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Thursday, Nov 30, 2023

Alternate Futures

Two chairs in a Glendale building can transport a person into the world of virtual reality. Slip on a headset and a pair of headphones and the red-cushioned chair begins to lean back. Then on the headset viewer comes “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” and the viewer is introduced to characters Hiccup and Astrid and the dragons, Hookfang, Toothless and Stormfly. The Voyager chair adjusts itself as it tilts back and forward, and rotates side to side, with motion matched to the VR content. The 4-minute “Dragon” film was made possible by Walmart Inc., which is taking it on a tour in trailers from California to Arkansas that started last month and ends in April. The free film is a marketing tool to get customers into a “How to Train Your Dragon” gift shop. But for Jeffrey Travis, the inventor of the Voyager chair and chief executive of Positron Inc., the Glendale company that developed the device, it is a way to democratize access to the virtual reality format. An average customer at Walmart does not attend a film festival where VR films are shown, so the trailers and “Dragon” film are a way to get them to slip on a headset and see it for themselves, Travis said. “They are able to go up to this trailer from a big film title that they recognize and have this immersive, incredible VR experience they never would have had otherwise,” he added. (An interview with Travis talking about Positron and virtual reality is on page 12.) Done in conjunction with DreamWorks Animation, a Glendale-based division of NBCUniversal in Universal City, the “Dragon” short was made specifically for use with the Positron chairs. Headset issues Virtual reality companies dot the map of the San Fernando Valley. They run the gamut from hardware developers like Positron to content creators such as VRWERX, on the Universal Studios lot, and Pure Imagination Studios, in Van Nuys. Elsewhere are location-based entertainment firms such as Two Bit Circus Corp., which has a micro amusement park in downtown Los Angeles that employs virtual reality. The company plans to open another five locations in the next 18 months. Like digital 3D films from 10 years ago, virtual reality has gone through a cycle of being the next big thing in entertainment to some considering it a big bust. Marty Shindler, of Southern California media consultancy Shindler Perspective Inc. was skeptical about why people would want to wear a big headset. “They don’t want to do it,” Shindler said. “They haven’t done it.” Complaints about the format center on the cost of the headsets, a lack of content and what content there is not being compelling enough to get people to do it more than once. Additionally, there is the fact that some people get eye strain or feel nauseous while watching a VR film. Gene Munster, a virtual reality industry analyst with Loup Ventures, in Minneapolis, said the specific problem with VR is all in the hardware; namely, the headsets are expensive, complicated and clumsy. “Clumsy includes people getting sick,” Munster said. “Once the hardware problem is solved, we will see the content piece picking up nicely.” Virtual reality is defined as using computer technologies to create real or imagined worlds seen through a headset. It differs from augmented reality, which is computer-generated imagery or sound placed on top of the real world. Mixed reality is a combination of real and virtual worlds and uses new imagery to interact with the real world. The history of the format is murky at best. Early examples of a headset were seen in the late 1960s, and for the next 20 years it was limited to training for the military, medical purposes and flight simulation. By the early 1990s, Sega Games Co. Ltd. had developed a prototype of a headset, Sega VR, but it was never made available to the public. Other companies also worked on headsets. It wasn’t until 2010 and the development of the Oculus Rift prototype that things began to look up for the format. Four years later, Facebook Inc. bought Oculus VR for a reported $2 billion. “History suggests that there will be more platforms to come,” Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg was quoted at the time of the transaction. “Today’s acquisition is a long-term bet on the future of computing.” Others began to get into the space. Samsung, HTC Corp. and Sony Corp. came out with headsets, while Amazon.com Inc., Google, Apple Inc. and Microsoft Corp. created virtual reality and augmented reality divisions. Nancy Bennett, chief creative officer at Two Bit Circus, said that in the early days of virtual reality, content creators had to build their own cameras and editing systems. “Now you can get off-the-shelf devices for less than $500,” Bennett said. Bennett was speaking at Digital Entertainment World, an entertainment conference in Marina Del Rey in early February. She appeared on a panel to discuss virtual reality and its market potential. Another panelist, Ted Schilowitz, the futurist for Hollywood studio Paramount Pictures who had a similar position with 20th Century Fox, said that when it comes to the “reality” formats, it will be mixed reality that will be the main economic driver while virtual reality will just be the side show. “It is a better bet to put money on mixed reality than VR,” Schilowitz said. He added that the industry was at least 10 years away from bringing in multi-billion-dollar revenues. Location-based entertainment centers will be a good starting point. Along with Two Bit Circus, Dreamscape Immersive, which counts AMC Theatres, Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield SE and director Steven Spielberg as investors, has a location in Century City showing virtual reality content and will expand to four other cities this year. Content creators On the Universal Studios lot is VRWERX, a virtual reality content creation company headed by Alex Barder and Russell Naftal. The company’s first