Tucked in the far back reached of South Hall at the Las Vegas Convention Center, somewhere behind a sign saying “beware of the leopard” a small group of elite occultists gather together, to don strange masks and speak about the black art of traveling to other dimensions.
This is the seed of a group of experimenters and technologists, mavens and bleeding edge early adopters who have by this point made something of Palmer Luckey’s dream to bring virtual reality to the masses. 20 years ago, virtual reality made a run at it. Companies like Atari and Sega threw massive resources at the idea of fully immersive alternate realities in gaming, art, science and military training. But the technology had an Achilles’ heel – it simply couldn’t deliver a lag-free experience and eventually got overtaken by the more nimble and wide-ranged internet.
I won’t delve into the rest of the story about a 19-year-old boy from Long Beach starting a crowdfunding campaign and then being bought up by Facebook for 2.6 billion a couple of years later, but I will say that what I saw in this room at NAB looked and smelled and sounded like all the cues I needed to recognize that this was the next big thing.
I have been covering NAB as a journalist and social media marketer for a decade and saw the rise and fall of 3DTV, the way the organization rebranded itself in the face of massive cable cutting and more, and so I am always cautiously optimistic about new ideas being pushed out as though they will save or revitalize the industry. But what made VR ring true for me, is that it is such a unique new medium that it simply can’t be shoved back into the bottle. With over 1.5 billion smart devices installed, and the ingenuity of companies like Samsung (Gear VR) and Google (cardboard) adapting to the use of phones as the engine for VR experiences, this becomes a bit of a no-brainer.
Meanwhile, back at NAB, reps from companies like WEVR, Video-Stitch, Horn & Ivry talk about emerging best practices and standards for authoring Virtual Reality content, and what approaches to take with capturing video in 360, and I realize that these people are just banging it out and testing and rapid prototyping, failing often and coming up with answers. This is the sort of energy that bring me to a meeting ground like NAB; a collision and a network of ideas, deals, failures and discoveries by people who can and will have the capacity to then disseminate that out to the planet.
Several years back NAB had a focus on independent games and the video game industry in general. With speakers like Jane McGonigal speaking about games as recovery tools for sufferers of anxiety and depression, to Pop Cap exploring freemium models, it was an eye-opening year, and one that NAB never repeated, unfortunately. This year it was virtual reality and drones. The drones seem to be OK, with netted-off areas slowly taking over the Central hall of the LVCC; they are more entrenched in the public dialogue than ever before. FPV (first person view) drone racing is becoming the new national sport.
But Virtual Reality is still, in spite of its major backers (SONY, HTC, Samsung, Facebook) a delicate flower that needs to be nurtured and viewed as a powerful force for positive change. It would be far too easy to exploit the intimate nature of Virtual Reality for emotionally charged, visceral marketing, the way we have with Soda and Candy for the sugar industry. But used for news gathering, previsualization, medicine, telerobotics, education and therapy, could be a world changer. What we learned from running our early VR events is that it is more than just what goes on inside the head mounted display (HMD); we must find a proper way to exhibit content that is comfortable to new audiences. UX (user experience) will be a term used often as VR finds its legs in the public sphere.
Once something gets to NAB, it is in front of the policymakers, the gatekeepers, the sharpest and most experienced minds in the big show of the tech and entertainment industries. Though VR was tucked into the back of the small tents at the circus in 2015, I am so sure that it will become a prime feature, that I went home and created VRTO – Toronto’s Virtual reality Meetup, and FIVARS – the Festival of International Virtual and Augmented Reality Stories. Both have been a huge success an d the most incredible part about them is the sense of wonder they evoke in the audiences. Not just for the novelty, but the impact of this incredible new medium. I am here to help keep it moving forward int the best way possible.