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8 Eye-Opening Things We Learned About Virtual Reality This Week

Porn, advertising and dragons all have roles in the future of VR.



That, distilled to a word, was the theme of the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality expo this week in San Jose, Calif. The biggest news was a snoozer — Samsung is going to expand the number of Best Buys in which it offers demos of its Gear VR headset — and yet, as befits the colorful world of virtual reality developers, there was a palpable mood of, “Okay, let’s go, let’s go!” mixed with a twinge of anxious uncertainty.

“Sometimes in VR, it feels like things are not moving fast enough,” said SVVR co-founder Karl Krantz. “We want the future, and we want it now. … But in the past year, VR got really good, really fast.”

Sony, HTC, Samsung and Facebook have all set consumer launch windows for their headsets, a reassuring target for many developers, but no one really knows yet how the people outside this familial geeky circle will react.

Some SVVR attendees had only been waiting a couple years for the coming wave of consumer VR headsets. Others, who saw the technology flop in the ’90s, had been waiting much longer. Throughout the two-day conference, I talked to dozens of people; here’s what I took note of.

1) For mainstream VR, mobile is everything.

The three best-in-class VR experiences right now — in no particular order, the Oculus Rift, Project Morpheus and the HTC Vive — are solidly in the “gaming” column for now, developers said. Those headsets will require a beefy desktop PC or a PlayStation 4, and the Vive will be best with both a gaming PC and dedicated floor space near the PC, without obstacles to trip over, so that users can walk around.

A panel of VR investors harped on the comparative accessibility of smartphone-powered headsets like Samsung’s Gear VR or Google Cardboard, which are wireless and work with phones that people already have. “Mobile may ramp faster,” Highland Capital partner Alex Taussig said, and the panel agreed that VR-video would play a big role in that growth.

2) … But mobile might not be forever.

Although smartphone VR might be convenient and portable, Leap Motion co-founder David Holz said, it’s also “in slight danger.” The VR tech world will want to put more sensors and features into smartphones to boost their performance, which would be “burdensome” to people who want to buy phones and don’t want VR. Holz forecasted that a separate class of dedicated VR devices, arriving between 2016 and 2021, would be both wireless and, with development, could match the capabilities of today’s PC/console-wired machines.

3) Samsung is getting better at selling VR.

In his keynote address Monday morning, Samsung VP Matt Apfel screened a new (apparently, not so new) ad for the Gear VR, showing people in a public park trying the headset for the first time, with a picture-in-picture window of what they were seeing. The newbies’ reactions, of course, were all of the “wow” and “oh my God!” variety, but they felt a lot more believable than this cringeworthy sci-fi-ish ad for the Gear VR’s “innovator edition”:

Here’s the ad Apfel screened:

4) VR’s killer app might not arrive immediately.

“I won’t say that we need it, but I will say that we want it,” Oculus co-founder Nate Mitchell said of a killer app for virtual reality in 2013. At SVVR, fellow co-founder Palmer Luckey said in general terms that he expects entertainment and educational apps to “dominate in the short term,” with other verticals following later. But Samsung’s Nick DiCarlo made an interesting observation: The cameraphone predated Instagram by 10 years. In other words, it may take time after the initial consumer launches for the real answer to the killer app question to emerge.

Oculus VR co-founder Palmer Luckey holds court at SVVR.
Oculus VR co-founder Palmer Luckey holds court at SVVR.

5) Yes, there will be porn.

Several audience questions at the panel on which Luckey and DiCarlo were talking wound up focusing on virtual reality pornography. At first, no one wanted to answer except Sixense CEO Amir Rubin, who noted that for “every medium in the past, porn is a key driver,” and claimed that VR porn was already gaining traction in Japan. Eventually, the audience got a very carefully worded response out of Luckey, who avoided using the p-word at all: “The Rift is an open platform. We don’t control what software can run on it.” Worth noting: He specifically name-dropped the Oculus Rift, and not the Gear VR, which Oculus co-developed with Samsung, and which has an Apple-style app approval system.

6) Yes, there will be ads … eventually.

It took all of five seconds after Facebook bought Oculus last year for people to start joking about how the future of virtual reality would be overrun with algorithmically targeted advertisements and FarmVille notifications. But on the VR-investing panel, Comcast Ventures* partner Gavin Teo opined that YouTube-style preroll videos would be the most likely monetization model for non-gaming applications. On a different panel about those 360-degree videos, VideoStitch CEO Nicolas Burtey said future digital compositing tools may make it easier to layer display ads over live-action video. However, he cautioned, “if we try to put [in] advertisements right now, people will scare away very quickly.”

7) Do you have a driver’s license? That might make a difference.

Brad Herman, the head of DreamWorks’ VR lab, has noticed an interesting age cutoff in his group’s testing. When demoing their How to Train Your Dragon simulator, they found that children under 16 tend to look around more, while testers over 16 tend to look straight ahead. The reason? DreamWorks VR thinks it’s because under-16s have largely never been behind the wheel of a car, while over-16s have been trained by driver’s ed to keep their eyes on the road while in charge of a vehicle (or, as the case may be, a dragon).

8) Holy crap, eye tracking kind of works.

The biggest surprise for me, as a serial VR demo-er, was Fove, a VR headset currently seeking funds on Kickstarter that tracks users’ eyes as well as their heads. Although I had seen similar eye-tracking technology outside of VR when I visited Sony’s Magic Lab, there was something novel and compelling in the space-shooter demo about being able to look in one direction but target an enemy spaceship in my peripheral vision. The demo was pretty simple, but Fove claims it can also adjust a game’s depth of field based on where you’re looking and let you type in VR.

* Comcast owns NBCUniversal, which is a minority investor in Revere Digital, Re/code’s parent company.

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