VR Toronto, more a DIY Symposium less Tech Conference, took place at Toronto's Ryerson's University on June 24-26
Because I'm not an academic, the conferences I make a point of attending are the big commercial ones like The Consumer Electronics Show (CES), where leading VR/AR Mixed Reality companies like Sony and Microsoft make big announcements. Places where I can meet everyone and try everything as efficiently as possible. I don't say no to the free food and parties, either.
But there's another world. A world of academics, ambitious grad students, CTOs and front end developers, who gather largely out of sight of business types in places like Ryerson University in Toronto where computer scientists think about three-dimensional navigation, volumetric capture, telepresence and where their next grant is coming from. What they really need are visionary entrepreneurs to productize and commercialize their inventions, and conferences like VR Toronto (VRTO) helps connect them. The next insanely great thing may not come out of Stanford, it may come out of Toronto.
Because of this, VRTO has more of a feel of a symposium than a conference, where ideas are traded, not SKUs. There are no fancy booths or marketing spin. Here people are more likely to show a demo on their phone than a finished product in a booth.
From L to R: General Manager Chrissy Aitchison, Producer Jessy Blaze, and Founder and Programmer Keram Malicki-Sanchez
The conference is led by executive director and programmer Keram Malicki-Sanchez, a Toronto native who plans the conference from LA, where he has a long list of acting credits, and Jessy Blaze, a freelance conference organizer whose stock and trade was regional Comicons before coming onboard to co-produce VRTO and FIVARS.
There were 100 speakers, 62 exhibits/installations and approximately 700 attendees, nearly double the size of last year's gathering. The opening reception featured a well-known local Toronto jazz combo in a large reception room at Ryerson, which followed an invitation-only opening day “onboarding workshop” for film & TV industry craftspeople looking to better understand this new format. The reception featured an abundance of food, provided by Keram's own family (awesome ceviche shots). Jessy's aunt, who handled craft services for 40 volunteers worried, needlessly it turns out, about running out of wine.
"VRTO didn’t grow out of a Meetup necessarily; it was always going to be a symposium and a sort of world's fair for the most edgy prototypes," said Malicki-Sanchez. "The "grassroots" nature you are referring to - the handmadeness and family participation is a function of its authenticity: by whatever means necessary we will strive for measurable results, real conversations, connections and opportunities."
Bob Fine, Washington, D.C. based Editor and Publisher of VR Voice, said "I was really debating whether the time and money was worth traveling to Toronto, but it was a very good conference to attend. Even though the venue wasn't ideal, it had a positive grass roots feel to it, and the organizers did a very good job of creating a variety of exhibit areas showcasing VR arcade games to Augmented Reality artwork."
Keram Malicki-Sanchez, Co-Founder and Head Programmer, VR Toronto
"Bringing all of these plus the most forward-thinkers from the US and abroad together in an environment of collaboration and questioning the status quo makes VRTO a symposium in the truest sense: designed to foster and engender collaboration between various sectors of the industry - be it connecting health research to VR developers or architects to game designers, or students to venture capitalists," said Malicki-Sanchez.
Shachar Weis,"Vice", an Isreali software developer based in London Ontario ("can't stand the Tel-Aviv traffic") with 20 years of experience, recently founded Packet39.com, a development house for VR/AR/MR and Computer Vision applications. His clients are in manufacturing and automotive. "We published a VR game, but the home market is currently too small to turn a profit". Vice gave packed presentations, "3D Scanning for VR" and "How to make a terrible VR game" a demonstration of how seamlessly Apple ARKit and Unity work together. "I met a slew of interesting and passionate people, made some new friends and left with leads that will hopefully grow into real projects," Vice said after returning from the conference.
Pete Forde, a colorful Toronto software entrepreneur, said "2017 was my first VRTO and I was really impressed by the talks I attended. This is a boost for Toronto's growing VR/AR ecosystem. More people need to know what's happening here." I visited Forde's itsme studio where he showed me a fully automated system that converts photographs into recognizable, photorealistic full-body 3D avatars. In about 70 seconds, my avatar was complete, doing back-flips and ready to be integrated into Unity applications including those made with ARKit. "My avatar is going to outlive me," Forde said, "I just hope he has nice things to say about me when I'm gone." The experience left me, literally, jumping up and down.
Pete Forde made an avatar of me. I flipped over it.
