A large Great White Shark swims toward me. Despite my love for all things shark-related, I flinch back from it; far too many teeth. “Let’s take a closer look inside,” I hear over the white noise of the sea, the school of Amberjacks, and the conference attendees. The lateral side of the torpedo body turns transparent, giving me a glimpse of the internal organs that propel the animal ceaselessly through the oceans. It’s fascinating, but I’m a little distracted by a second shark that’s closed in, ever-so-casually, below.
I take off the Samsung Gear VR headset, and I’m back at the Seattle Interactive Conference. The Samsung employee takes it from me, and she’s enthusiastically describing the other content options—including a walk across a tightrope suspended over a canyon—to the next adventurer in line.
Virtual. Augmented. Mixed.
When appended to “reality,” these adjectives characterize the interplay between the digital world and the physical world we occupy (i.e. “meatspace”). Until recently, iterations of these immersive technologies—especially for personal use—have not delivered on our expectations, which are lofty, indeed; informed and colored by movies, science fiction novels, and our evolving relationship with our digital devices, we want everything from fantastical experiences that are indistinguishable from real life, to holographic interfaces that respond to our touch.
However, Facebook’s $2 billion purchase of Oculus Rift, a $2 million kickstarter project, in 2014 has reignited our collective imagination again. Since then, there has been a sudden proliferation in mainstream media coverage of these immersive experiences. The Seattle Interactive Conference, a hub for “online technology, creativity, and emerging trends,” is no exception.
SIC Speakers: You Should Be Paying Attention to VR….But Mindfully
At the Seattle Interactive Conference, it’s clear that these immersive technologies are back in focus, and not just for the gaming industry. Not only are these “emergent” systems in vogue again, but session titles such as “Virtual Reality: Are You Too Late to the Game?” suggest that businesses and organizations that don’t want to miss out on the “next big thing” should get on that VR strategy, now.
But as Communications Leadership students might recall from course readings, a creative idea has to be novel, useful, and appropriate. And, furthermore, innovation—a word that saw a lot of play time at the conference—has to be able to implement those ideas successfully and be accepted by stakeholders. For a system as expensive—for now, at least—and ill-understood by most as VR, there will be many factors to consider before a brand or an organization can determine whether an investment into VR development is worth their time and money.
In “Imagine the Possibilities with Immersive Digital Experiences,” Sandy Sharma, the Executive Chairman at Indigo Slate, a digital marketing agency in Bellevue, focuses on the fitness of content. Naming Pokemon Go, the augmented reality (AR) phenomenon of summer 2016 that made mainstream media pay serious attention to AR again, he credits the success of the mobile game to the history, nostalgic element, and existing fanbase of the franchise.
After laying out the various marketing campaigns that have successfully used VR, he cites the Perkins Coie survey, listing the biggest challenges for the field; the top challenge at 37% consensus is “inadequate content offerings.”
Though he acknowledges the difficulty in creating suitable renderings for VR technology, he continues, “Most of the technology companies have showed off what their equipment can do with a few limited examples in gaming and entertainment, but real-world business applications…not enough of that has happened yet.”
“How Augmented Reality Has Gone from Gaming to Engagement,” presented by Karen Olsen, the Vice President of Marketing at Space Needle, seems to be a direct answer to Sharma’s challenge. She demonstrates that Space Needle’s brand, which has always been about innovation, fascination with technology, and whose main “product” is a great view of Seattle, is a great fit for augmented reality because “it’s very easy to layer on an experience on a view that they already have.”
Currently, the observation deck at Space Needle features “SpaceSpots” where visitors can use their smartphone to take a souvenir photo with a life-sized Needle. They can also use a provided cardboard VR viewer to view a dizzying drop from the rim of the observation deck. If you’ve been to the observation deck in recent years, you’d note that these experiences are the logical succession of ideas represented in the wall-sized SkyPad, an interactive guestbook that allows visitors to mark their origins on a giant map, and the 520 Teleporter, a touchscreen kiosk through which the user can zoom to a behind-the-scenes spot somewhere in the city.
Fitting the nature of the experience at the observation deck, Olsen hints that Space Needle is eyeing OLED and transparent AR as their next step. Though there are still many challenges for wide adoption of this technology—it would be incompatible with the backlit nature of observation deck windows, for instance—she is not hesitant in admitting that an unfettered view of Seattle from 520 feet in the sky, aided by transparent AR, is their ultimate vision for the future.