offering was a video game, “Paranormal Activity: The Lost Soul.” Released in 2017, the game takes players through a 12,000-square-foot haunted house where they can pick up objects with virtual hands. The game creates a robust environment in contrast to other early VR games with a single room where the player shoots at zombies or other creatures, Barder said. Additionally, a proprietary scare engine provides a new experience each time they play. “For people to replay this, they have to have a different experience each time,” Barder said. “We pushed our engineers to create a custom scare engine for us that nobody else was able to do at the time.” The pair are currently in the early stages of creating a VR game based on the “Mission: Impossible” film franchise. “You’ll be doing everything you would expect an agent to do based on the ‘Mission: Impossible’ universe,” Barder said. “We want people to feel empowered, that they are an actual agent themselves,” Naftal added. Both Barder and Naftal said the virtual reality industry is unlike any other in entertainment. Unlike a film or television show that cannot be changed once it’s released, a VR game can be constantly updated. The pair said they are always in contact with players to hear feedback about the “Paranormal Activity” game. “You don’t do what a player says exactly but a lot of times they have great ideas of what they are looking for,” Naftal said. Ultimately what will be a real game changer is the ability of a person wearing a headset to see themselves in a virtual world, Naftal said. Being able to see yourself in VR is just what Halsey Minor has done with his company, Live Planet, in San Jose. Minor spent three years building a VR camera system that connects to the cloud to process and store video. The 16-lens camera is unique, he said, in that the person wearing a headset can see themselves in real time. The camera system is currently being offered for $4,950 through the company website. Adult entertainment Ela Darling is an adult film actress and also chief marketing officer for PVR, a Hong Kong-based company with offices in Los Angeles. PVR has created both a VR camera, the K1 Pro, and a headset called Iris. The adult industry has long been an early adopter when it comes to new technology and virtual reality is no exception. Darling has been making VR porn for about five years. The Iris is lightweight, easy to use and, more importantly, discreet because of its unobtrusive look, Darling said. “I like to take a headset around to show friends and family and the last thing I want is someone to click over to my VR porn,” she added. The reason adult content was able to harness first videotapes and later DVD and Blu-ray discs was that it had purchasing power in that people were willing to pay for it. With the advent of the internet, an entire generation has grown up expecting adult material for free. But with virtual reality, Darling foresees a resurgence in a willingness to pay for adult content. “Customers who would never pay for porn in other mediums are willing to pay for VR because they know that in order for there to be more content, they have to pay for it someway,” Darling said. “Otherwise it will not exist.” VR Bangers, a Sherman Oaks adult content company, recently updated its Play’a app, which can be used with Oculus Rift and Go, HTC Vive and Samsung Gear headsets or Windows Mixed Reality. With the Play’a app, a viewer can tailor their virtual reality experience by tilting and scaling the image as well as adjusting the brightness and contrast. VR Bangers producer Xander Jones said that the updated app gives more incentives to the immersion experience of the viewer. “To us, that is exactly something a professional VR porn producer should think of when trying to provide a premium service,” Jones said in a statement. Future visions Shindler, the consultant, is quite skeptical about the market potential for virtual reality. After all, he pointed out, even IMAX got out of the land-based entertainment VR business starting last year by closing its experience centers, one of which was in Los Angeles. “After they closed a couple, you knew the rest had to follow,” Shindler said. Virtual reality is following the path of the Gartner Hype Cycle, so-named for information technology research company Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., he added. The cycle starts with an Innovation Trigger and then goes to the Peak of Inflated Expectations where there is a lot of money going toward the technology. Virtual reality experienced that between 2012 and 2016, Shindler said, and then it began to drop off as the tech entered the Trough of Disillusionment. That is the part of the cycle when companies get out of the business as they see it is not going to happen, he added. Finally, there is the Slope of Enlightenment and the Plateau of Productivity. “VR may get to the point; it remains to be seen, but not with the headsets that are out there today,” Shindler said. It is outside of the entertainment industry that Shindler thinks virtual reality will make its mark. “If you are a washing machine repairman and you have a problem, you might be able to dial into a central server and with a VR headset figure out how to do the repair,” Shindler said. Barder and Naftal of VRWERX also believe there are applications for the format outside of video games. Barder recently met a cardiologist who wanted to use VR to look inside the heart and see its condition. “It’s the perfect platform for that kind of thing,” Barder said. “And it’s way beyond immersive entertainment. VR can save lives.” Munster, the analyst with Loup Ventures, said that while he knows and respects Shindler, he doesn’t agree with him about VR. He thinks it will have a more profound impact on society than anyone realizes. “It is easy to be negative on VR today, but I am still optimistic about what it can do,” Munster said.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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