rine-pinnellAfter talking to a lot of independent VR storytellers, Kaleidoscope VR’s René Pinnell identified that funding was one of the biggest blockers for continued experimentation. Cinematic VR pieces do not have many established distribution channels yet, and so a lot of the funding has come from larger HMD manufacturers like Oculus and select brands like Intel.

After traveling around to 30 cities around the world with Kaleidoscope VR’s festival, Pinnell decided to try to hold the First Look VR market in September in order to match the most promising independent VR creators with funders, producers, and distributors. I caught up with Pinnell at the end of the inaugural First Look market to talk about the funding landscape for independent creators, his journey from festival producer to executive producer to market organizer, and what he sees are the keys to innovation for immersive storytelling.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALinda Jacobson got into VR when she helped organize the 1990 CyberArts International gathering of artists and technologists who were using virtual reality technologies. She edited a compilation of CyberArts essays from that first gathering, and she also documented the Garage Virtual Reality DIY VR maker movement of the early 90s. In 1995, she became a VR evangelist at Silicon Graphics where she helped to sell VR into enterprise VR applications including engineering, architecture, construction, medicine, military training, automotive, aerospace, heavy equipment manufacturers, and oil and gas companies. The enterprise companies and applications of VR during this time period were pretty secretive and proprietary, but Jacobson was on the front lines traveling around the world seeing a huge range of different virtual worlds and use cases for VR.

Jacobson has continued to work in VR since the 90s ranging from entertainment to medicine to AEC, and has a lot of in insights about the evolution of VR in the enterprise space. I had a chance to talk with her at the Virtual Reality Strategy Conference in October about her last 20+ years in enterprise VR, her mentor Morton Heilig and his Sensorama, VR as a counter-cultural approach to computing, the CyberArts gathering of artists, DIY Garage Virtual Reality, and the major figures and companies who bootstrapped the commercial VR industry.

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jaron-lanierJaron Lanier is a pioneer of the first commercially-available virtual reality systems with his VPL Research Inc startup that was founded in 1984. He has written a memoir called Dawn of the New Everything about his life leading up to and during his transition from a country hippie hacker to a over-stressed Silicon Valley CEO. He was inspired by painters like Hieronymus Bosch, musical instruments like the Theramin, mathematics, electronics, Ivan Sutherland’s pioneering work with the first virtual world head mounted displays. He also wanted to transcend his social insecurities and anxieties to connect creating shared social VR spaces. VPL Research pioneered the commercial “Eyephone” virtual reality head mounted display with tracking, haptic gloves, motion capture suits, 3D audio, and a cutting-edge virtual programming language. He was inspired by jazz to create technology that could enable mutual improvisation of communication and expression in what would feel like a shared dream in a waking state.

I had a chance to catch up with Lanier in Seattle, Washington on his book tour for Dawn of the New Everything, where we talked about highlights of his journey into VR, musical instruments as haptic devices, the tongue as an input device, and the body’s ability to embody a variety of different animal avatars. He also shared some of his thoughts on why he thinks artificial intelligence is a fake construct as long as the focus is on AI as a super intelligent parasitic entity rather than merely a tool for humans. He also shared some cautionary reflections on the dangers of the advertising-driven business models of Facebook, Google, and Twitter that are creating “massive behavior modification empires.” Lanier is a super humble guy, and his memoir is an interesting mix of impressionistic memories and reflections mixed in with technical deep dives and fifty-two definitions of virtual reality that explores the range of applications, metaphors, and unique affordances of this new medium. The Dawn of the New Everything is a fascinating story that captures a key turning point in the history of VR, and is packed with some deep insights and visions for what’s possible from someone who is still madly in love and inspired by this new medium.

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john-bentonEvery culture around the world has their own beliefs around what happens to us after we die, and virtual reality may be a great medium to explore all of these different rituals and mythologies. The Tibetan Book of the Dead contains descriptions of the various bardo states that the Tibetans believe our consciousness experiences after we die. NYU instructor John Benton created a Bardo Thogul VR prototype in collaboration with his Tibetan Buddhism teacher as well as with two students from Columbia University’s Spirituality Mind Body Institute, Devorah Medwin & Lia Walton.

Benton’s prototype experience premiered at The Art of Dying VR art show that happened in San Francisco in October 2016. I had a chance to catch up with him to talk about how training for the afterlife in VR, visualizing Buddhist metaphysics, Eastern philosophical perspectives on the malleability of reality, and how VR can be used as a gym to train your awareness to be more potent, available, and present to our every day reality.

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In 1978, a number of film scholars gathered at a conference in Brighton to re-evaluate the early days of film in terms of a developing new medium on it’s own terms rather than though the lens of a mature narrative and storytelling communications medium. These early experimental days of film were referred to as the “cinema of attractions” by scholars like Tom Gunning, André Gaudreault, Charles Musser, and Richard Abel because these early film experiments that were focused more on showing and exhibiting something while breaking the fourth wall to make a direct connection to the audience.

rebecca-rouseRebecca Rouse is an assistant professor of communication & media at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and she was inspired to take insights from the cinema of attractions scholarship and apply it to virtual and augmented reality in a more generalized framework she calls “media of attraction.” She identifies four characteristics of an emerging medium in that they’re unassimilated, interdisciplinary, seamed, and participatory. I caught up with Rouse at the IEEE VR conference to unpack her insights about what VR can learn from the early days of film, the evolution of other immersive communication mediums before VR, and whether or not VR is really all that different from other mediums from a historical and media theory perspective.

