Issue: Volume 38 Issue 5: (Sep/Oct 2015)


Virtual reality and augmented reality were prevalent buzzwords at SIGGRAPH 2015. In a nutshell, if you were not talking about these technologies or showing a demo that involved VR or AR, well, you are already well behind the eight ball, so to speak. 

These two technologies are hardly new. When I first started attending SIGGRAPH in the ’90s, a number of companies were hawking their wares and showing demos involving VR, and then later, AR. Mostly these involved high-level industrial applications for oil and gas exploration, medical research, military training, and so forth. At SIGGRAPH 1998 in Orlando, SGI sponsored a behind-the-scenes look at the then new DisneyQuest, where virtual reality was integrated into entertainment with such attractions as a virtual jungle cruise. 

Over the years, VR and AR applications popped up here and there but didn’t seem to grab much attention. Then, bam! Suddenly they were everywhere. At this year’s SIGGRAPH, the VR Village – a new addition to the conference – kept attendees busy with 65 curated VR experiences. I really wish I would have had more time to spend there, but I manage to slip in just a few pre-booked appointments, enabling  me to bypass the often lengthy lines of attendees wanting to try out one of the experiences. 

There were many examples of realistic applications here. I walked across a thin cable strung between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, just as high-wire artist Philippe Petit attempted in 1974. (Full disclosure: Unlike Petit, I took one step and was unable to continue this death-defying feat.) The VR experience, called “Can You Walk the Walk?,” was created by PlayStation Magic Lab and Create VR, and is generating publicity for the film The Walk, which follows Petit on his quest. 

In addition, I explored the inside of a pharaoh’s tomb, interacting with 3D objects and a fellow VR explorer. In another time-traveling experience, I trekked through prehistoric France, where I encountered ancient elk and mammoths, the subject of long-ago storytelling. And, I floated down the Colorado River on a kayak, through a dynamic, fully immersive CG replica of the Grand Canyon. 

On the show floor, there were similar experiences. Chaos fully embraced VR technology, hosting what it called a “VR Bar,” where virtual-reality applications were served up (in lieu of virtual drinks, I suppose). The intent was to show off applications for the company’s VR tools by way of architectural and film projects crafted for the Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, and Google Cardboard. I experienced Kevin Margo’s sci-fi short “Construct,” and had the bejesus scared out of me during an encounter (from Legend3D and Mr. X) within Allerdale Hall, a gothic mansion inspired by Crimson Peak, which will be released in October. 

AMD also gets high marks for its VR demos. I was able to witness the Wright brothers as they took off on that famous first flight from Kitty Hawk, in a realistic experience dubbed “The Story of Wilbur and Orville.” At the other end of the realism spectrum was a cliff climb that involved dodging Pterodactyl nests in Crytek’s “Back to Dinosaur Island 2.” (Confession: I am afraid of heights. The realism of the imagery in “The Walk” application played a real/not real tug-of-war match in my brain, but the stylized imagery of the dinosaur climb enabled me to perform the quest without fear.)

Another fantastic experience occurred at the Grammy Museum even before SIGGRAPH began, though it had nothing to do with music. There I met up with Epic’s Kim Libreri and Weta’s Alasdair Coull. The companies teamed up to explore VR and the technical issues that need to be resolved. 

First, I found myself in the middle of a street battle between soldiers and a gigantic robotic creature running amuck in “Showdown.” The action was brutal, with fire and destruction happening all around me, a lot of it occurring in slow motion. In another experience, called “Thief in the Shadows,” based on The Hobbit films, I came face to face with the dragon Smaug as I walked around his hidden lair filled with gold. 

The demos were outstanding, mostly because the quality of the imagery was spot on. The Smaug application was created using Weta’s film pipeline. Both experiences pushed the limits of what can be done with today’s resolutions and frame rates, as Weta and Epic embark on a journey to more compelling VR in the future. 

Jon Peddie Research (JPR) also got virtual at its annual luncheon during the conference. At what I consider one of its most engaging events yet (and I have attended many), JPR addressed this timely topic with a panel comprising James Knight from BluStreak Media who points out that VR is a natural step forward from virtual production; Sanjay Das from Tippett Studio, which is exploring VR, AR, and 360-degree storytelling; and Grant Anderson of Jaunt Studios, which is developing hardware and software geared to VR.

In addition to updating the crowd about their own experiences in this segment, the panel discussed the need for new tools for editorial, world building, and lighting, as well as real-time rendering and presentation. 

Everything is more complicated now, Anderson pointed out. Imagery is far more complex: 2k, 4k, HDR, high frame rate, stereo, 360 degrees. It all adds up to a massive amount of data, and VR needs to support all of it with specially tuned rendering, capture, and post. The tools are not there yet for VR, he said. The best solutions, he added, are those built from the ground up specifically for VR. 

Some attendees asked about how VR today is different from VR 20 years ago. Again, the complexity of the content was discussed. Also, there’s more to this story. And that was indeed part of the answer. Developers are putting “story” into the VR experiences, creating frameless storytelling, making far more immersive experiences than those of yesteryear. 

Will VR and AR spawn a new genre of entertainment, or will the hype and excitement of SIGGRAPH soon dim as the industry jumps on the next big-thing bandwagon? I believe that VR and AR will continue to develop and evolve, as will the necessary technologies to propel new forms of realities. Only time will tell.  ν