The Reality of Virtual Reality at VRLA

This summer's VR convention is anything but virtual.

In 1895, one of the very first cinematic shorts was being shown to a small audience. Train Pulling into a Station was the name of the short movie (at least the translated version), and the nature of the technology at the time struck fear into the audience. It's fabled that some individuals had run to the back of the theater to avoid the "oncoming" train. Such is an example in history where technology surpassed what people accepted as the truth; it was given that people cannot view an oncoming train inside of a theater house, and yet with the developing nature of cinematic theory the world was proven wrong. Henceforth, a new form of entertainment was introduced to the world and we were infants to understanding its reach.

This summer's Virtual Reality Los Angeles (VRLA for short) was a foray into a similar technological experience. The con was small, but the implications were far from what the show floor could virtually hold. Every booth was showing off some different form of entertainment, whether it was a 360-degree video, an Oculus-driven video game, an interactive hand-gesture demonstration, or even a full solipsistic immersion into self-propelled flight. Music videos, 3D-animation flourishes, interesting narrative panels, and other similar expos were about the floor. One such booth that had a lot of attraction was Reload Studios featuring their game World War Toons.

As a full immersive experience, WWT was a deathmatch romp where players used an arsenal of weapons and even tanks againt each other for survival, although survival wasn't so much of the goal since the VR experience took emphasis off of "winning" the game. To add, my years of hand-eye coordination and learning the motor skills behind controlling a character with a joystick were suddenly rendered useless since facing something I had to shoot was the biggest practice of the demo. The next demo had plenty of heads turning, however.

Mindride, a company dedicated to creating experiences that are clearly unique, set up its booth and had players suspended in the air with a series of straps. A "flying" simulation was loaded onto the VR headset, and a camera sensed where the player's hands were at. If the hands were pushed forward, the video sped up simulating flight. If the hands were pushed behind, the video slowed down. Two fans were hooked up directly to the rig and the fan speed was controlled by how fast or slow the player controlled the experience.

I remember gawking in awe at how incredible my first VR experience was at a bar not too long ago—I wasn't standing among tables and friends, I was flying in a starfield, sitting beside neighbors in a smoking room, sitting over coffee with a distinguished gentleman across the table, and moving slowly from room to room as musicians played their music. To be simultaneously suspended in air while given a VR helmet with simulated wind in the face was too much for me to approach; for once in my life, technology became too scary for me to try. I now understand why elderly people avoid the automated checkout lines. There's that level of fear some feel when technology encroaches onto a threshold of comfort. I don't blame the elderly man skipping me in line for a loaf of bread now.

That's not to say I hate this; this field is at the forefront of entertainment. It will single-handedly change the way entertainment is produced. Imagine controlling one massive artillery gun on a beach and forgetting that enemies can sometimes spawn from behind. Imagine not seeing a wide-shot of a monster appearing, but rather the monster's foot stomping down on the ground. With it that close, players are forced to look up at the ceiling if they want to get the true scale of the monster's size.

The fun doesn't stop there! Overseas, some virtual reality environments have been erected. Imagine picking up a bland, grey gun with nothing on it and then suddenly, when the VR headset turns on, the gun is alive with displays, readouts, ammo count, and lights ablaze. Now apply that to an entire acrade-like room. Halo in reality, kind of.

The face of entertainment is changing and for the better. While narrative cinema and games have caught our attention in the past, a full virtual reality experience will win over watching or playing something in 2D. VRLA held several panels with business executives, directors, creative minds and producers that have begun to fully back virtual reality. They're ready to explore this new medium and tackle the problems and answer the questions the audience has to improve entertainment. 

I invite you to step into this world; remember that what you see and experience will not be real. Maybe the real world has turned tiresome and escape for just a few minutes is the perfect answer to the repetition we experience every day. Virtual reality is scary and new, just as that train was in Train Pulling into a Station over a century ago. Perhaps maybe we can learn to leave the theater of fear and step outside into uncharted technology once more.

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