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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patrick-haganPatrick Hagan is a technical specialist for the Houston Fire Department who had an opportunity to try out a VR demo by HTX Labs featuring an active shooter critical response training scenario. This demo inspired him to start collaborating with HTX Labs to see how virtual reality could be used train new firefighters, but also create atypical training scenarios for teams of firefighters. I talked with Hagan at the Immersive Technology Conference in Houston Texas about some of the training needs of first responders, and how he envisions the role of augmented and reality technologies to help provide proper training so they’re better prepared to help them go home at night to their families.

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rave-mehtaRavé Mehta talks about how he was able to deal with recovering from a health condition through achieving progressively deeper, longer, and more consistent levels of flow states. He talks about his holistic philosophy of flow, what he learned from game design, the gift economy at Burning Man, the differences between competitive and cooperative flow states, and how deflationary cryptocurrencies have the potential to provide an infrastructure and context that encourages more collaborative flow within business.

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monika-bielskyteVR represents a shift from telling stories to building story worlds that people experience and interact with. There is a process of world building and experiential design that first creates the conditions of the environment, and then the full context of this world helps to drive the narrative design of the stories that can be told in this world. This process of building futuristic, sci-fi worlds requires a holistic understanding the co-evolution of technology and culture that takes a lot of imagination to visualize solutions to intractable problems embedded within the fabric of this new world, and then to future imagine what new and even more complicated problems will have been created. Monika Bielskyte of All Future Everything is a digital nomad who travels the world searching for the latest technological and cultural innovations so that she can build these sci-fi worlds imagining the cultural and technological context of the near-future for the entertainment industry, technology companies, and even urban planners and politicians from governments and physical cities.

Bielskyte is critical of a lot of the status quo of Hollywood sci-fi blockbusters who tend to be self-referential to other movies and media rather than curating the latest innovations in tech and culture that is already happening around the world at small scales. She has a vision of the future culture that is post-race, post-gender, post-nationalities, but also has more holistic representations of diversity, a regenerative relationship with the environment, robust expressions of cultural creativity and hacking reality, an accurate representation of youth culture and fashion, moving beyond mid-20th century gender, family, and sexuality stereotypes, and imagining how the values of our culture can evolve beyond passive consumption to participatory experiences with spatial computing. A lot of the existing sci-fi worlds builders do have not thought about all of these dimensions of potential future iterations of culture, but rather resort to the lowest-common denominator, dystopic visions of ecological disaster and tyrannical thought control.

Technology and culture are in a continual process of evolution, and as a world builder Bielskyte finds an endless stream of inspiration and innovation that is happening in the real world. She cites artists like Yijala Yala, FKA Twigs, Sevdaliza, Solange, Alma Harel, and M.I.A. as being more progressive or innovative than representions of the future culture in blockbuster sci-fi films like Blade Runner 2049. Part of being a sci-fi world builder means curating innovative technologies or ideas that are happening at small scales, and then projecting out the implications of these cultural currents at larger scales.

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I caught up with Bielskyte after she posted a tweet storm critiquing the regressive and dystopic future depicted in Blade Runner 2049. We talked about her work and process of designing the future, and the ethical responsibilities of world builders for putting awe-inspiring representations of the future into the world.

She notes the cultural differences of how people from the West tend to think individualistically about the future, and how the hero’s journey, monomyth narrative design tends to reflect a similar arc of the expression of individual agency. But part of the unique affordance of VR is that it can start to explore at the complex interconnected aspects of our reality through the process of sci-fi world building, and start to put more of an emphasis on the collective journey of the community coming together to solve these huge problems. She sees VR as a “possibility space” that can be used to actually design the futures that we want to live into.

The Dark Corner app is creating a new distribution channel for immersive horror experiences and 360-degree videos. Guy Shelmerdine and Teal Greyhavens are hoping that fans of the horror genre will be enthusiastic enough about the potential of VR to achieve new depths of terror that audiences will be willing to pay for 360 video experiences. Shelmerdine is featuring Dark Corner’s own creations including Catatonic and their latest nightmare-inspired Night Night, but also opening up a new marketplace for creators of horror content to sell and distribute their content.

I had a chance to catch up with Shelmerdine and Greyhavens to talk about their journey from comedy into VR horror, how VR horror experiences have gone viral because of reaction videos, the new distribution channel they’re creating, and the storytelling components that make up a great horror experience.

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Here’s an example of a reaction video that helps these types of experiences spread virally.

