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Optimism Abounds at Los Angeles Virtual Reality Meetup

"We don't need light anymore, but we need people. And LA is one of the hotbeds."

Eric Johnson

Even after the validation of a huge acquisition, virtual reality still needs quality content and the right mixture of tech to control it.

At a gathering of VR researchers and game developers in southern California Monday evening, though, it was all sunny skies ahead. In a manner of speaking.

“The movie business came to Hollywood because they needed the light,” said Mark Bolas, the associate director of USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies. “We don’t need light anymore, but we need people. And LA is one of the hotbeds.”

Bolas splits his time between the USC campus and the MxR Lab, half an hour southeast, near Los Angeles International Airport. The lab and its parking lot served as the venue of the event, a meetup organized by a group called Virtual Reality Los Angeles, but on normal days it’s a workspace and de facto incubator for VR projects. Both Oculus VR’s Palmer Luckey and immersive gaming startup Survios came through Bolas’s tutelage.

“Palmer’s desk is still in there,” Virtual Reality Los Angeles co-organizer Jonnie Ross told the crowd. “It’s very messy. Don’t clean it up. We should rope it off and encase it in bronze.”

For the true believers, the sustained buzz around Oculus is the sign that VR is about to (sorry, Jill Lepore) disrupt everything. One attendee told me he expected virtual reality movies like those being explored by Condition One and Jaunt to become the new normal way of making and watching movies. Another forecast that “VR tourism” would be the most compelling use case of the Oculus Rift for mainstream consumers.

Inside the lab, though, the talk was less speculative and more focused on practical answers. A demo of BlueShark, a joint venture between USC and the U.S. Office of Naval Research, showed how virtual reality might be used for military training, turning the Oculus wearer into the commander of a small naval fleet.

Inside of the BlueShark demo, I saw two touchscreens: One below me and centered, and one below and to my left. When prompted, I found and pressed a button on the left one.

“You just touched a sheet of glass,” the demo runner said. And that was all part of the plan. According to my brain, I had touched a virtual button just as I might on a physically real smartphone, but the button and screen were purely virtual; the object I touched was, indeed, an ordinary piece of glass, mounted at the same angle. VR had successfully tricked me into believing something that wasn’t real.

More trickery was afoot — literally — in a nearby room. Underneath an array of ceiling-mounted cameras, attendees strapped on a VR headset and backpack and were invited to explore a series of virtual rooms by physically walking around. After inspecting one room, they could leave, walk down a road and walk into another room. And then do it again. And again.

Not the sexiest of demos, perhaps, but a demonstration of a clever head fake called “change blindness.” The wearers never left the same confined circle in the real world, but felt as though they were moving farther and farther down the line of rooms because the demo swapped out where the doors led while their backs were turned.

After giving the first demo of the night, assistant professor and “Redirected Walking” team member Evan Suma asked for the participant’s thoughts. The attendee, a man named Andrew Mayne, confidently described change blindness and how he had just seen a sort of magic trick.

“I’m a magician, so …. ” Mayne concluded.

“I need to find someone who’s not a magician,” Suma said, looking for his next volunteer.

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