Like many people in the tech community, I've had my doubts about the VR craze. It seemed like something a small society of enthusiasts would love and the general population would avoid.
But the hype around the emerging industry is undeniable. VCs are pouring money into various virtual reality companies and major media organizations like Disney are acquiring their own VR production houses to stay ahead of the curve.
I decided it was time to stop my ignorant speculation and have a full VR experience in order to truly understand what was going on in this little corner of the tech world. I put my presumptions aside and headed over to Venice to visit the recently-funded VR content creator and distributor,
The six-year-old startup now has two locations within walking distance of each other. The first (pictured below on the left) was Dennis Hopper’s former house that Wevr recently rented. The other, their headquarters, is a lofty space on Rose (pictured below on the right) that the company has occupied for a few years.
After a brief tour, I strapped on the headset and earphones, grabbed a pair of joysticks, and entered a motion capturing area to begin my trip down the rabbit hole.
In total, I had four unique VR experiences. All of which I will attempt to describe but will likely fail to fully capture (which is ironically one of the major problems when selling the VR experience, but more on that later).
The first was an underwater immersion that Wevr premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year. I stood aboard a sunken ship while a variety of underwater creatures swam around me. They scurried away if I made any hand movements and that was the extent of the entire five minute experience. At this point, I was impressed, but not blown away.
The second trip was a promotional experience in line with the plot of the 2014 cinematic masterpiece "John Wick." Within the virtual world, I was Keanu Reeves. I had always wanted to be Keanu. Needless to say, I was giddy at this point.
The experience led me through an assassin-packed adventure that required me to dodge an ambush of bullets and interact with various aspects of a virtual hotel. The motion-capturing was seamless and I was amazed by how smoothly I was able to interact with this virtual world. Unfortunately, the John Wick experience lacked crucial elements of the movie (like watching the Russian Mob kill your dog and then subsequently murdering over 100 people via close range headshots) but for a five minute experience, they nailed it.
Halfway through my demo, one thing was blatantly clear: it is impossible to look cool while experiencing VR.
The third experience initially seemed like a dull follow up to the chaotic world of John Wick. I was placed in an open desert-scape and given an interactive, rotating palette of colors and effects in my left hand. After selecting my preference, I began drawing in the open space around me. Suddenly the joy of fooling around on Microsoft Paint as a kid came rushing back. However, in this creative space, I was immersed within my drawings, allowing me to walk around or within them while adding effects like snow, fire or radiating beams of light. There was a wonderful Fantasia vibe to the world.
Finally, I strapped into a different headset, sat in a chair, and chose another one of the experiences that Wevr rolled out at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Comedian/Musician Reggie Watts guided me through a trippy music video that ended with me laying next to a beautiful woman on a beach. The experience wasn’t as engulfing as the two prior (there was no motion-capturing element) but it nonetheless was a serene eight minutes that felt like a new form of meditation.
After re-entering the real world I sat with co-founder and CEO Neville Spiteri to discuss the doubts that have plagued the early years of VR:
“If you’re not excited about VR and you’re hesitant it’s because you haven’t tried it out,” said Spiteri. “Our experience is that 9.9 times out of 10 that people go from being hesitant and unsure to being like ‘Oh my gosh, this is incredible.’ That’s what we see over and over and over again so it makes perfect sense that there is still ambivalence or uncertainty because most people have not checked this out for real.”
We began throwing around a few comparisons for the current state of VR. I likened it to where 3D technology was a decade ago — a novelty that some people had experienced at theme parks but never felt like it was ready for the mainstream. Suddenly every movie was being shown in 3D and production studios like Pixar and Dreamworks mastered the craft, blowing audiences away with crisp, colorful visuals.
“Hearing John Lasseter (Pixar) talk about the first time they contemplated doing a full-feature CG-animated movie, which was Toy Story, everyone thought they were crazy,” recalled Spiteri. “Then he would refer back to the first time Walt Disney said they were going to make a full feature animated movie called Snow White and everyone thought he was absolutely out of his mind. There is a bit of a quantum leap there which I think happens whenever there's a seed change in the consumer experience and I think this is one of those.”
But Spiteri and I agreed there was one major factor holding back the popularity of VR: the solitary experience. When the previously mentioned movies pioneered the animation industry, they were experienced by hundreds of people at a time, allowing their notoriety to spread quickly. On the other hand, Virtual Reality is experienced alone and is nearly impossible to describe (see above.) And while a community-based VR experience may emerge years from now, Spiteri is optimistic about the current state, saying that the solitary experience has its own benefits:
“People are actually pleasantly surprised by the solitary experience. They’re like ‘Wow, I was really able to be immersed, wasn’t distracted by my phone, and I was committed.’ There is a zen like quality to being in VR for some time and when you come out and you’re suddenly back to the real world. We think it's a plus. We’re doing a product with Deepak Chopra on mediation and he sees a lot of potential in the solitary experience of VR.”
As I left the Wevr studios I knew two things were certain: VR is coming and Los Angeles will be its mecca. There are undoubtedly a few aspects to iron out before the world truly accepts a new virtual world but the industry's future is undeniably bright.