VRTGO 2017: The Only Mixed Reality Event That Matters

Posted on November 25, 2017


VRTGO conference is the VR go-to meeting for industry in the UK. This is one day of perfectly-formed virtual content.

Gateshead’s internationally renowned Baltic Centre is the ideal showcase venue to hear more about the art, business and brains going into today’s virtual words and immersive experiences. And for VR to gain traction it needs events like VRTGO because the organisers understand that industry has to workshop, exchange ideas, hear what’s new and look at what’s emerging at the cutting edge.

Of course there were plenty of opportunities to don the head gear and play the latest games at VRTGO 2017, with Unreal boasting the incredible ‘Robo Recall‘ – a techno destruction-fest that leaves players gasping – and Wolf and Wood’s spin on ‘The Exorcist’, the next in their distinguished production line of VR horror titles.

Mountains to Climb

When it comes to the nitty gritty VR business, then Thor Gunnarsson of Solfar in Iceland knows all about the highs and lows. Right now the business realities are tough for virtual production studios. VR is currently in the ‘trough of dissillusionment’ says Thor and many in the industry are wondering how to get past it.

“VR is a big shift,” says Thor. “It’s like moving from a landline to a mobile phone in terms of the technology.” Solfar has produced a first-person mountain climbing experience for Oculus, HTC Vive and now Playstation VR. Players have to don their gear to scramble to the top of Everest, the world’s highest mountain. The graphics are incredibly photorealistic and were created using fly-bys of the slopes, glaciers, ridges and peaks of the world’s tallest summit.

Thor is brutally honest about the experience of building an Everest climbing simulator. “There are easier ways to make money,” he admits. “We learned that we should not try to build our own game engine or to modify Unreal. And I recommend you do not underestimate the complexity of platform adaptation.”

Solfar initially had the problem of how to sell the experience once it was ready and opted for a museum-type experience first of all, donating it to the Royal Geographical Society’s Everest collection. But if you’re interested in discovering it for yourself you can download it now from the Playstation Store.

Dose of Reality

Reality bites when you have to market your VR experience to a consumer base that just isn’t that clued up about the latest developments and doesn’t care to don the headgear to get their kicks. Jed Ashforth says developers must differentiate what they do by creating a superior user experience.

As the game director behind Playstation’s MotorStorm series, he has consulted on more than 100 VR titles and co-founded the Playstation VR project. Now he consults with businesses on making their VR dreams come to life with Realised Realities. “Nobody really understands the utility of VR yet,” he says. “We don’t, so why should the consumer?” The simple fact is that most VR does not look slick and sexy. “We’re still at the Space Invaders stage.”

One of Jed’s tips for VR breakthrough is the growing popularity of ‘performance’ titles such as Jam Session or Rock Band. He also picks out Mindshow as a ‘must-try’ – a ‘game’ that allows you to build your own animated VR movies, act out all the parts and then share them with others.

“Performance titles will be hugely popular,” says Jed. “Public VR spaces will be a gateway experience for many, but that will lead to people creating room space in their house for VR.” And if you don’t want to create and act out in your own worlds, then you can get wasted and scrap with strangers in Drunkn Bar Fight. Just like you’ve always wanted to.

Social VR and AR are going to be huge too. Linked up gameplay titles like Rec Room, Facebook Spaces or Echo Arena will draw in people of all ages. Mirage World for iOS is an app that allows Apple mobile users to create drawings, notes, maps, videos and interactive images overlaid on the real world for others to discover. It will allow people to build the metaverse using only their mobile device.

Businesses looking to capitalise on online collaboration and training will use technologies like Microsoft’s HoloLens to link up employees around the world. Max Doelle, chief holographic officer at Kazendi hails the HoloLens as a way to ‘holoport’ into shared spaces. Group members will be able to remotely share and manipulate 3D objects and the whole session can be recorded and replayed in real time to allow greater training insights.

Rewind your Mind

For the tech agnostic the real power of immersive experiences is creative storytelling, says Luciana Carvalho of creative agency and production studio Rewind. It doesn’t matter if it’s AR, VR or a technology that hasn’t yet been invented: we already have an incredibly powerful set of tools that can augment humanity and even rewire the brain.

“The power of VR is presence,” says Luciana. “Attention is the new oil and we have a tool here that can make people 100 per cent focused and engaged. VR drives emotional response – it makes people feel and makes them act.”

And if that sounds like hype then look at some of the projects making it happen, says Luciana. VR has a long-term impact on individual psychology and particularly empathy. MIT’s ‘Tree‘ transforms you into a rainforest tree with your arms as branches and body as the trunk. You feel what it’s like to grow and flourish with other trees and then experience the anguish of deforestation firsthand.

Or in a less a abstract way with ‘The Machine to be Another‘, which is an open source VR project that allows people to swap bodies and perceive reality from a different perspective. Experiencing yourself as a young or old person, as a wheelchair user, as a refugee, creates another level of empathy and understanding. Or as BeAnotherLab would have it, the new virtual reality is to engage, empathise and educate.

But with great power comes great responsibility of course. VR can actually create false memories and Stanford University’s research showed that 50 per cent of children who took part in a ‘swimming with whales‘ experience later thought that the experience was real.

Industry Needs New Vision

Another sobering thought comes from Faisal Mushtaq and his team at the University of Leeds. The headsets that we use for VR may compromise our children’s health, whether that be affecting the neck or muscles in the eye, the hearing or a child’s sense of balance.

“In a VR device, a virtual three-dimensional world is displayed on a 2D screen and that places strain on the human visual system.” said Leeds professor of cognitive psychology Mark Mon-Williams. “In adults, that can lead to headaches and sore eyes. But with children, the long-term consequences are simply unknown.”

His team concluded that the VR industry could and should invest in making sure its technology was fit for fitness. “The great thing about virtual reality is that you are no longer restrained by Newtonian mechanics,” said Prof Mon-Williams. “You are creating your own world but that has the potential to set up unnatural interactions. There may be some fairly simple solutions to the problems we have uncovered. Nevertheless, an immense change lies ahead. We want to make sure that it is implemented correctly from the start and, to be fair, so does the VR industry which takes this kind of study very seriously.”

Power-up Locally

For anyone looking to develop their VR experience or professional competency then VRTGO is the place to go. Right round the corner from the Baltic Centre is the north east’s Digital Catapult Immersive Centre at the Northern Design Centre. The labs are available for hire to demonstrate, innovate, test and experience the latest immersive technology and content. Each space is equipped with a range of the latest augmented and virtual reality hardware to encourage commercial innovation

Excitement is also building about Proto – a 3,000sqm technology centre equippped with spatial sound systems, temperature control, fans and more. Proto (due to open in spring 2018) will offer access to the latest emerging technologies equipment, including haptics and wearable body suits, motion capture technology, omnidirectional treadmills, VR motorised chairs and VR cameras.