ela-darlingEla Darling calls herself the “Queen of VR porn” as she co-founded CAM4 and became the first virtual reality cam girl from VR tech integrations that her company developed. She shared her founding story with me in a previous interview in 2015, and I talked with her at VRLA last year about their latest technological innovations of doing 360 video livestreams, the degree of emotional authenticity and connections that are being made, creating an immersive space that’s a reflection of her geeky personality, and her challenges of being the chief curator of adult content, and talent scout for adult entertainer/VR enthusiasts.

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Darling says that being a cam girl in VR is about 20% sex and 80% therapy, and that the customers who are participating in these live show thrive on the emotional intimacy that can be cultivated within VR. They’ve created a safe environment that’s free of judgments and shame around any sexual kinks or mental health taboos. We talk about why she sees gaming as more of a driver of technological innovation in VR more than port, but that there are still some innovations that are happening.

There’s also a lot of VR porn content that’s already been produced, but that the CAM4 livestreams focus on immersive experiences that can’t be downloaded because they’re live and interactive. There’s a quality of emotional intimacy and connection that goes way beyond what 2D on-demand video content can provide, and that people have been willing to pay to have these experiences. The porn industry still has a number of cultural taboos, but Darling has so many canny insights into human nature as she’s engaged in dialogue with so people who feel liberated from sexual shame and mental health stigmas.

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julie-heydeThe VR Unicorns use a rapid iteration, game jamming approach to VR development, and co-founder Julie Heyde does daily playtesting and quality assurance gathering feedback and guidance for the development team. Heyde has also been experiencing a number of different health issues that has driven her to use virtual reality as a form of pain management, but also as a way to hang out with her friends. Heyde is describes herself as a bit of a bully who likes to playfully mess her friends in VR, but she found that the other social VR experiences were lacking in their ability to do what could be described as “consensual trolling.” She wanted a social VR experience that allowed her to throw objects at other people and to have it stick to their bodies, change scales to intimidate people, and generally push the boundaries of high expressions of agency with embodied characters in VR.

As you could imagine, creating a consensual trolling environment for social VR could go horribly wrong, but Heyde was inspired by this idea of contrasting utopian and dystopian environments in VR. VR Unicorns is planning on juxtaposing this experience of a troll-fueled, dystopian, open world environment, but then change the rules and create a much more harmonious utopian experience that’s more collaborative than competitive.

The VR Unicorns showed a 3-week old prototype of #Utopia at GDC 2017, and it was still in the early phases of development and has likely vastly evolved over the past year. While the project is titled #Utopia, they were only showing the first phases of their initial dystopian environment. I had a chance to chat with Heyde about their #Utopia demo, this concept of consensual trolling, how she uses VR for pain management, escapism vs flow states, and how she’s personally been in an immersive dialogue with her developers through their surprising additions to #SelfieTennis, http://www.vrunicorns.com/archery/, and upcoming release of #SkiJump.

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Darryll Starr is a former game developer who now teaching underprivileged youth how to create VR experiences with Unity at the David E Glover Education and Technology Center in Oakland, CA. Starr is the lead instructor and curriculum developer who has been adapting the Exploring Computer Science curriculum to use more state-of-the art tools from the games industry. I had a chance to talk with Starr at the Samsung Developers Conference about his various initiatives to increase the accessibility of emerging technologies to the diverse and underrepresented communities in Oakland. He talks about some of the experiences his students have created, the different programs and initiatives at The Glover Center, and the level of engagement and excitement that he’s seeing from getting an opportunity to develop immersive experiences.

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The Columbia Digital Storytelling Lab had a design research project at Sundance that is exploring new models of cooperative storytelling and collaborative sensemaking, but it was also on the bleeding edge of integrating technologies ranging from machine learning, innovative projection mapped visual displays, IoT-driven instruments, computational dance, and using AI as a collaborator to cultivate group dynamics. Frankenstein AI: A Monster Made by Many had three acts that used immersive theater components in order to facilitate a range of different social experiences that reflected on what it means to be human and what it means to be connected.

Act I had one-on-one conversations in an empathy conversational model that was designed to explore vulnerable experiences of connection and isolation, and it concluded with matching feelings with body parts. The emotional associations from Act I were fed into the AI, which determined an overall emotional sentiment and influenced the questions that the AI asked about human nature to all of the people participating in Act I. The AI was trained on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but was also scouring the Internet looking for clues about what it means to be a human, and what it means to be connected. Then the collective emotional sentiment from the entire week was aggregated, and this drove the questions that were asked to a large group in the final Act III. The audience’s answers were fed into the AI, tagged with sentiment, and then translated into instructions that were sent to a performer doing interpretive dance. The final performance had more of a narrative arc that explored the polarities between isolation and connection, and had the audience share take-aways that they could feed into the AI to help it understand humanity and connection.

I had a chance to sit down with a couple of the co-creators of Frankenstein AI from the Columbia Digital Storytelling Lab, Lance Weiler and Rachel Ginsberg. We talked about going beyond transactional data with AI, how AI holds up a mirror to humanity, the narrative design intentions driving the project, and exploring yin storytelling structures beyond the 3-act and 5-act structures.

