The simulated adventure begins with your trusty dog atop Vesper Peak in Washington State. Then, it’s on to an underwater shipwreck with a whale swimming at arm’s length—and later a trip to the operating room for an examination of a human spinal chord and brain. Hosting this hour-long itinerary is Ben Lang of Kennett Square, Mushroom Capital of the World and the unlikely fertile ground for Road to VR.
At the techie age of 26, Lang is the co-founder and executive editor of the leading virtual-reality news source. He doesn’t sleep much—and won’t— until he popularizes the industry enough that supply-and-demand makes start-up prices affordable, giving the technology mass accessibility. Virtual reality “yields the richness of the digital ecosystem,” he says.
In covering the industry since 2011, Lang has unearthed an anomaly rooted in southern Chester County. He joins two other Unionville High School alums who’ve emerged as East Coast VR innovators in a West Coast-dominated tech sector. Robert Morlino now lives in California and heads the public relations department at Nokia Technologies. Adam Arrigo is the co-founder of TheWaveVR, which is developing a music app for DJs, artists and festivals.
In 2016 alone, close to $1 billion was invested in VR technology, which really found its legs in 2012, when startup company Oculus re-ignited consumer interest with an online crowd-funding campaign.
The original goal was to raise $250,000 through Kickstarter for an innovative new headset to be sold at a consumer price point. The campaign generated $2.5 million.
Meanwhile, Lang was celebrating a year in business since launching Roadtovr.com as a Temple University student. At first, the blog was a hobby for a guy curious about technology. Lang had worked in tech journalism, and he figured the best way to learn about VR was to write about it. He found himself immersed in an exploding industry.
When Oculus sold to Facebook in 2014 for $2 billion, it shook the tech sector. Since then, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Nokia and others have re-entered the arena. The consensus is that VR is the next hugely disruptive technology, on the level of the smartphone. Major U.S. investment firm Piper Jaffray recently issued a market research report calling VR the "next mega-tech theme," forecasting a $60-billion-plus market by 2025. While it’s forging a relationship between the Silicon Valley tech sector and the Hollywood entertainment scene, there’s also potential in the fields of healthcare, tourism, architecture and more.
Arrigo is busy building a software platform that could create the next evolution in the music world, pushing that industry forward with connective content. “It doesn’t matter where you are when you’re networking online within the same virtual space,” he says.
A self-described altruistic “evangelist working in public spaces,” the one-time journalism major promises an explosive social platform like Facebook. “We’re democratizing the music experience with VR. If you’re not a performer, you can just hang out and dance, but you could also be an aspiring DJ or artist,” says Arrigo. “This makes it super easy to be up on stage and build an audience of followers. The goal is to generate alternative revenue streams for artists, though we haven’t flushed out the business model. This is totally new.”
Ben Lang//Photo by Tessa Marie Images
When Ben Lang graduated from Unionville High School in 2009, he was already writing about laptops and Smartphones for online tech publications. He started Road to VR with England’s Paul James, back when virtual reality was more of a community than an industry.
Actually, virtual reality has existed in some form since the 1960s. By the 1980s and ’90s, “VR got busy,” says Lang—though it was pricey and unsophisticated. Ivan Sutherland's Sword of Damocles is frequently credited as the first VR headset. It could only show the simplest geometry, but it did have rudimentary tracking, moving the image as the headset moved. Lang describes it as “the Pong of VR.”
Today, smartphone tech has advanced the need for affordable state-of-the-art VR. “Putting technology in our pockets and hands—it’s the core for all technology now,” says Lang.
But even today, the best VR systems must be tethered to a powerful computer, and until five years ago, the technology to create a comfortable, convincing or connected experience that replicates human movement didn’t exist at a consumer price point. Lang helped develop one in 2015 with AVADirect, determining what components would be necessary to smooth out the headset experience. “We thought, ‘We can get a VR computer,’” he recalls.
You can find a VR-capable PC for $800 to $1,000, though it won’t deliver the highest quality experience. The total buy-in cost—currently about $1,300 at the low end—still needs to come down, Lang says. His company helped develop the second-edition system sold by AVA: The Exemplar comes in two configurations—one for $2,500, the other for $1,500.
