VRTO founder and executive director Keram Malicki-Sanchez - All photos by Captive Camera
Virtual Reality is not just for the tech savvy. The technology is becoming increasingly accessible thanks to practical applications that go well beyond the campy stereotypes of the 90s, and that was on full display at the recent VRTO Virtual and Augmented Reality Conference at the Ryerson Communications Centre in Toronto.
Founded by Keram Malicki-Sanchez, VRTO showcased some of ways in which VR can cross over to the mainstream. It’s already being used in therapy, film production, web browsing, and fine art, and VR will continue to wriggle its way into other fields as it evolves. In many cases, the presence of VR might not even be noticeable to the general public.
“If it’s done right, you’ll never see it,” said Ross Shain, the Chief Product Officer Imagineer Systems, a company that is not new to the special effects game. Since 2000, its software has added visual effects to movies like Casino Royale, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, and the Harry Potter films. At VRTO, Shain demonstrated how Imagineer’s software hides things (like the camera) that editors and directors don’t want in their shots. For instance, a 360-degree camera is able to make its own rolling stand disappear by rendering the ground in front of the camera as the stand passes over it. It also has many other cinematic applications.
“We even see [our software] on David Fincher films,” said Shain. ”He uses a lot of head replacement. In Gone Girl, he’ll like the body language of an actor and then take the eye expression, the facial expression, from a different take and ask the editor to reconstruct the scene. Its using visual effects for performance enhancing. The audience would never notice.”
Janus VR takes that a step further, bringing Virtual Reality to everyday life. Janus is a VR web browser that converts ordinary websites into virtual spaces that anyone can explore (“Turn web pages into web spaces,” in the words of Malicki-Sanchez). You can use Janus on most computers and even smart phones, allowing you to visit Hyrule Castle or the /r reddit page for Janus VR.
“All you need is Chrome and a few HTML-like lines of code to generate a website in a room and travel wherever you want,” said Malicki-Sanchez. “People link all their VR sites through portals.”
It sounds like a gimmick, but there are plenty of interesting uses for the technology. For instance, virtual web pages give retailers the ability to open digital storefronts that allow you to try clothes with your avatar before making an online purchase. The tech isn’t quite there yet, but it is won’t be long before consumers start seeing it in the wild.
VR is even influencing traditionally analogue fields like fine art. At VRTO, artists like Dan Goldman, Daniel Leighton, Alex Mayhew, Branislav Dordevic used Augmented Reality to change the way that people interact with their own work and the works of others, using apps that animate static works of art when examined through the lens of an iPad.
“You hold the iPad up to the painting, things start to happen to bring it to life. These are emergent,” said Malicki-Sanchez.
The technology can add context (and commentary) that we would otherwise take for granted. With AR, a painting of a glamorous women suddenly includes a selfie stick that she is using to get a better shot, while a Renaissance butcher cutting up a deer is instead surrounded by grocery bags filled with processed meat. Both are part of Alex Mayhew’s ReBlink project, which takes classic paintings and finds ways to modernize them (ReBlink opens at the AGO in July). The effect is visually stunning, and it’s real conversation starter that repositions art that would often receive only a silent nod from most viewers.
AR is an equally powerful tool for artists in the present. Daniel Leighton uses AR to bring his own paintings to life with visual effects that would be impossible in a stationary format. He was one of the many artists with similar work at VRTO, and in each case it adds an extra layer of complexity to the finished piece.
Meanwhile, companies like Promena VR are attempting to realize some of the therapeutic uses of VR. Craig Burgess, a 3D artist and mechanical engineer, talked about how Promena VR tries to help those struggling with mental health.
“The idea came out of roleplaying with a guy that had problems [talking] with women in the workplace,” said Burgess, explaining that Promena allows patients to safely role-play with the supervision of a therapist. The patient puts on a VR rig and the therapist can then load up pre-made scenarios in which the therapist has full control of the situation, exposing the patient to the safest version of a possible fear. The set up also uses motion capture that can map the therapist’s face onto the face of a character in the patient’s VR session. When asked if anyone else is trying exposure therapy like this, Burgess replied that no one is doing it with the same level of sophistication, and that his team has already treated people with the set up.
“In this industry nobody is using motion capture,” said Burgess.
Promena VR is yet another company that demonstrates the expanding scope of VR, proving that the technology is more than a vehicle for thrilling experiences. That’s also what makes a conference like VRTO so exciting. Businesses and audiences gain a greater understanding of VR and the things that it can and can’t do, and we’re starting to see more of that potential as serious players come to the fore. VRTO offers a glimpse of what should be a bright future built on real solutions instead of hype.