as well as how they plan to support it. And when you look at the companies already deeply involved in VR, you can see that it is no joke or fad. Epic Games (Unreal Engine), Unity and Crytek are easily the biggest game engines out there today and they are already fully engaged with VR and enabling great VR experiences. Valve was also present with WEVR who were giving demonstrations of the HTC Re Vive VR headset, which many people still haven’t had a chance to try. Which reminds me, at the VR LA Spring Expo there were 34 slots to try out the new HTC Vive VR headset, but over 300 people signed up. That means that almost everyone attending the event wanted to try out the HTC Vive headset because of all of the good press it was getting. And frankly, after trying it myself, I can understand why.

Hardware

Right now, VR is in a very interesting phase, one might call it the gold rush phase. You can feel it at events like VR LA, which have a lot of excited attendees and exhibitors. But their exuberance does not seem irrational, it seems anticipatory. Right now, there are a lot of companies trying to figure out the direction that VR hardware and software will go and virtually every major gaming company is involved in VR one way or another. The stand outs in the PC world are definitely AMD, Epic, Valve and Crytek and even Razer. However, the PC industry is only one facet of the direction VR is going, because right now VR has a major fork in the road. That fork is the divide between mobile VR and PC VR. Companies like Oculus simply have development teams working on both at the same time, with Oculus Dallas (headed up by John Carmack) running the mobile side of things with Gear VR and the rest of the company being mostly split between Irvine and Menlo Park (they also have offices in SF, Seoul and Seattle).

The overall feeling among many in the industry, including myself, is that Oculus is the biggest player in the VR space and has spent the most time working on both the software and hardware to make things possible. However, they have yet to come to market with a consumer device, even though the company’s founder says that may become a reality this holiday season. However, Oculus’ most recent prototype, the Crescent Bay, is still in very short supply and is virtually impossible to get a hold of. Even so, if Oculus can somehow get the Crescent Bay headset read for the consumer market, they are still not really going to be shipping anything in volume until 2016. Then there is the Samsung Gear VR which Oculus developed in conjunction with with Samsung so that it could use the Galaxy Note 4 as the display. The Gear VR, and mobile in general, appear to be the quickest route for VR to gain adoption and improve the overall quality of the experience. After all, most of the VR headsets still have resolutions lower than 2560 x 1440 and don’t have access to the display technology and processing power than the Note 4 has.

Gear VR

Gear VR Side

The fundamental problem with going with a mobile-first strategy with VR, however, is that mobile phones do not necessarily have enough horsepower to drive a very high quality VR experience at the 90 Hz that are needed in order to feel realistic. This is why we may still continue to see smartphone manufacturers continuing to push the processing and display envelopes in order to enable quality mobile VR experiences. Samsung’s Gear VR is by no means bad or even mediocre, but in order to smoothly play back something like Portal 2 at 90 Hz, you still need a PC and that’s why HTC and Valve’s Vive headset is still hooked up to a PC. In the end, all of this started with the PC and will probably continue to improve on the PC, but there’s a very large segment that is already pushing the envelope in mobile and we all know that mobile iterates at twice the speed that the PC industry does, so we see better and better displays, GPUs and positional tracking with each and every generation. This is why Oculus’ work with Gear VR is so important and why so many other companies are looking to replicate what Gear VR has done so far, but with more inclusive hardware solutions that can use more than just Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4.

Right now, from what I have both seen myself and heard from others in the industry, HTC’s Vive is the best VR solution out there, which very likely may put the fire under Oculus in a way that they maybe haven’t had before. Oculus has had a lot of little competitors prop up, including Razer with their OSVR headset, but the reality is that Valve and HTC’s Vive is not only competitive with Oculus’ solution, its actually better. I will be the first to admit that I haven’t had a chance to try out Oculus’ Crescent Bay prototype myself, but that’s partially because of its exclusivity and also because there wasn’t a single one available at the VR LA expo (there were plenty of DK2 and DK1 headsets). There are also some extremely low-cost VR experiences like Google’s Google Cardboard which is designed to give a VR experience for virtually nothing, while still enabling developers to create mobile VR apps. I do not believe that Google Cardboard is really any part of Google’s long term strategy, but rather their own attempt to make sure there is content for VR when there are VR headsets that are worth buying for mobile. Additionally, There are already some impressive Google Cardboard experiences from some very big companies.