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Joseph Campbell’s monomyth is arguably biased towards more of a yang, outward journey, while this new yin story structure model that is emerging has to do more with facilitating an inner journey of transformation. Specifically Frankenstein AI focused on creating shared culture, fostering common understanding, driving empathetic conversations, facilitating a future-thinking practice of worldbuilding, and inspiring new mythologies about our relationship with artificial intelligence. These are all about fostering yin behaviors that are cooperative and pro-social.

We are seeing a lot of evidence for how the yin structures of storytelling is happening with the cultivation of embodied presence within VR experiences, and Frankenstein AI is starting to explore what this might look like at larger scales of collective transformation by working with larger group dynamics. In order to create shared culture, then shared experiences are facilitated by AI that is driving a collective Socratic dialogue about what it means to be human and what it means to be connected. And just by reflecting on the deeper patterns of our humanity and connections, then it makes us more human and more connected.

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cory-mcabeeEach year, the Sundance New Frontier features VR experiences, films, and live performances that push the boundaries of storytelling. Cory McAbee did live performance of a piece called Deep Astronomy and the Romantic Sciences, which combines elements of illustrated visual storytelling, embodied communication, a fictionalized lecture, and musical interludes. He describes his mixed modality performance as a “live musical, graphic novel” that could be thought of a surrealist TED talk about the nature of consciousness and reality. McAbee’s mixture of a lecture with all of these other live performance modalities felt like the early signs of how the concept of a living story is evolving.

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McAbee is a storyteller who immersed himself in conversations across the country about his big ideas as he formed the architecture of his presentation. He has been tuning into the deeper existential questions facing our society that he frames as a battle between the “truth seekers” and the “fact-checkers.” What are the limits of what science tells us about the patterns of reality? And how do the artists, poets, musicians, and storytellers fill in the gaps in what McAbee refers to as the “Romantic Sciences.”

There will be more and more live performances of this sort that are ephemeral, and hard to describe or fully capture the experience in 2D. McAbee did capture his performances, and is planning on translating this experience into a film, but it’ll no doubt be qualitatively different than the live performance version. The striking thing aspect about McAbee’s performance is the degree to which he used his full body to amplify his message, but also mixing in music, humor, and a surrealist fiction into what can otherwise be some heady topics about the nature of consciousness and reality.

I’m curious to see how this type of mixing of modalities continues to evolve, and I think the next step is thinking about how to more directly engage the audience within the performance. While conversations and questions were vital to developing some of the content of the piece, the performance itself was heavily scripted without any direct audience participation. It’ll be interesting to see if adding in audience generativity with improv elements can make the live performance even more of a “living story” that allows the audience to leave a trace of their participation and tapping into the quality of the moment of the time. There are tradeoffs to being able to be in full control of the narrative arc and crafting an emotional journey, but increasing the audience participation in this type of experience seems to be the next frontier of where this fusion of modalities seems to be headed. Perhaps AR and VR technologies will eventually provide a logistical mechanism for helping make that happen.

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Shari-FrilotThe Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier Program featured over 20 different VR, AR, and AI experiences that were pushing the boundaries of immersive storytelling. After seeing all of the experiences, I had a chance to unpack and analyze the larger themes with chief curator Shari Frilot. The common theme among all of the storytelling experiences is that they’re exploring embodiment and interactivity in different ways, and how VR takes the audience member on an inner journey of presence. Frilot refers to this inner journey as a “superbody reflecting pool” in that these technologies are extensions of our bodies (ala Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man), but that it’s also a mirror that allows us to perceive ourselves and understand who we are becoming.

We talk about the storytelling experiences that use artificial intelligence to foster social interactions based on cultivating a piercing vulnerability, the live performances that blend the modalities of cinema, live storytelling, & music to create more of a “living story” experience, the themes of women’s empowerment that emerged in both the VR and film program at Sundance this year, the social VR experiences, experiences exploring sparse symbolic representations that require you to project your imagination, the differences between objective facts and the truth of a story, and the humility and wonder that comes with not knowing where this journey of immersive storytelling is taking us.

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Here’s Frilot’s curatorial statement:

Here’s a Twitter thread that’s explores the concept of a Heroine’s Journey:

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tony-parisiTony Parisi is the Head of AR & VR strategy at Unity so he has an insider’s perspective of not only where the VR and AR industry is today, but some hints as to what xR is going to look like by 2025. Parisi had a fireside chat with HTC Viveport president ​Rikard Steiber at Greenlight Strategy’s Virtual Reality Strategy conference in 2025 where they made some predictions about the future of immersive technology, and what they expect to see by 2025. I had a chance to talk with Parisi about his predictions, but also talk about the current state of the union for VR and AR. He says that VR and AR are still doubling and that all of the major players are still committed, and so it’s an exponential growth that is still before the hockey stick curve of rapid acceleration. So VR is still yet to cross the chasm into the mainstream, but Parisi says that it’s just a matter of time and that all indicators is that VR and AR are still quite strong and growing. We also talk about VR and the open web, whether or not we’ll still see apps in AR in 2025, and the tradeoffs between backwards compatibility and innovative new features and functionality.

