Ghost in the machine: a glimpse inside VR installation "Mechanical Souls" (© Rise / Serendipity Films Ltd.)
Virtual reality is almost ready for you now, citizen; thanks for waiting. Most of the kinks have been worked out – it's reliably persistent, instead of glitching sideways when you'd rather it didn't; it's no longer likely to make you projectile vomit due to unintentional inner-ear provocation; and the price of entry via haptic equipment continues to drop like a dubstep bass note.
So, here we are. But where, exactly, is here? What is VR – now that it's more generally capable of being used – being used for? (And yes, of course we ask the same question of VR's hybrid sibling, Augmented Reality.)
Scan the schedule of panels and demos at SXSW and you'll guess that entertainment is the major activity that's been pushing the boundaries of this nascent technology. People are either talking about the entertainment possibilities of it, or they're talking about how they've already offered multisensory experiences built from those possibilities elsewhere, or – like last year's "The Atrium" experience from Meow Wolf and this year's "Mars Home Planet" and more – they're offering a smörgåsbord of VR entertainment right here in the brief South By sector of River City. They're offering entertainment that's narrative or abstract or game-based or some Frankenstein-combo of all that, and ready to be entered into immersively – that's the key word – as if you're finally accepting e.e. cummings' erstwhile invitation, "there's a hell of a good universe next door; let's go."
But creative expression in VR and AR – and an audience's enjoyment of that expression – is only the most obvious area of activity. (And, lest anyone dare call it "art" too emphatically, note that much of what passes for entertainment also works hand-in-wired-glove with the more mercenary substream of SXSW that gets its undergarments moist by thinking about How to Advertise Harder.)
What VR is increasingly being used for, though, is education – for professional training purposes, even, where an interactive mock-up of reality can be a far more effective learning medium than a textbook or a slideshow or even umpteen reels of Oscar-level but unidirectional cinematography. Thus does Canada-based VR Vision render environments for teaching medical technicians how to use the complex equipment their jobs require. Thus are the tech wizards of Accenture, for instance, creating you-are-there simulations for social workers who must deal with child welfare and the PTSD of military veterans.
And as for military simulations – the ones beyond those already extant in the gaming scene – well, we've been advised that the latest ones are 1) scary good and 2) classified-information-so-STFU-civilian. Semper Fi, amirite?
But, OK, you want to know more about what's going on in the rapidly expanding field, and you want to find out about it (as if paradoxically) in what the most fervent geeks call "meatspace"? That's what the interactive programming of SXSW is for – and we recommend a few events that will give you that straight-from-the-source information (and/or sensory experience) you crave:
Monday-Wednesday, March 11-13, 11am-6pm
JW Marriott Griffin Hall
The majority of VR projects at the festival are arranged within one enormous room for your buffet-style pleasure, and this is that room. Each of the 25 projects, from a diversity of international producers, is a unique experience that ranges from five to 40 minutes. This is where you go to experience the thing itself before learning more about the "how and why" in panels and presentations. For your consideration, we're pointing out "-22.7°C," Jan Kounen's aurally rich documentation of recording sound in the Arctic's barren wastes; "Mechanical Souls," Gaëlle Mourre's science fiction about humanoid robots hired to assist with a fancy Chinese wedding; and Armando Kirwin's "Mercy," about a 14-year-old girl in Africa who, suffering a large tumor on her face, must travel through the jungle for days to reach a life-transforming surgery. This showcase runs for three days, remember, so you could see it all.
Creating Contemporary Art in Virtual Reality
Tuesday, March 12, 12:30pm
JW Marriott Salon 1-2
Khora Contemporary is touted as the first VR art production house in the world, having facilitated creations by Christian Lemmerz, Yu Hong, and others. In this panel session, Khora founder Peter Fisher talks with contemporary artists Lemmerz and Jakob Steensen, both of whom have worked professionally with virtual reality, as they reveal the discoveries of those collaborations.
Immersion at Scale: AR/MR Will Change Everything
Monday, March 11, 11am
JW Marriott Salon 3-4
What does a society of people using wearable computers (headsets, glasses, Magic Leap, HoloLens – you know the deal) look like? What does near-universal access to augmented reality imply for the retail industry, the brands that supply it, and the citizens that consume it? Reps from the Consumer Technology Association, TechTalkStudio, Unity Technologies, and Tool of North America swear they can paint a likely picture for you.
Total Recall: The Future of Learning With VR
Tuesday, March 12, 9:30am
JW Marriott Salon 1-2
This is a talk from that Accenture group we mentioned above, which creates, among other things, learning environments that "use immersive storytelling and interactive, voice-based scenarios [to] completely transform how front-line staff in human services hone their skills and professional judgement." They'll tell you how they go about doing just that.