VRTO 2019 runs June 1-3 at the Toronto Media Arts Centre.
The first time I covered VRTO in 2016, the XR industry was a different world. Pokemon Go was just about to happen. There was still a novelty in trying roomscale experiences with tracked controllers on the (then newly released) HTC Vive. You used an Xbox controller with your Oculus Rift. Magic Leap was a whisper. A wave of 360-video studios had sprung up, each with grand aspirations of being the next big Hollywood success story.
When you frame it like that, the growth of this industry over the past three years has been staggering. But that belies the fact that these three years have been tough. A mainstream market never managed to materialize, VC funding shriveled, startups—beloved and otherwise—went under.
But during that winter, we learned a whole lot. Notably, we learned to stop assuming people would want VR and AR at any cost and start considering what might invite them to the table. It was also during that time that the XR conference-that-could, Virtual Reality Toronto (VRTO), asserted itself as the go-to destination for the weirdos and visionaries to have necessary conversations.
In addition to highlighting pressing industry topics, VRTO carved out a niche in showcasing the philosophical, esoteric, and ethical discussions that will resonate as much in 2030 as they might have in 1980.
With last year’s breakout success in Beat Saber and last week’s official launch of Oculus Quest—the first headset positioned for true mainstream adoption—Keram Malicki-Sánchez, Executive Director of VRTO, wants to use the platform of his 4th annual conference to take stock of the lessons we’ve learned over the past half-decade of experimentation and focus on the next wave of adoption that’s coming. In particular, to think about what insights we can share with newcomers—as well as what obstacles, pitfalls, and concerns should remain top-of-mind.
“Since the Oculus DK1 Kickstarter, a community of makers, hackers, developers, artists, designers and entrepreneurs have been making experiments that helped us understand what VR could be,” Malicki-Sánchezsaid in an interview with the author. “And now after some five years, we have some answers—some mutations, some hybrids, some mashups and some unicorns. Just in time come the new wave of headsets that are already filtering themselves into the ‘successful’ pile."
Whether the Quest brings a surge of newcomers from the jump or it takes a few years of compound growth, he views the advent of accessible, standalone VR as the beginning of a new wave for the industry—one that will require the same caliber of conversations that have been taking place at VRTO during its winter.
“VR has had its time talking among itself,” Malicki-Sánchez said. “Rather than talk about how VR is living or dying—we can assume it’s here to stay—now it is time to stop, take a breath, recalibrate, and become part of the world.”
He refers to the concept of 'MAYA' (Most Advanced Yet Accessible, Most Advanced Yet Achievable) from Derek Thompson’s, The Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction as a framework for understanding this next phase for the industry.
“VR needs to meet people where they are, doing what they already love, a concept I picked up from Amanda Shelby,” Malicki-Sánchez said. “VR needs to extend rather than upend people's activity and lifestyle.”
Every year, Malicki-Sánchez personally curates and programs the festival to move as its own creative setpiece, where conversations flow based on ideas rather than being merely boxed-in by type.
“Unlike some conferences that may be more modular, the talks are curated to play out like a melody, moving naturally from one concept to the next, extending ideas and then occasionally introducing an exciting and unexpected interval,” Malicki-Sánchez said. “It is not a conference about VR and AR; it is a conference about the people who will use and make VR and AR.”
A brief glimpse at the schedule reveals this commitment to the human element, even across subjects as wide-ranging subjects as Location-Based Entertainment (LBE), eSports, Neural Interface Technology, Spatialized and Generative Audio, and more.
Douglas Rushkoff, Amelia Winger-Bearskin, Kent Bye, Sarah Vick, Tipatat Chennavasin, Blake Harris, and many other pioneers in emerging technology will deliver keynotes, presentations, fireside chats, and panels -- including a live recording of the Team Human Podcast with Douglas Rushkoff.
Disclosure: I will be conducting a fireside with Syrmor Shiraz at VRTO 2019, but received no financial or in-kind support from the conference or its organizers. As a journalist, I've been struck by Syrmor's use of SocialVR to explore human intimacy, as well as his ascent to a major media presence, so I jumped at the chance to speak with him about his work in Toronto, which happens to be his hometown.
VRTO is the conference where the Code of Ethics on Human Augmentation was ratified. It's the conference where a panel of psychonauts discussed the interrelationship between extended reality technologies and psychedelics. Now that XR is (finally) poised to enter the mainstream after years of experimentation, a forum like this has never been quite so essential.
VRTO 2019 takes place June 1-3 at the Toronto Media Arts Centre. Visit the official website for more information.