The horror genre also inspires people to look at their deepest fears, and to face their own mortality in a safe context. I believe that there are unknown thresholds of where an experience has been taken too far, and that it’s possible that VR experiences could generate new trauma in people. Shelmerdine and Greyhavens said that they haven’t seen this happen yet, but they’re also showing their experiences within a context where the reactions of other people make it clear what they might be getting into. There are ethical considerations of disclosing to someone the nature of content before they immerse themselves into a horror experience, and so receiving full consent is a responsibility for VR enthusiasts who are sharing this content with each other.

The depth of visceral emotions and embodied reactions from a VR horror experience go beyond what’s possible in any other medium. I’ve seen how these experiences that push the boundaries have inspired people to recreate traumatic experiences they’ve been through in order to find new ways of coping and generating new narratives about their trauma, which has yielding some surprising therapeutic and cathartic results. While I’m personally more interested in the pro-social applications of VR, I can see how exploring darkness, mortality, and your deepest fears in VR can not only be wildly entertaining for some people, but also perhaps the most vital types of experiences that they need on a deeper level. There are deep risks to flooding your body and psyche with nightmare imagery, but it’s also possible to have radical breakthroughs that would’ve never been possible before.

You can download the Dark Corners app is available on Gear VR, Oculus Rift, Daydream, Android and iOS.

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UTURN is a 360-degree video that seamlessly blends together two 180-degree hemisphere worlds containing parallel storylines of two different perspectives at a tech start up. One perspective is from a male founder’s point of view and the other perspective is from a woman coder who is crunching to finish a demo for investors. The crossfades from the quad binaural audio design by Shaun Farley helps to dynamically mix the conversations from different together in a way that really sells the experience of walking between two different worlds. Usually a 360-video doesn’t have reactive edits of the visuals, but UTURN proves that there is a lot of latitude in creating an immersive and interactive audio experience that feels reactive to your gaze.

UTURN explores themes of gender discrimination, and uses the 360-degree medium to capture group dynamics and unconscious bias within the workplace. I had a chance to catch up with NativeVR’s reative director and UTURN executive producer Nathalie Mathe to talk about the themes of sexism and gender discrimination covered in the piece, the technical storytelling innovations, the innovative sound design, the challenges of telling parallel stories, and some of the funding challenges involved in bootstrapping an independent production.

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UTURN is one of the more technically accomplished 360-videos that makes a number of storytelling innovations to create the feeling of an interactive experience of seamlessly turning between different worlds, and it addresses important themes of sexism within the tech industry VR in a new way. Mathe is looking for educational opportunities at colleges and corporations to share UTURN as a catalyst for facilitating group discussions about what people experienced while watching it. UTURN currently does not have any distribution yet, but I’ll update this post if it becomes available to check out as I think it has a lot of important lessons for the future of storytelling in VR.

Here’s a trailer for UTURN

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Without explicitly announcing a new specific product, Samsung quietly implied that they may be developing a new standalone mobile VR HMD during a session during their developer conference last week. While there were no big VR announcements during the main keynote at SDC, in a session titled “What’s on The Horizon: A Look at the Future of VR at Samsung” Tae Yong Kim Samsung Electronic’s VP, Head of Graphics R&D, showed a graphic with a question mark in between a Gear VR mobile VR headset and a Samsung Odyssey Windows Mixed Reality HMD. Kim said that the Gear VR is “fully mobile, quickly attaches via a cell phone, and affordable” while the Odyssey offers a “premium experience coming from the positional tracking of the headset and the controllers, and the computing power of the PC.” He said, “The question is ‘How do we combine the benefits of those two technologies together for our next VR system?’”

Kim then showed a slide saying the next steps for Samsung’s mobile VR include inside-out tracking and 6 degree-of-freedom controllers, and he said, “We are partnering with global partners like Intel to bring inside-out technology to our next mobile product portfolio.” Neither Intel nor Samsung had any further comment about this quiet announcement of a “next VR system” and “next mobile product” in Samsung’s portfolio, which seems more significant than merely adding positional tracking and 6-DoF controllers to existing Gear VR devices.

It looks like we’ll have to wait until CES this year to learn if this is more than a positional tracking and 6-DoF tracking update to Gear VR, and whether Samsung is developing their own standalone headsets independent of Facebook’s Oculus Go. It’s unclear what software would be running on Samsung’s new headsets as it appears as though Samsung has a non-exclusive agreement with Oculus since the Samsung S8, S8+, and Note 8 are both Daydream and Gear VR-enabled, but it doesn’t appear that Facebook has a non-exclusive agreement with Samsung. Or if Facebook is able to expand to any OEMs beyond Samsung, then appears as though they have not done so yet. It could be that Facebook is planning a walled-garden hardware ecosystem similar to Apple, and will be focusing their energy on the control that comes with building their standalone headsets.

