#240: Tony Parisi on Alternatives to Walled Garden Platforms with the Open Web & WEVR

tony-parisiTony Parisi has been working towards creating an open ecosystem of virtual reality helping to co-create the Virtual Reality Modeling Language in the early 90s. He recently took a position at WEVR, and while he’s not revealing too much about the details of what he’s going to be working on at WEVR, it’s likely to do with building out components of the VR ecosystem using open web technologies like WebVR. In this interview, Tony talks about some of the disadvantages of the VR experiences solely being created within walled-garden and proprietary context, and the advantages of moving towards making VR a first-class citizen on the open web.



I talked with Tony about the current dynamic VR distribution paradigm, which is a walled garden approach where there are guardians of the different platform stores. He says that there are going to be multi-million dollar VR games, a lot of indie developer experiences, but then there’s going to be a huge drop off for everything else where it’s not going to have any distribution options and will likely disappear into obscurity. If there’s content that is too experimental or explicit, then there’s not really a good outlet for type of long-tail material. At the moment it kind of just disappears. Of if there is awareness around the content outside of the official channels, then there has to be specific hacks and workarounds such as the sideloading installation process for mobile VR that users will have to do in order to get access to this content.

Tony acknowledges that the watching VR experiences or playing VR games via the web is not quite viable yet due to the latency issues as well as the fact that the web browsers are locked in at 60 frames per second. He says that one current blocker is that it’s a political decision within each of the browser companies in order to make the required architectural changes in order to optimize browsers to be better suited for the delivery of real-time 3D and immersive virtual reality experiences. However, he points out that one huge step within the last year towards the goal of VR being delivered on the web is that all of the major PC and mobile web browsers implemented WebGL natively.

There’s still a long way to go with the open web and VR, but Tony is committed to helping to make the creation of VR experiences go beyond just the 1 million+ Unity and Unreal developers, and to the more the 10 million web developers.

Tony sees that there’s a lot of the consumer push of VR is around gaming, but that ultimately that he thinks that there’s going to be other more compelling applications of VR. WEVR is obviously focused very heavily in the production of cinematic VR experiences, but Tony is also personally excited about creation tools like Tiltbrush 3D painting application and the Oculus Medium sculpting tool.

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Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.

[00:00:12.060] Tony Parisi: I'm Tony Parisi. I'm Vice President of Platform Products at Weaver, a Los Angeles-based content and technology company in VR. You know, people might know about me from earlier days doing other things in VR. I've been out in the space for a long time and most recently I was doing a lot of work in VR on the web, working with folks in the browser companies to work on a set of APIs for making redistributable VR content using web browsers and programmed in JavaScript. And that was, you know, some really exciting few years as VR started, you know, taking off again with the new round of consumer hardware. And I've known the folks at Weaver for about a year. I actually met them at last year's Oculus Connect One. So we're celebrating our first anniversary here. And we got to know each other and I actually worked on a project with them to do some of the things that we're talking about doing in the future, which I can't really talk about yet specifically. We got to know each other and over a period of several months we realized it made sense for me to join up and take my ideas and sensibilities which are about open ecosystems for VR and different approaches to VR platform technology and engine technology. and bring them into Weaver. Now, Weaver, as a company, has two kind of arms to the business. They make a lot of signature content, breakout content. In fact, we just won two Proto Awards for The Blue, which is this wonderful underwater VR experience that a lot of people, I'm sure, have seen now. and they do a lot of other content projects but they have a whole other side to the business which is the company's making a 360 video player with hot spotting in it so interactive elements that you can gaze at and when they highlight you can tap and go to another part of the video but these are largely 360 video experiences either live capture or pre-rendered CG on the spherical projections either mono or stereo. And we've got a really high performance player that a tech team at Weaver has built to the metal, native, not in Unity, not in Unreal. So it works cross-platform. It's working on the Vive. They're a launch partner with the Vive, the company. It's working on Gear VR. It's working on Cardboard. So that's really exciting. And that's video. And we're talking about where to take things with video, but where to go beyond video into other kinds of interactive places. So that's why I'm at the company.

