Between 11-13 April, enthusiasts and pioneers of the virtual reality (VR) world descended on Bristol for Europe’s largest VR conference and expo – the VR World Congress (VRWC).
Ed Boal and Joe Evans from our Digital Media & Technology team went along to day two of VRWC, to explore the wares of companies leading the way in VR tech and to hear from industry experts on the direction of travel for this rapidly growing industry.
Exploring the Expo (VR nerd-vana)
For those of us who can’t quite justify the cost of a PSVR or Rift, the Expo provided an opportunity to experience first-hand the wonder of being immersed in a virtual environment. From Microsoft’s (technically mixed reality) HoloLens, to Igloo’s 360-degree projection dome; from Play Nicely’s Oogpister beetle experience – Oogie – to VRGO’s low latency wireless VR chair, the variety of hardware vendors and content developers was hugely impressive for such a nascent market.
— Joseph Evans (@GreggLatchamsJE) April 12, 2017
Towards full presence and photorealism
Ping-ponging between At-Bristol and Watershed the day was jam-packed with seminars and talks, kicking off with the keynote from Roy Taylor of AMD. Reflecting on the unprecedented rate of growth within the VR industry, his call to action was: “Plan not for where you think VR tech is now, but how it will evolve over the next three years”. He identified that in order to achieve VR’s ultimate goals of full presence and photorealism, this would need some serious processor power and agility and with that, he made a major product announcement from AMD:
— Gregg Latchams DMT (@GL_DigMediaTech) April 12, 2017
Acknowledging VR’s current limitations (including the wires which AMD’s Nitero technology will eliminate), Taylor showcased some of the amazing interactive content that will be honoured by BAFTA’s VR Advisory Group in the coming weeks and encouraged his audience to “rethink the ‘Z’ and look through the prism of your current knowledge and experience”. And for those concerned about the marketplace becoming too crowded, in particular with new entrants from China, he exclaimed “all of the cool stuff has not been invented yet!”
VR is PR
Sam Huber explored the untapped potential of advertising in VR and AR:
"If we want AR/VR to reach millions, it needs to work with advertising – #VR is a media revolution – content is the reality"
— Gregg Latchams DMT (@GL_DigMediaTech) April 12, 2017
Huber’s company, Advir, has developed a programmatic network which allows ads to co-exist with interactive VR content rather than compete with it. Advir is one of the founding members of The VR&AR Pledge: a commitment to keep VR and AR experiences free from intrusive adverts which is underpinned by six ‘golden rules’ of VR/AR advertising. Huber stressed the importance of first-mover advantage in the VR advertising sphere and the benefits of early adoption as part of the learning experience in their new advertising paradigm.
Enhancing the experience
Immersive storyteller Sarah Jones, named in the top 100 global influencers in VR, talked about how the senses of taste, touch and smell could be combined with 360-degree video to build layers of immersion. From Heilig’s Sensorama to a VR experience in a hot tent with spices and smelly blankets, Jones suggested that content developers need to become magicians and spacemakers.
Jones was followed by Ed Miller of Scape AR, which is developing a platform for city-scale AR to create more realistic and localised content experiences in cities starting with London. Instead of using 2D markers, Scape AR uses location-based markers to improve the mobile AR experience both indoors and outdoors.
The importance of touch
Anyone who engages with the Bristol tech scene will have heard of Ultrahaptics, which uses ultrasound technology to deliver mid-air haptic (touch) feedback. Founder Tom Carter explained the importance of touch – which the brain processes 1.7 times faster than visual cues – as part of bringing presence to the VR experience.
Although quite a number of their current projects are under wraps, he shared examples of how their technology is used in everything from artworks to the automotive industry. He also noted the huge potential of haptic technology to convey one-to-one and one-to-many interactions and emotional responses, underpinned by academic research which was based around Ultrahaptics’ technology.
The ethical issues of VR
Michael Madary, who co-authored the first code of ethics for research and consumer use of VR, delved into the ethical issues surrounding VR. He differentiated VR from other emerging technologies due to its immersiveness in the sense of its ability to create illusions of embodiment (the relationship between our brains and our bodies) and agency (the belief of being in control of ones actions).
Madary also addressed the ethical issues for the developers who create these virtual environments and the opportunities for targeted behavioural influencing (for example the use of VR to encourage charitable donations arguably straddles the line between autonomy and beneficence). His conclusion was that VR pioneers should expect the general public to be concerned about the long-term psychological effects of immersive technologies and that further research into the effects of body swapping, using avatars of the dead, virtual ‘relations’ and virtual violence is necessary.
The excitement and positivity about VR’s future at VRWC 2017 was palpable – and with the announcement that a new Bristol VR Lab is set to open in September 2017, Bristol seems to be leading the way. However there was much less hype than we expected. Despite 2016 representing a major step-change for the industry, it was generally accepted that the technology still has some distance to go (though it is developing at breakneck speed) and that the role of AR/MR is perhaps more crucial in the short-to-medium term for both the consumer and corporate markets. What is clear is that VR/AR/MR is not just a passing fad – over the next 3-5 years we will see this technology appear in broad variety of contexts both inside and outside the home with the potential reshape whole industries.
For us, the legal issues that arise from combining the real and the virtual are fascinating and through close collaboration with our clients, we aim to find creative and practical solutions for our clients operating in this space.
If you work in VR or are simply curious about it, why not come along to our Tech Social on 27 April.