JanusVR is a new, 3D browser, designed to help blend the 2D and 3D needs of users on new platforms like Apple AR and Windows 10 MR. The company is developing its platform much the way Mozilla developed its open source Firefox browser. "Watching people grok WebVR for the first time at JanusCamp that (business development lead) Samantha Matthews made to look like a campsite, complete with a chiffon campfire, benches, real spruce trees and a 180 degree photogrammetry setup by Alan Maier, was a high point for me," observed Malicki-Sanchez. Janus community leaders from Australia, Brazil, Phoenix, San Francisco and Los Angeles made their way to Toronto for the event.
While a Toronto-based artist in the 80s, Graham Smith hacked together a head mounted display for tech-based performance art piece. He experimented with early 360 video - using Bolex 16mm film cameras and an optical printer to stitch them together, an unimaginably large job using primitive, inflexible, sixty-year-old technology. His work on telepresence has led him from tech-based performance art to found Webchair, a profitable, privately owned, Dutch company based in Delft that helps autistic children develop social skills by giving them the chance to come into class and social settings via telepresence.
Project "War Room" from Joydrop.
Mark Mikulec, a game designer for Joydrop, the game division of Mikutech, a technical consulting firm in London, Ontario, grabbed me outside the lecture hall to show me "War Room" (working title), a real-time AR strategy game that lets you position tanks, infantry, dirigibles and other military units on a battlefield digitally generated over the topography of any room. Need a new map to play on? Take two minutes to rearrange the couch, coffee table and that sleepy cat, and go back to war! Mikulec says Joydrop is "spleen-deep in virtual reality development. We just completed Canada's first VR escape room, "De-composed". "We knew VRTO would be fertile ground for growing awareness of our expertise in programming for the Hololens." They are looking for a commercial partner who will help complete development of "War Room".
In a similar manner, I was introduced to Marc-Olivier LePage, co-founder of Vrvana of Montreal, between panels. Vrvana makes a wonderful HMD called Totem, which has clean, high-resolution optics, wide field of view, inside out positional tracking, onboard video processing, dual cameras, higher FPS, and is capable of both AR and VR, something that will increasingly make sense. In the demo I flew a helicopter around the conference room wearing their headset, just a taste of what Totem can do. At $5,000, Totem is for enterprise users.
Beautiful AR/VR Totem HMD. At $5,000, it is for enterprise use.
I moderated a superstar panel on Virtual Reality in public places, otherwise known as Location Based Entertainment (LBE), or VRcades (oh do they hate that word). Panelists included Jim Jensen, Chief Creative Officer of The Void, Eyal Kleiner of IMAX VR, Aaron Pulkka of Two Bit Circus (a VR theme park opening in downtown LA this fall), VR Filmmaker Joel Zika, Trevor Nelson, an entertainment business consultant, and Ed Callway of AMD. I stipulated that all these fantastic new public attractions are terrific. They are amazing and they evangelize the medium. On the downside, they are tough economic propositions. Not enough seats on Saturday night, and too many seats the rest of the time. All the key issues around LBE's (don't call them VRcades) were discussed: throughput, marketing, experience creation, business models, scale and location, all critical success factors in retail.
Entertainment panel VRTO, 2017, From Left to Right, Moderator Charlie Fink (Forbes), Joel Zika (The Dark Ride Project), Ed Callaway (AMD), Eyal Kleiner (IMAX VR), Aaron Pulkka (Two Bit Circus), Jim Jensen (The Void), and Trevor Nelson (Consultant).
It was an interesting moment to have this discussion, as IMAX VR just opened its second U.S. location in New York and The Void is opening its third in North America in Toronto at the newly minted Rec Room in collaboration with Cineplex, the week after the conference (something Jensen discretely neglected to mention).
In addition to moderating, I was honored to be able to deliver a keynote to kick off the consumer track on Monday, June 26th. It was the penultimate version of an overview of VR/AR Mixed Reality today, and coming developments in the near and long term. This is a presentation I've been honing since CES, and developing into a concept for a book. You can check out the slides here.
VRTO is also behind the Festival of International Virtual & Augmented Reality Stories or FIVARS, which takes place in Toronto on September 15th - 17th, 2017. FIVARS features a selection of virtual reality and augmented reality experiences that focus on new forms of stories made possible only through this medium.