[00:02:18.919] Kent Bye: Great. And so you've done some presentations on WebVR. And in that presentation, you talk about kind of the trajectory of this closed ecosystem download base. And then you kind of juxtapose that to more the open web. So maybe you could talk about some of the qualities that you list there of that closed ecosystem and what the open web in contrast to that provides.

[00:02:40.120] Tony Parisi: Yeah, okay, let's get into this. So, you know, at times when I do my presentations, I may sound a little militant about, you know, open systems and open distribution, and I'm a big believer in them, but I also think I have a bit of a balanced view, and I was really, you know, we're at Oculus Connect right now, and I was really happy to hear John Carmack's keynote and hear him talk about this. You know, and even John, you know, CTO of Oculus is saying, not everything should be a downloadable app. Packaged as such you know that model works great for gaming and other things But it may not be the way all kind of content is delivered I mean he actually acknowledged that and it doesn't work really well for all kinds of content We can just start there as a discussion point I don't know if you caught the recent news about the iOS app that was booted from the App Store called Ferguson firsthand Someone built an app, a 3D Unity recreation of the Ferguson incident and the shooting and it was booted out of the App Store because it was too quote-unquote narrow in scope and topical. which is interesting. Apparently, the app guidelines talk about that somewhere in the iOS store. So, you wonder, well, if he had done Police Brutality Across America 2015 as a broader app, would that have been approved? Who knows? But the real point there is not every kind of content fits into an app model. That's really a news story or a little mini documentary that could be, if that was a 2D thing, if that was a non-VR thing, that would be delivered as a web page. That wouldn't be packaged up as an app. But for technical reasons, there is no other way to deliver VR to Gear VR or Cardboard unless you put it in an app, right? And not all content fits into that framework. So, wouldn't it be great if for some kinds of content you could just hit a link and it just starts playing? The content streaming to you, the 3D parts are getting downloaded incrementally and you don't have to do an install at all. There's no commitment to go install it for the consumer. There's no friction to getting it. There's no friction for the developer to upload it to you. They just shared it on a link or you saw it in a tweet somewhere and you were good to go. And just imagine for a second, a little thought exercise, go back to the early days of the web. Now imagine that the way you got your news stories from CNN on a daily basis was downloading a new PDF every morning, an Adobe PDF, and that's how you got your news. We wouldn't have a web today. There would be no websites, there would be no Twitter, there would be no Facebook. So bringing that thinking forward into being able to publish and end users being able to experience VR content like that that's refreshed daily, or maybe doesn't fit into app scope guidelines, or maybe isn't adult content that some distributors don't want to touch right now. It gets you thinking about other models of distribution. And so, I'm still really a big believer in that kind of open ecosystem for those reasons, right? I'm also a big fiend about the web technology stack. I think it's a big democratizing factor in the world. I think there's 10 million web programmers out there and there's about a million Unity programmers, for example. I mean, the numbers don't lie on this. It's just, it's a much more accessible medium for programming as well as publishing, right? So, I also think it would be really great if web programmers have access to a VR stack and VR programmers have access to a web stack. be the Reese's Cup of VR, my point. You know, these two things that can work really well together. Now, web technologies lagging behind, still on the native stuff. And this is not, despite people's perceptions, anything to do with the speed of JavaScript, the speed of WebGL rendering. These are both blazingly fast if properly engineered, or if you're using a set of open source tools that are designed to do this well. The current set of limitations are around the browsers, both mobile and desktop, being able to track your head fast enough. And it's interesting when you talk to the folks at Google or Firefox about why those limitations are there. It's because the browser's refresh rate has been pegged to 60 frames a second for the longest time because they've had no reason to go faster until now, until with VR. So, if you do go get a Firefox or Chrome nightly build that has the so-called WebVR APIs in them, what you will get is something that can render brilliantly, look beautiful and smooth, but you're going to have a bit of lag on the head tracking and you're going to get the motion sickness. especially true on the mobile browsers right now because those are still using what's called a device orientation system that's for the browsers that's not done for real time. It's different. It's good for accelerometer tilt for like playing a little racing game, not near good enough for VR. But there's hope there because on the mobile browsers, the Firefox folks and the Chrome folks have got betas of their mobile browsers that are doing it right. They're talking straight to the accelerometer using a different set of APIs that are coming from the desktop. We'll see how that all goes. I'm really excited about that. But it's still, you have to stay still early stages. And no one's really stepped up at Google or Mozilla yet and said, well, VR is top priority. And therefore, we're going to fix these issues. But certainly, the engineers working on the problems know that they are spending some time on it. But I don't know where it falls in corporate priority levels at this point. But I'm hopeful.