It’s unclear how healthy and sustainable the current partnership between Facebook and Samsung is. It appears as though Facebook mostly handles the software while Samsung handles the hardware, and while there’s obviously overlap between the two, it’s possible that these next HMDs will indicate whether Facebook takes more control over the hardware and Samsung takes more control over the software.

tom-hardingI had a chance to talk with Samsung’s Tom Harding, who is the Director of Immersive Products in charge of product strategy and bringing VR to the market. We talked about the Gear VR, marketing VR, Samsung Internet VR, Gear 360 and Round cameras, the 3-DoF Gear VR controller, as well as the the collaborations Google with Daydream and ARCore and with Facebook/Oculus on Gear VR.

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I challenged Samsung for not investing many resources within the VR content ecosystem or attending very many community VR events over the past couple of years. Harding says that Samsung’s focus has been on scale and making VR solutions available to all, and that they’ve been primarily focusing on driving adoption. But I wonder how much you can drive adoption of VR technologies without also investing in the content that will ultimately drive grassroots word of mouth and adoption.

A number of independent video creators expressed frustration that Samsung has not been doing more to support the needs of content creators, including how Samsung has not created any marketplace for immersive content creators to sell their work. One creator told me that Samsung did not not offer them any licensing fees to feature their work in the Samsung VR app, and a survey of content creators whose work was featured at Sumsung’s Evening of 360 show revealed that there was not any payment offered for featuring their work. A lot of the content curation and marketplace development has been offloaded to Oculus since they serve as the primary point of contact with the VR development community, and so Samsung has been really disconnected from the needs of content creators. Samsung is in a financial position to invest a lot more within the future of the VR medium, but it appears as though that they have not been taking a holistic approach to supporting the VR content ecosystem or more directly engage the grassroots of the VR community. I hope to see Samsung a lot more in the year to come, and that they take the initiative to engage, listen, and help serve some of the larger needs of the VR community.

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Facebook’s Oculus Connect 4 developer conference happened last week, and I share some of the highlights including my hands-on impression of the standalone Santa Cruz headset, the latest updates from Facebook Spaces, and a number of updates to be delivered later in 2017 and 2018 including a new VR 3DUI called Dash. Dash is built with React VR, and will be providing immersive computing functionality including being able to pin windows applications within the context of VR apps.

darshan-shankarOculus’ Dash functionality is starting to overlap some of the feature set of BigScreenVR, which just raised another $11 million dollars proving that immersive computing may be one of the first real killer apps of VR that could drive adoption. I had a chat with Darshan Shankar, who was optimistic that major companies like Microsoft and Facebook are starting to bake some of these screensharing features within their core functionality since it shows that immersive computing is a compelling use case. Shankar sees screensharing as a legacy feature that is helping BigScreen bootstrap a user base that is willing to have other immersive social experiences in watching movies or other events in VR, and he talks about some of his plans for BigScreen on mobile VR and making BigScreen the goto cross-platform, social VR application.

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Here’s the keynote from Oculus Connect 4:

Here’s the Facebook Spaces tour of Puerto Rico that Zuckerberg later apologized for. The tour had a tone-deaf quality that uses the tragedy of Hurricane Maria into a marketing pitch for virtual reality & Facebook Spaces.

During the Oculus Connect keynote, Zuckerberg reiterated that he sees that VR has the potential to provide a more optimistic vision of the future, but at the same time Facebook Spaces has not implemented any way of expressing sad facial expressions. You can use the Oculus Touch joysticks to have your avatar look surprised, shocked, confused, listening, and happy, but they haven’t implemented sadness yet. So having cheery and smiling cartoon avatars take a virtual tour of a disaster area made it clear how big of a disconnect there is between Facebook’s optimistic view on the potential of VR versus the emotional weight and intensity of the harsh reality of the real world.

If Facebook really wants to get a billion people in VR, then they’re going to have to come a long way in telling the story of how VR can get us more present and connected within our mundane realities. Also Facebook will eventually need to eliminate the abstractions in how we express emotions in VR, but they’re going to need to address the many open questions around the privacy of our biometric data and what their plans are to move beyond their existing business models of surveillance-based capitalism.

In my previous interview with BigScreenVR’s Shankar, he told me that BigScreenVR was built with privacy in mind with peer-to-peer encryption, and by not having any information shared or stored on the BigScreenVR’s server. The privacy features of BigScreenVR is a key factor in why it’s been able to be so successful in driving adoption. While Facebook Spaces has a lot of amazing features, it’ll be interesting to see whether or not the permissive and vague privacy protections of Facebook will prove to be a limiting factor towards Facebook’s goal in reaching one billion users in VR>

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