Content

Right now, content for VR is fairly limited, however, lots of companies and studios are getting heavily involved in VR and actually have been for quite some time. At last year’s Comic-Con I counted at least 3 or 4 booths that utilized Oculus’ VR headsets to create immersive experiences with VR to promote their upcoming shows or films. Right now, some of the biggest studios are already working on VR experiences including Warner Brothers, who recently have shown off their Batman: The Animated Series VR experience in partnership with DC Entertainment and OTOY. OTOY’s light field technology is designed to allow for content creators to very easily take their content, be it game content or film content and import it into their engine and improve the quality of the VR experience, cross platform. This already means that content producers can create content for multiple platforms (mobile or PC) without worrying too much about fragmentation. However, there were numerous games already being shown for VR at the VR LA expo, some of which are still under NDA and cannot be talked about until their release. But even so, there were long lines to try out these games and while they did still need some work in terms of head tracking and interface, they are much better VR experiences and developers are already starting to consider VR as a means of differentiation for their games. There are actually quite a bit of games for Google Cardboard, seeing as it is Google’s own supported platform and it can be developed for on basically any Android phone without the need for any special hardware.

But games are only half of what the VR world is expecting to become as Hollywood is also very interested in VR as well. Lionsgate is also onboard with Google Cardboard with their Insurgent experience, which is admittedly a very detailed and involved demo, but it isn’t necessarily that immersive. Lionsgate is also partnered with Valve and HTC’s VR Vive headset and that should also result in some interesting experiences down the road. Legendary pictures hasn’t announced anything yet this year, but they had a pretty serious and well received Pacific Rim VR experience at last year’s San Diego Comic-Con. 20th Century Fox also is extremely interested in VR, so much so that they hired away Ted Schilowitz from RED and made him their Fox Futurist/Consiglieri in Feature Post Production and VR Creation. Back when Ted was at RED, they helped start the 4K content revolution and helped bring affordable 4K cameras to the industry and may have ultimately pushed 4K into the position that it is today. Jaunt is also a big player in the VR space, creating dozens of VR experiences that make you feel like you’re at the event that they filmed with their cameras, however Jaunt’s experiences merely scratch the surface for what kind of content can be created for VR. HBO has also partnered with Valve and HTC with the Vive, but no details have been given about that partnership, but it could involve something from Game of Thrones, seeing as how much of that show is already heavily post-produced with VFX. HBO has already built a Game of Thrones experience called “Ascend the Wall” for the Oculus Rift DK1, so one would expect them to build upon that experience.

Car companies like Mercedes and Volvo are already working with VR. Mercedes is onboard with their Mercedes Benz VR experience for Google Cardboard which gives you a VR experience of racing as well as looking at cars in VR. Volvo’s experience is designed to be a sort-of virtual test drive, where you can try out the XC90 before it even arrives on the market. After all, many car companies already have detailed 3D models of their cars and for them to give their customers access to the car, inside and out, could serve as a valuable sales tool.

Managing expectations

Right now, VR is in its toddler years. It isn’t quite in its infancy anymore, but we are still seeing a lot of new hardware players entering the arena and the ones that are already established are still figuring out exactly what their consumer end product will look like. Content producers still need a lot of work and the content for VR for both gaming and film are still very few and far between. All of this will change once there are feasible consumer VR products on the market that work as well as Valve’s Vive. Perhaps it will be the Vive, maybe not, but what is for sure is that 2015 is still a year of improvement and growth and there is no way that anyone can consider VR a serious industry until 2016. All of the major hardware that people are expecting will only become available at the end of this year, the earliest, and the content is still needing room for improvement as well. All of this is assuming that everyone’s hardware is on time and ready for real time, which isn’t usually the case with hardware startups, so that even further supports the narrative of 2016 as really being the year of VR. This is why many of the VR reports out there are missing big on their projections for 2015 and beyond.

The reality is that now is the time to start watching VR closely, even though there are still new players coming into the space every month. The reason why is because this will be the year when the industry leaders are supposed to ship their consumer products and very likely when the content producers will start to take VR even more seriously. Even though there are still 8 months left in 2015, there is a very strong chance that the industry will not see much, if any, profitability until 2016. Everyone is too busy working with developers and trying to get their consumer hardware ready to actually be able to make money, plus none of them are actually technically selling any consumer products yet. So, to be calling this a billion dollar industry is only to be projecting 3-5 years out because its very hard to see how VR will be close to a billion dollar industry within the next year or two. If you are in the gaming industry or film industry and haven’t seriously looked at VR, you should be now or else you are going to miss the train in 2016.