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Parisi mentions a Holographic capture system that hadn’t been released yet, and he was referring to Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Capture:

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steve-bowlerThe full release of CloudGate Studios’ VR survival game Island 359 is now available, and there’s some special embodiment features for anyone who has 1-3 of HTC’s Vive Trackers. They’ve developed an adaptive system that uses 1 tracking puck on your torso, 2 tracking pucks on your feet, or 3 tracking pucks on your torso and feet. I had a chance to talk with CloudGate’s president Steve Bowler at GDC 2017 to talk about their VirtualSelf Full Body tracking solution, some of the inverse kinematic challenges, and what it feels like to sneak up behind a giant dinosaur and to use kicking as a game play mechanic. Spoiler: it feels pretty awesome.

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Having a full embodied representation in VR can help to invoke the virtual body ownership illusion, and these early experiments of tracking your full body in Island 359 shows that the level of immersion and embodiment increases the more of your body that you’re tracking in VR. It’s actually quite a big difference than being a disembodied ghost.

Here’s a walkthrough of some of the VirtualSelf Full Body tracking features and customization

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felix-lajeunesse2Felix & Paul Studios had two experiences at Sundance this year. One featured the training of NASA astronauts in Space Explorers, and the other was a time-lapse VR story featuring characters from Wes Anderson’s Ilse of Dogs film in front half with a behind-the-scenes look at the production in the back half. Felix & Paul use their own custom camera technology, which means that they’re in a constant feedback loop of creating content, making innovations in cinematic VR camera technologies, which then opens up new storytelling possibilities. For their two pieces at Sundance, they created a cinematic VR camera that does time lapse for Ilse of Dogs, created a motion stabilization system to put a camera in a supersonic T-38 jet, created an underwater camera to shot astronauts training for space missions, and weatherized a camera rig to deal with extreme dessert heat and sand storms.

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I had a chance to catch up with co-founder Felix Lajeunesse at Sundance to talk about their latest technological innovations, the tradeoffs of haptic feedback and user control that comes with using a Positron Voyager chair, the deeper themes covered throughout Space Explorers, and the experiential modulation and emphasis on emotional dramatic effects that comes from speeding up or slowing down time in VR.

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alberto-eliasHolonet is an open source project that implements the Decentralized Identity Specifications for open web VR platforms like WebXR. A self-sovereign identity system could enable the seamless portability of your avatar identity across multiple sites without having to use centralized authentication methods that would require you to login to every site with a unique username and password, or have to re-upload assets onto every metaverse world that you visit. The Decentralized Identity Foundation formed in May 2017 with a number of blockchain companies and bigger companies like Microsoft who got together to open source their blockchain identity IP in order to create a number of decentralized identity open standards.

Investor Chris Dixon recently published an essay titled “Why Decentralization Matters” where he argues that some of the most exciting entrepreneurial & development opportunities are in building out a robust decentralized Internet architecture that leverages the blockchain technologies and cryptonetworks. These decentralized systems are a counter balance to the aggregated power of centralized companies like Google & Facebook, who are currently dominating the the online advertising market. Dixon argues that these companies initially collaborated with third-party developers to grow their ecosystem, but they all eventually started to focus more on “extracting data from users and competing with complements over audiences and profits.” In order to drive their advertising-based revenue models, Google and Facebook have pioneered methods of “surveillance capitalism” that tracks information about what users do online to form unified profiles to model behaviors and ultimately match advertisers with potential customers.

VR & AR technologies will provide the opportunity to have access to even more powerful biometric, emotional, embodied movement, and eventually eye tracking data, which has an unknown ethical threshold between what is predicting or controlling user behavior. Be sure to check out Voices of VR episode #520 for a more comprehensive write-up, discussion, and links to other episodes covering the complicated privacy issues that VR and AR introduces.

Holonet developer Elias hopes that one antidote to companies tracking your every movement and action in virtual worlds is build compelling user experiences that leverage decentralized identity technologies to put the control of your identity and data back into your own hands. He’s released a sparse toolkit to start to integrate self-sovereign identity tools within WebVR sites on the open web, and he’s planning on working on integrations with the popular A-Frame WebVR framework.

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It’s still early days for where the open immersive web is headed, but High Fidelity is probably the most robust example of what’s possible with open web technologies. Co-founder Philip Rosedale told me that they’re planning on implementing a self-sovereign identity system, and High Fidelity also recently launched a beta of their own High Fidelity Coin cryptocurrency. Elias hopes that Holonet can provides tools for open web developers to create compelling user experiences that leverage the power of the open web with a decentralized user identity. There’s not a lot of compelling experiences just yet, but if Dixon is right, then we’re going to be seeing a lot more decentralized cryptonetworks in the future, and infrastructure tools like self-sovereign identity are going to be crucial ingredient for an open and portable metaverse that’s architected for privacy.

Other decentralized services mentioned in the podcast:

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