A participant at SXSW Conference and Festivals experiences the Virtual Cinema. Different VR/AR content producers showed off their latest productions at the cinema. (Photo: Rick Jervis/USA TODAY)
Each year, the gathering of tech-film-music enthusiasts highlight virtual reality/augmented reality, or VR/AR, technologies that seem to be on the brink of widespread use — but never quite get there. Content, more so than the technology, always seems to be lacking.
This year, for the first time in its 31-year history, SXSW organizers created a "Virtual Cinema," where VR/AR content creators could show off their best stuff. I headed up to the fourth floor of the JW Marriott in Austin to check out the cinema and see where the technology stands. In the middle of the hallway, users put on a set of goggles and headphones and dove into virtual worlds, as a half-circle of LED screens around them displayed versions of what the user was experiencing.
On the day I went, Saturday, INITION, a London-based production company specializing in 360-degree and VR/AR productions, was showing off "Spatium," a mind-bending experience based on the works of avant-garde hat designer Philip Treacy.
As I waited my turn, Olivia Lory Kay, one of the project's executive producers, told me virtual reality has been slow to reach the masses because the larger hardware manufacturers (Sony, etc.) were slow to invest in the concept. But as hardware advances and investments have scaled up in recent years, so have applications, particularly in fields like healthcare and oil and gas, she said.
VR/AR could be seeing more widespread use within the next three to five years, Kay said. "We're one step closer," she said.
Sounded enticing. I gave it a shot.
As I pulled on the goggles — noticeably smaller than past bulky contraptions — and headphones, the hotel hallway disappeared and I stepped into an enormous darkened hanger-like structure. I looked down at the wireless handles I was given and saw humanlike hands in my virtual world. As a haunting soundtrack played in my ears, the walls of the hangar moved and oscillated like enormous works of art. Suddenly, the ground melted and re-formed into a small stage, beyond which was a steep drop off into swirling waters below. My stomach turned. I stayed away from the edge.
The five-minute experience was surreal and definitely transported me to another place. But it also felt a little twitchy and rudimentary, like early '80s arcade video games, and made me feel a little nauseated.
Even if the graphics were crystal clear and served a clearer purpose, I still would question the draw of being trapped in a stomach-churning alternate universe that instructs you what to imagine rather than allowing your own neuro synapses to fire on their own.
Mark Zuckerberg invested $3 billion in the technology, so there's obviously something there. For now, though, I still don't see it.