Lang says the goal is a $300 system with a $500 (or less) console to run it. Sony’s PlayStation VR headset was launched this past holiday season at $750 for both the headset and the game console. It’s the most affordable thus far. And there are less- expensive VR systems in a lesser class of experience that run on mobile phones. “This is just the start of it,” says Lang, predicting a time in the near future when a businessman trades a flight to California for a headset. “The content is creative for the creator, too, because he gets to see what’s in his head and share it. Users of VR can express themselves, too. They can paint a line in space—or whatever is in their heads—and not be bound by limitations. All technology is about defeating limitations. It was once a limitation to travel quickly and safely to another country—but an airplane fixed that.”
Can VR ever replace reality? “Technically, no,” Lang says. “You can take a VR trip to Paris, but can you say you’ve been to Paris? Visually, yes, you can look up the Eiffel Tower, but you’re still missing the sense of being there. But, before, the only natural way to interact was through a computer that one small window. But now you can stand in the middle of that window.”
A student exchange trip to Mexico needn’t involve plane tickets or baggage checks. “Visit through a headset,” Lang says. “Within the travel industry, it could bolster sales. You still may want to actually go on the cruise to feel the breeze, smell the sea and eat the food. But VR can be a useful marketing tool that provides just enough exposure, then you hit a button on the screen and get the trip scheduled.”
VR applications in healthcare include progress in what’s called diplopia—when one eye is much less dominant. With a VR headset, doctors can improve function in the weaker eye by altering input to the part of the brain that controls it. Signals to the weaker eye tell it to pay more attention, giving stereoscope to both. “You can gain a greater ability to see by seeing in 3-D,” Lang says.
Among other VR developments, doctors in different parts of the country would be able to view and discuss the same medical scans simultaneously. A headset can also import the outside world to a patient’s hospital bed.
Presidential debates filmed with VR can provide a more authentic sense of audience reaction—and there are broader philosophical applications beyond politics. “VR can virtually put you in the same room with someone who, if he were actually there, might kill you,” says Lang. “Maybe that could lead to greater understanding. VR can make us feel more like neighbors to each other.”
Lang has always viewed technology as something that can change lives for the better. “I look at my parents’ lives compared to mine,” Lang says. “When they left high school, how did they keep in touch with friends? I had Facebook. My mind races at night with what’s possible [with VR] beyond gaming and entertainment.”
Aself-taught game developer, Adam Arrigo once worked on the wildly popular Rock Band videogame franchise. Based in Los Angeles, he sees his niche as a few years removed from music app development. There’s no set rollout date for his TheWaveVR platform—which will allow anyone to create their own stage—sometime this year is a safe guess. Versions already exist, and the company is engaging artists.
For fellow VR guru Robert Morlino, it’s all “an innovation race”—one that’s competitive and necessary to make meaningful differences in people’s lives. He manages Nokia’s PR campaign for the OZO 360-degree VR camera, which debuted in 2015. “OZO can radically change how we deliver news, how media connects people to stories, and even the role of reporters,” says Morlino. “You can take it into a refugee camp or a war zone. Imagine the empathy and interest if you can see what happens in a news space. Traditional cameras point in one direction, and the cameraman decides what viewers see. With OZO, there’s no pointing. It captures it all, and it’s up to the viewer to decide what to watch. That’s empowering.”
You need highly creative content to attract users, so there’s significant investment in creating it. If successful, the content will prompt a public to pay for it, creating a tried-and-true cycle of supply and demand. To put things in perspective, Xbox has thousands of games. VR has hundreds.
There’s really no way to estimate the impact Lang has had on the growth of VR, though social media analytics firm Little Bird has ranked him the third most influential individual in the industry. “I don’t want to overstate our impact, but we have followed VR around the world with reliable reporting, rather than letting our readers hear about it through marketing speak,” he says.
A graduate of NYU and the Columbia School of Journalism, Morlino could’ve never predicted the course his career would take after switching from public-policy journalism to corporate communications. “I was in communications, but everything became tech industries,” he says. “It became where exciting things were happening.”
Among hundreds of Nokia projects, one was a solution for capturing 3-D stereoscopic audio and video for VR playback—a “funky lab rat, as we described it,” Morlino says.
That was before the talented Nokia design teams crafted the final product. OZO is $45,000 camera that allows for real-time preview and monitoring on a live production set. Hence, it saves time and money and inspires instant creatively. OZO has spawned multi-year deals with Disney, Sony Pictures and China’s Youku.
As for Arrigo, he remains confident that he and his partners can change a music-industry ecosystem that has become increasingly less livable. “It could be last job we ever have,” he says.