[00:07:40.267] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I think the last time we talked was back in May of 2014, and a lot has happened in the realm of WebVR. And you've also been involved with WebGL, ART, and just kind of like this open web as a connector in a lot of ways, in terms of keeping track of what's going on in this space. From your perspective, what do you see as some of the bigger milestones that have happened in the last year and a half or so in terms of either WebVR or WebGL, in terms of getting closer towards actually having a viable solution for VR?

[00:08:11.016] Tony Parisi: Well, the biggest milestone in WebGL in general, without a doubt in the last year and a half, was that last summer Apple adopted it for iOS. Before that, WebGL had been everywhere. You know, Microsoft was a domino that fell a year before that. They were kind of a big holdout for a long time, citing security reasons and other things. But they got on the program in 2013. But it took Apple until 2014. They had it in Safari on the desktop. It took them until 2014 to turn it on by default in Safari on the desktop and put it in iOS 8. And that was a huge deal. Relative to VR, that was largely unnoticed because there was so much else going on in VR last year and still this year. But that was a big one because it's really led to a pretty big rise in the adoption of development of WebGL applications. And a lot of people are building massive multiplayer games in it, all kinds of digital marketing systems that work on the web. So all of those skills and tools will translate straight into VR. And we're actually seeing some of the VR companies, Sketchfab, Verold, Play Canvas, the people who have tools that were working in WebGL, and now they've enabled things for VR as well. And so that's really cool. So there's a pathway and stepping stone toward VR. And then the other thing that's really cool is the creative community is all over WebGL. You mentioned, you know, art and all that. I was involved in helping Autodesk put on something called the 3D Web Fest, which happened a few months ago, spring of this year, which highlighted about 20 artists, maybe 17, 18, I don't remember the final count. And they went up on stage and performed their art, and they did some really mind-bending stuff. And a few of them were VR, like Isaac Cohen, famous Khabibo did a great VR piece and showed off this wonderful interactive story he'd built. And what's amazing about the web is it's back to this democratization idea. You can get creative coders doing everything from really complicated Maya models that, you know, they figure out how to import into the web or just purely generative things where people are using L-systems and, you know, voxel-based rendering and all this really cool stuff to build these procedural virtual worlds. And that kind of energy is really easy to unleash on the web because people can go into a browser and hit the view source command and copy and paste the code. You can share it. Almost everybody publishes these things as open source, unlike the culture over in the land of Unity and Unreal where it's kind of some open source, but there's a lot of people trying to make 20 bucks on their Unity add-in in the asset store. So it's unleashed a huge groundswell of creative activity both from coders and artists that What we're seeing in VR today is high production budget stuff that blows minds, and then a mid-tier of indie stuff that's okay, at least on Gear VR, there's some energy being put in there by mobile developers. It's some okay-looking titles. But then, you know, we're seeing a lot of high-end stuff. The sort of long tail of indie content creation in VR, it drops off really quickly to be not pretty, unpleasant from a motion standpoint, and not well engineered, because the cost of getting into that is the cost of being a Unity or Unreal game dev, or, you know, working to the metal in a C++ SDK, like the Oculus SDK. And that's a much more expensive proposition. That's another thing. John Carmack talked about today, in fact, and I'd love to hear him acknowledge that. You're looking at 10 or $20 million titles right now coming out for the Rift. I mean, these are going to be game studio written titles, at least for the games, right? And so that world is a whole, you know, that's the world of console gaming or high-end PC gaming, like the big, you know, the higher tier Steam titles. And that's a different world from what a lot of people want to do in VR.

