The first time I watched an alien newborn claw its way out of a human's belly -- with blood and guts gushing -- was 38 years ago, in a Boston cinema. The movie, of course, was Ridley Scott's Alien, and I was so tense and unhinged at the uber-violent, boundary-pushing scene that I practically broke my boyfriend's arm.
Alien Covenant, the newest in the popular sci-fi franchise, is pushing boundaries again. On Wednesday, virtual reality -- that wild, wacky technology -- allowed me to watch a short promo for the film depicting, with 360-degree views, an alien birth from the alien'sperspective.
This time, little alien arms, viewed from inside the birth sac, tore through the flesh. Internal organs rebelled. And the unfortunate human host -- more blood and guts gushing -- collapsed dead on a table. Eww...
This promo, courtesy of hardware company AMD and Fox, was just one of some two dozen VR experiences available at The Art of VR conference happening today and tomorrow (June 22-23) at Sotheby's in New York. While cinematic "storytelling" experiences certainly dominated, the enthusiastic young exhibitors and their headsets offered more than a hint of big, big opportunities ahead for entrepreneurs -- creative and commercial alike -- smart enough to be paying attention.
"The big accounting firms are indicating that the growth rate in VR, whether it's content creation or hardware, is probably 50 percent a year," Jim Chabin, president of the event's sponsoring Advanced Imaging Society, said during an interview. "My background is in television -- I was at CBS and in entertainment. If you're in the entertainment industry, let's face it: People are cutting their cable cords; primetime television doesn't attract the audiences it used to; there are only so many people going to the movies.
"It's not like we're inventing more moviegoers," he continued. "So virtual reality, augmented reality will be used in industry, will be used by medical, will be used by travel, the restaurant industry, the real estate industry, travel business and the entertainment industry."
The virtual reality industry is still small, acknowledged Chabin, a past president of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, vs. its rather saturated movie and TV industry forerunners. Half of the VR community, he says, are companies with five or fewer employees working on their debut VR offerings.
"The number of people working in VR and AR, we think, will double every year at least," he said. "We think it's a 10-year build-out for this industry. So if that's an area to which you devote your efforts, you have a decade of solid growth [ahead]."
Chabin's message -- of entrepreneurs not being "left behind," of the terms "virtual reality" and "augmented reality" coming up more and more in client conversations, of opportunities galore -- was echoed by the entrepreneurs demonstrating their VR wares at the event.
Kevin Mack, a past Oscar winner for visual effects (What Dreams May Come, 1998) and, more recently, the founder of the VR art companyZen Parade, described his 2-and-a-half-year-old company as equal parts art and commerce. "I'm interested in aesthetics but also altering consciousness in positive ways," Mack said. "What I make is both fine art and entertainment, but we're also using it for therapy and medicine."
Mack's 3D sculptures -- viewed via a headset and resembling shiny globs of acrylic paint on canvas, floating in space in a kind of spacious airy world -- are almost a meditative experience. According to Mack, his art has been used as a hypno-analgesic to treat pain and anxiety for patients undergoing awake brain surgery, and it's more effective than traditional applications, he says.
That's why he's aiming to get drug companies and medical companies on board. "We're finding our biggest opportunities for the near future are going to be location-based entertainment arcades as well as the medical industry," Mack said.
Those arcades came up by others such as Larry Jones, CEO ofBlackthorn Media, whose Dragonflight VR experience had people lining up at a press briefing to "fly" on a dragon's back, a la Game of Thrones's Khaleesi. Jones spoke of the franchise company VR Junkies,whose franchisees are setting up quick and relatively cheap storefronts.
"Where the market is right now is about games," Jones said. But movie-style storytelling, he said, is coming on the VR scene more and more. That's how his 2-year-old company has attracted six Academy Award nominees (and one winner). "We're taking the imagery and expertise you have with something like [the movie] Life of Pi and putting it into a game," he said. "It's kind of like crazy. Crazy good."
The Virtual Reality Company (VRC) also has attracted some high-powered interest. "We have an advisor who's a really well-known filmmaker," CEO Guy Primus divulged: "Steven Spielberg."
VRC's website contains stills from its Art of VR offering, Rukus, a 12-minute family friendly animated VR experience, in which two preteens and their dog travel to a world populated by dinosaurs. Viewers have an extra experience here: Their chairs rumble and vibrate according to the action on the screen. Those motion seats come via the Montreal company D-box (whose vice president, Richard LaBerge, pointed out, "The body has to participate to make it a real virtual reality").
Primus said that 3-year-old VRC is following a theatrical model, where Rukus and other short VR films are being offered, in a premium experience, in theaters for a short time, followed by home release for Sony PlayStation, Oculus VR and other devices. Also coming down the line is a "warehouse" model, where multiple people interact with VR through arcades and popular outlets such as Chuck E. Cheese restaurants.
The VR industry is young, it's entrepreneurial and it's hot, Primus and other exhibitors at the conference said over and over. They described, among its many applications, VR for real estate home buyers, oil rig fire-prevention training and retail purchases (which Amazon is already incorporating).
Not surprisingly, large companies as well as small ones are at the Art of VR event: USA Today showed off its VR offering, an F-18 jet launch off the USS Eisenhower, while Intel -- in association with Positron -- presented a prelude to its VR movie Le Musk.
"For me, as an entrepreneur trying to take the next step, the next media, it's about VR," said Jones, the Blackthorn CEO. "There is an industry thirsty for great content, vs. an industry saturated by great content. It's not about managing decline [like] in digital television and television, where the audience is spread out so far. VR is about managing growth.
"And it's all about growth."