Event Visit Report - VRX San Francisco

In the second week of December we attended VRX in San Francisco, one of the world’s biggest Virtual Reality conferences, and visited VR leaders such as Oculus, Vaunt, and ILM as part of a UK DIT (Department for International Trade) government trade mission.

I met up with Peter Caddock (Head of New Technologies here at Studio Liddell) at Manchester airport for a quick BA flight down to Heathrow and then we had an excellent journey on Virgin Atlantic in one of their beautiful new Dreamliner planes. I’m used to going over to SF and San Jose for GDC (Game Developers Conference) but this was my first time in the brand new Dreamliner, which I can highly recommend!

As we flew on the Saturday we had the whole of Sunday to relax around San Francisco and get over the jetlag. We’d both been to San Fran before but it’s a lovely city and always great to explore. We met up with Matthew Brooks of BBC R&D who was also on the DIT Trade Mission and also happens to live in Manchester, in fact he works in the BBC Media City building just over the road from our office.


Monday - Reception at the British Consulate

One of the reasons we travelled to San Francisco was to take part in a UK DIT (Department for International Trade) government trade mission for companies making and using Virtual Reality. We were joined by McLaren, Tata Elxsi, Inition, BBC R&D, and Framestore - all leading companies in our fields.

On the Monday we were invited to a special reception at the official home of Andrew Whittaker, British Consul General in San Francisco. This was a very interesting evening as the Consul General’s team had invited Expats such as Julian Price of vTime (Liverpool), and people from the VR and AR industries in California such as Google. We did a lot of networking and chatting about VR and what was happening and how we could make more links between the UK and USA.


Tuesday - Visiting Virtual Reality Companies in Silicon Valley

Tuesday was a very exciting day as the DIT had laid on a tour of Silicon Valley and visits with many top companies working in VR, 360 Video and Haptics.

First stop was breakfast at ILMxLAB - the new laboratory for immersive entertainment from Lucasfilm. These are the guys whose main company does the special effects for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters, etc etc. It was awesome to be taken on a tour of their offices by Vicki Dobbs Beck and her friendly team, passing by memorabilia from many awesome movies. The main attraction was trying out ILMxLAB’s “Trials On Tatooine” Star Wars VR experience in their own demo room with, of course, THX Surround Sound. I was the first person to try the game and had a bit of a shock when the Millennium Falcon landed and a large fan I hadn’t noticed in the room blasted air into my face!

Next was Jaunt, the world-leading 360° video company. Chief Business Officer David Anderman gave us a great tour, showing a big table full of 3D printed early prototypes of their 360 cameras and showing off the latest high-resolution 360 video in their demo suite. They are currently filming footage in 4k resolution for future devices as current devices are not actually that high resolution! David talked about the opportunities to work with Jaunt, which included hiring their high-end 360 cameras and using their cloud services to store and edit the massive files needed.

Onwards to Immersion, the big Haptics company - these are the people who design and licence the vibration technology you feel in your game console controllers or mobile devices and they have a very large market share. We had lunch and a good chat and then they took us into their purpose-built demo room where they showed us some interesting use of vibration technology including making mobile ads vibrate as you watched them, and some feedback devices that could be used for playing VR games such as tennis.

Here’s a video of Matt from BBC R&D trying out a VR tennis demo with haptic feedback in the device.

Then we stopped by Oculus HQ which is based on Facebook’s main campus at Menlo Park (just along the road from Tesla and Google of course). It was an exciting day to visit as it was the launch day for the Oculus Touch controllers. We had a tour through the building and the opportunity to try some great Oculus content in their own demo room. The two-player Oculus ToyBox with Touch control and voice communication was really great - Peter and I were in separate demo rooms but had a lot of fun interacting with each other in the VR world.

Thomas Shirley of TATA Elxsi trying out the new Oculus Touch controllers in the Oculus campus demo room

Thomas Shirley of TATA Elxsi trying out the new Oculus Touch controllers in the Oculus campus demo room

We ended the day at the British Consulate office itself in downtown San Francisco where we met up for coffee with a special guest who we can’t name, but suffice to say they were from a well-funded and top-secret AR company who we couldn’t possible name ;-)


Wednesday - VRX Conference Day 1

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The VRX conference had a top line-up including Jason Rubin of Oculus, Joel Brenton of HTC Vive, and John Riccitiello of Unity Technologies.