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elise-ogleStanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) premiered an experience called Becoming Homeless: A Human Experience at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. It was an experiment researching whether it’s possible to cultivate empathy through emboding a character who has lost their job, has to sell possessions to make rent, gets evicted, and starts living in their car. It’s designed to break down our stereotypes for how we imagine that people become homeless, and potentially overcome the fundamental attribution error which disproportionally blames people for their situation rather than acknowledging the deeper context of external factors. VHIL is hoping that they can reduce the cognitive load that’s required to imagine what someone’s experience might be like by providing an embodied and immersive experience in VR of walking in the shoes of another person and enabling the process of perspective-taking.

tobin-asherI had a chance to catch up with the writer & director team of Becoming Homeless, Elise Ogle, who is a project manager at VHIL, and Tobin Asher, who is the lab manager at VHIL. We talk about why the unmediated experience of presence in VR helps it outperform other forms of media, how they’re using VR to research empathy, their collaborations with empathy expert Jamil Zaki in exploring the thresholds to empathize, and the other social science work that they’re doing with the founder of VHIL lab Jeremy Bailenson.

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lynda_joy_gerryCognitive scientist and phenomenologist Lynda Joy Gerry got into virtual reality after seeing the body swap experiments by Machine to Be Another as well as Shawn Gallager’s A Neurophenomenology of Awe and Wonder research. Gerry’s master’s thesis was on empathy in VR where she did a survey of the established theories on empathy from cognitive science, social science, phenomenology, and virtual reality. I had a chance to talk with Gerry at the IEEE VR academic conference in March where she was presenting her research on empathy in VR, and advocating for a more holistic framework for empathy research that bridges the objective theories of empathy from cognitive science with the more subjective, intersubjective, and experiential perspectives from the philosophical branch of phenomenology.

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michael-casale-2017STRIVR started as a VR training platform for elite athletes for college and professional quarterbacks, but they’ve been recently expanding into corporate training for Walmart. Over 200 Walmart Academy location will soon be equipped with virtual reality training for managers and employees to improve social skills but also get prepared for large-scale events like Black Friday.

I talked with STRIVR’s Chief Science Officer Dr Michael Casale at the VR Strategy Conference in San Francisco. He describes the neuroscience of why VR is such a compelling training platform including the embodied cognition insights into being able to be immersed within the context, and to simulate the process of making choices and taking action. The depth of learning is so much more rich in VR, and it’s a more holistic approach for learning that is also opening up new epistemological methods for objective measures of engagement that will hopefully reveal a deeper ground truth of how effective of a transfer learning processes they’ve developed. Casale found that engagement is a key indicator, which can help them find patterns of reliability and validity in other factors like how much someone moves their head and what people have been looking at.

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STRIVR has also been exploring the implications of an embodied cognition insights. For example, what are the implications of performing the physical act of smiling is the cause for a change your mood? Perhaps focusing on resultant behaviors through embodying the actions directly is what leads to changes in attitudes and cognition, rather than the other way around. Another open question is how to model and measure social behaviors, and that’s something that STRIVR co-founder Jeremy Bailenson has been researching at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab that he founded at Stanford in 2003. There are many signs that one of the VR killer apps that drives adoption in the enterprise will be training, and STRIVR’s platform is pushing the edge of the best practices of showing and measuring what’s possible.

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kentbye-avatar-2016I recently gave the keynote at the Immersive Technology Conference in Houston, TX where I talked about the many different maps that I use to understand reality & virtual reality. Because virtual reality is simulating reality, then a lot of these maps can also be used to understand reality as well. Some of these maps serve as experiential design frameworks for VR while others serve as high-level metaphors that provide category schemas that help differentiate between different qualitative experiences. There are an infinite number of ways to categorize qualitative experience, and so every attempt to do so is going to be inherently imperfect and substandard. A guiding principle that I use is from Polish philosopher Alfred Korzybski who said “the map is not the territory” meaning that these types of mental abstractions aren’t literally describing reality, but they are merely symbolic maps that help us understand our reality.

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Here’s the video of my Immersive Technology Conference keynote.

Here are the slides via Slideshare

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steven_schardtAuto is a 360-video and morality tale available on Jaunt that takes a near-future look at the human impact of automation and emerging technology. It’s not a grotesque satire in the vein of Black Mirror, but it’s done in a more of a future realistic style that could be happening within the next 1-3 years — if not already. Auto a story that stuck with me given it’s authentic portrayal by non-trained actors who were Ethopian immigrants, and how automation could impacti their lives. Auto premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in April, and I had a chance to talk to director Steven Schardt about the emerging grammar of directing attention in VR storytelling, the struggles of funding and distribution for independent VR storytellers (this was recorded before Jaunt picked it up for distribution), and insights on the evolution of new communications mediums from the Tom Gunning’s Cinema of Attractions and Marshall McLuhan’s media theories.

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