[00:11:37.836] Kent Bye: Personally, I think I really respond to the low-fidelity aesthetic, and it actually creates a more immersive experience than what I found. So I think there's actually benefits from creating a more coherent and immersive experience by not going overboard with all the high-fidelity graphics. And I hear that you're also doing a book about virtual reality, and maybe you could talk a bit about that.

[00:11:58.720] Tony Parisi: Yeah, I had the, I don't know if it's the great sense or, you know, stupidity in my mind to commit to a third book with O'Reilly. I love working with them. O'Reilly and Associates, big tech publisher. But books take a lot of time. I've been in startup mode and working really hard on my day job. At the same time I was trying to write this book. But I got through it and I spent most of this year working on a book called Learning Virtual Reality. It's going to be coming out in print from O'Reilly in November of this year. And it's available as an e-book right now. It's really an intro book. So for your listeners, if they're thinking about, hey, you know, I've done some Unity programming, but I'm a game dev, what's the, you know, what do I have to add to do VR? It's a good entry point for them. Or, I'm somewhat interested in VR and I've got, I know enough programming to be dangerous. This takes you through some basic stuff in Unity to build something for cardboard or for desktop. It's a chapter on WebVR and WebGL. And there's a chapter on doing things for Cardboard, even using the native Android Java SDK. So it's a bit of a sampler, right? It goes around a little bit. But it's always focused on a couple of core concepts. Render the thing in stereo, the wide field of view, and head track as high performance as you can. Right? And everything else from there is just a lot of details on either, you know, 3D rendering or setting up a Unity scene using the tool or grabbing the open source kit you need to use like 3JS to do it in JavaScript. But, you know, good entry level book. I hope a lot of people will get something out of that to take a bit of the fear maybe out of getting started in VR. And that's exactly what I'm intending with the book.

[00:13:27.746] Kent Bye: Which of the virtual reality HMDs do you think is going to be the most popular when it comes to the open web?

[00:13:33.770] Tony Parisi: Oh boy, I would have no clue at this point. I think even Oculus with locking down an app store, I don't think they're going to lock out apps in a closed system, apps that would be able to connect to the web. And so, essentially, if an app can connect to the web, it is a web app anyway. And it almost doesn't matter what it's written in, assuming you're hitting that 90 FPS, you're getting that low latency, and it's a good experience. I have a feeling that's what the Oculus Store, I'll say guardians, I'll use that word, a friendly word today. That's probably what they're going to focus on almost more than anything, at least in the first few years, right? We can't be making people sick. That's the big one. Beyond that, if there's a political stance that's anti-Web, I'd be shocked. So I could see the Rift even being a great platform for WebVR. I think the Vive is, you know, looking more open. I mean, the history of the Vive with Steam, that's a very open culture. I mean, it's around PC gaming, but... The OpenVR Toolkit is an open source toolkit in C++ from Valve, so it could be the Vive. It could end up being Gear VR. I mean, a lot of it's going to depend on which units are out there, and that's going to drive which browsers actually then build something to work on that unit, and then that's going to drive, you know, where people put their development effort. So, sorry, that's a wishy-washy answer, but I don't feel comfortable making any predictions on that. I will say, I think mobile's going to be a huge driver. And I do think mobile and video is going to be a huge driver because of how, you know, people surprise and delight at simple 360 video experiences. The relative ease with which you can create at least mono 360 good experiences. And the brains focused right now in talent like Weaver and some of the other companies that are doing You know, really good video VR. We're seeing a lot of great content there early. So, I think that plus mobile will probably be a winning combination. And with video, you don't have the performance issues you have, let's say, you know, trying to do a really good Unity title in real time. Some of the best stuff, like the Gear VR, like Interspace's Fifth Sleep, or the Blue. I mean, these things are video experience, essentially, right? Not pre-rendered. And they come off great in a Gear VR headset. So now the Gear VR is getting cheaper. Samsung ships a lot of them out there next year. That could be the winner right there. We'll see.