Highlights of the first day included Tim Sweeney, CEO, Epic Games and Unreal Engine talking about Realistic Human Interaction in VR and some of the social and moral questions of putting people into virtual worlds. He spoke about how interacting within virtual worlds is the culmination of a variety of technologies to create a ‘Metaverse’ - a combination of the real universe and the virtual one. His opinion was generally positive with regard to using VR technology for education and connecting more people together in meaningful ways.

Later on old friends Jason Rubin, Head of Content, Oculus and Ted Price, CEO, Insomniac Games had a ‘Fireside Chat’ entitled Looking to the Future of VR Through the Past where they discussed the need for more high-quality ‘AAA’ content for VR and how Oculus were commissioning companies such as Insomniac to deliver quality games comparable to a high-end console experience.

As Studio Liddell is at heart a storytelling company, the afternoon highlight for us was the session Blending incredible tech and incredible storytelling for the ultimate VR experience, featuring Joel Breton, VP, VR Content, HTC Vive and our friend Patrick O'Luanaigh, CEO of UK VR publisher/developer nDreams. The panel discussed how despite all the exciting potential of VR we still need to have excellent content based around great gameplay and great storytelling.

At the end of the day, Hilmar Petursson, CEO, CCP Games, gave an excellent, engaging and amusing talk entitled The power of VR to create truly meaningful human experiences. This was what everyone was talking about at the evening drinks reception and is well worth checking out if you have access to the VRX videos online.


Thursday - VRX Conference Day 2

Day 2 of VRX was spent in another mix of meetings, conference sessions, and trying out new VR tech at the expo. Two of us attending the event meant we could split up and see more stuff so Peter concentrated on the conference sessions for learning purposes and I concentrated on meetings in my Business Development role. This approach proved very successful as we could do more and meet more people - which was the point of going there of course.

As great morning session was called Fireside chat: Is out of home the natural first step to experiencing great virtual reality?, with Brent Bushnell, CEO, Two Bit Circus in conversation with Dean Orion, Executive Creative Director, SPACES. They spoke of their experience in immersive events, immersive theatre, and theme park attractions, and discussing issues such as throughput (the amount of people you can get through an experience in an hour). Throughput is a big issue, especially for VR where people are wearing a device on their faces - no one wants to get an eye infection or other disease from a VR headset I’ve never heard so much discussion of baby wipes outside a nursery!

 

 


 

We saw a lot of interesting stuff in the VRX Expo area, from ARM talking about their Enlighten realtime lighting solutions and how to get the best out of various chipsets in VR, to Intel demoing VR games such as The Unspoken on their hardware. I tried the zombie shooting game Arizona Sunshine on the Intel stand and have to admit I was screaming like a little child when zombies were popping up around me. This was interesting as the drinks reception was going on around me! Intel’s solution to throughput was interesting as they gave each user a VR face mask (see pic), which worked very well.

Another fun demo at the Expo was Blueprint Reality’s VR Puzzle game Awaken, which is a puzzle building game in a fantastic contraptions/Rube Goldberg/Heath Robinson style. They also had a green screen set-up which meant they could put you in the game as you played - you could see yourself within the game world on an in-game screen and spectators could watch you inside the game on the monitor. This was the first time I’d experienced being inside a game using green screen and I loved it. Blueprint did a great job of the lighting and it all looked great.

Finally, as a film buff and former film student, a personal highlight of the conference was meeting Brett Leonard, director of 90’s sci-fi classics The Lawnmower Man and Virtuosity. The Lawnmower Man really shaped VR for a generation coming of age in the 1990’s and helped us not only visualise some pretty unusual new concepts, but talk about the morality and effects of living within a virtual world many years before The Matrix, Ready Player One or the current debates on the subjects came along.

Simon with "Lawnmower Man" movie director Brett Leonard

Simon with "Lawnmower Man" movie director Brett Leonard


A Virtually Perfect Week

On the whole VRX was an excellent conference - well organised, a good venue, and most of all it had the best lineup of people from the world of VR and related fields. We enjoyed our visit both creatively and from a business perspective as we met a lot of great contacts and learned a lot.

The DIT trip was a truly excellent opportunity - visiting and connecting with people like Oculus and ILM was fantastic. We have to thank Cindy Fabian of the local DIT team for organising such a great visit. I can highly recommend going in such a trip if you get the opportunity - government trade trips help open doors and to get you access to places you might not easily be able to do yourself.

So all in all a perfect week of new opportunities and learning a lot of interesting stuff!

Simon Smith