[00:15:47.186] Kent Bye: I was surprised you didn't say Google Cardboard, because that seems to be with Google's connection to the web. And it seems like they would probably, to me, be the best platform for experiencing a lot of WebVR.

[00:15:58.973] Tony Parisi: So from a sheer numbers standpoint, Google Cardboard could end up being the most ubiquitous. But, as we've all experienced, anybody who's been doing VR for a while, there are still issues with performance on cardboard. It's about the speed of head tracking, again. It's about having a high-res enough phone, with enough GPU, CPU power, and being able to do that accelerometer tracking quickly. I don't think there's a lot of devices on the market today that fit into that zone that are good with cardboard right now. And so, even though there may be millions of cardboard units already shipped and shipping over the next few years, we're talking two minutes of VR before you start getting that sick feeling, right? And that's great for the first taste. You go to the rock concert, and they hand out cardboard viewers. You grab the smartphone app, and you've got the experience for, you know, pick your favorite rock band, right? I can see a lot of viewers getting distributed that way. But again, a couple minutes of video. Beyond that, it's pretty tough. So that's why I didn't say cardboard.

[00:17:01.938] Kent Bye: In terms of moving forward, what do you see as some of the big things that the VR community should be looking out for and cautious in terms of as things are going to the consumer version and just things like the terms of usage on these distribution platforms. Where do you see this going forward from here and what's the cautionary perspective that you see in terms of what you're trying to do at Weaver versus where the whole other community seems to be going?

[00:17:29.666] Tony Parisi: Well, what I'm seeing coming out of Oculus Connect, and the writing that's been on the wall from Oculus the better part of this year, with the moves they've been making on their hardware specs, on mothballing SDKs for other non-PC platforms, for good reasons, all for good, sensible reasons, it's very much a games-first strategy coming out of Oculus right now. And the consumer launch of Oculus is going to heavily feature game content. I saw in the game demos yesterday a few blow-away games. There were about eight demos, right? I saw a few games that were blow-away that I felt like they needed VR. And then I saw other titles that I felt like I'm not sure they needed to even be in VR. So it makes me wonder aloud to your microphone and in general, is gaming going to be the big wedge that a lot of people think it's going to be, the wedge into the marketplace? Or are other forms of content really going to be the drivers? And the two that I'm focused on a lot are the cinematic types of experiences Weaver's doing and the things like Tilt Brush and Medium that's coming out from Oculus that are more creative. I think people like pundit style people will tend to underestimate the general public's creative abilities and impulses to want to play all day long in a VR space, especially positionally tracked 10 or 15 foot square area where you can sculpt all day long. I think a lot of people will spend a lot of hours in Tilt Brush and Medium and other products like that. So I think the cautionary tale coming out of this is let's don't go down a game's rat hole too quickly. It's going to be a big part of it, but not necessarily the majority of VR content that's going to be winners over the next five years.

[00:19:09.954] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you see as the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:19:18.138] Tony Parisi: Yeah, this is just me speaking, personal opinion stuff, you know, big disclaimer. I do think it's what I was just talking about. I think it's the creative impulse in people and harnessing that. Seeing what forms of visual, auditory, whatever kinds of creativity people can bring into room-sized environments to really build new and wonderful things. And then share them with anybody who's got any kind of viewer, cardboard, gear, or whatever. Everybody being able to experience those. And if they want to build, maybe they need to get a room size set up. Or maybe we can figure out how to get some advanced inputs into a gear or a cardboard. But unleashing people's creativity is where the potential of this is really going to go. More than the standard broadcast model, producer, consumer stuff that's currently being optimized for just because we got to start somewhere. Awesome. Thank you. Thank you, Kent. Always a pleasure.

[00:20:13.520] Kent Bye: And thank you for listening. If you'd like to support the Voices of VR podcast, then please consider becoming a patron at patreon.com slash voices of VR.

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