And Speaking of Challenges…
The panel discussion “Buzz Lightyear and Beyond: The state of AR/VR” featuring John San Giovanni, Ryan Hoback from Ratio, and Adam Sheppard of 8ninths is a behind-the-scenes look into the complications that arise when designing VR interfaces. While they talk shop and go into considerable technical detail—tossing around terms like “backplane” and “dwell-time”—Sheppard, who co-founded 8ninths, a Seattle studio which produces mixed and virtual reality applications for enterprise, hits upon a key challenge for professionals designing for the immersive space.
While digital designers can sometimes pay lip-service to the idea of “user-centric design” in creating applications and other 2D interfaces, Sheppard admits, “in a VR experience, especially in these Wild West days, almost every solution, almost every experience is fresh; there is no design pattern, there is no proxy to point at, and say, ‘well, it’s something like this, just a little bit different.’”
He accredits much of the vocabulary and ideas for team composition to the game industry, which had already been developing mixed reality (MR) experiences, emphasizing that, “theater direction, and storytelling, and movie producers, and 3D animators [sic],” are essential domain experts that 8ninths needs for their content production.
In “Building the Holographic Workstation: Design Patterns for Enterprise VR/AR Solutions,” attendees get further insight into process of designing VR experiences, but this time the focus is on enterprise applications. Adam Sheppard returns to the stage with Heather Raikes, the creative director of 8ninths, to break down the result of their collaboration with Citibank and HoloLens: the Holographic Workstation. This proof-of-concept project—an application for mixed reality in the enterprise setting—seems to be another fitting answer to Sharma’s call for “real-world business applications” of immersive technology.
The old workstation—8 screens filled with rows and rows of cramped data—is transformed into one that incorporates an array of rainbow-colored spheres that hover over a relatively sparse workstation. It almost seems too pretty to be functional, but the spheres capture market fluctuations in real-time. The new interface also uses the z-axis to introduce hierarchy based on relevance. And, most importantly, the mixed reality technology allows the trader to interact with the holographic elements to access hidden layers of secondary and tertiary information.
Despite the seductive appeal of VR, Sheppard emphasizes that, as with any disruptive technology, businesses should use it “very tactically.” He says, unless the work processes improve by an order of magnitude, champions for the technology within an organization will find that “it’s a hard sell for the long term.”
Regardless, his recommendations to businesses are clear: Have a VR strategy.
But What About the Less Corporate Side of Things?
I’m glad you asked! At the Seattle Interactive Conference, many speakers address VR technology through the marketing lens, which, given the demographic of the attendees, makes a lot of sense. This is especially true when you consider that the strengths of VR revolve around immediacy, intimacy, and presence, key factors for effective marketing experiences that connect with customers on a visceral and personal level.
Coming from an arts background, however, I couldn’t help but wonder if these material traits would be relevant to other domains. Happily, it seemed that I was not the only one.
“Through the HoloLens: A Unique Collaboration Between Creative Artists and a Nascent Technology” featuring Ben Porter, the Director of Business Strategy at Microsoft, and the faculty and students of the Cornish College of the Arts, presents a collaborative project that envisions what immersive technologies would look like in the hands of artists.
The video below gives insight into the broad range of projects that came out of this collaboration, from a magical pop-up experience that highlights the strength of VR’s ability to place a user in another’s lived experience and feel empathy; to a unique way to convey and experience architectural ideas by establishing a sense of place. Even through the secondhand experience of the video, you can see how well the virtual elements are integrated into the gallery space.
For videos that focus on each artwork, check out the website for the Cornish College of the Arts.
Because VR is a relatively nascent field with limitations in what can and can’t be developed, the student projects saw considerable design changes between conception and execution. The Core—a trio of students that produces live theater works—asserts that, “in the constraints you find freedom,” drawing parallels to poetry. They describe how, for the HoloLens project, they found out that leaving the recording area would cause them to disappear from view, and how that helped them shape a comical farce that used the constant entrances and exits as part of the story.
After the panel discussion, an audience member asks the students if feel any anxiety about how VR is affecting their artistic process, citing how social media has eroded the institution of journalism. To me, this question embodies the unease that sometimes emerges in discussions about VR…and not just from the user’s end.
The Cornish student’s response to this question, however, encapsulates the optimism and pragmatism that always seems to overtake the wariness:
“One of the things we always strive to answer in a live performance is: what can theater uniquely offer? …With this technology, I don’t feel like it eroded the integrity of our work because…we asked that same question: what is that we can uniquely express with this technology because of its constraints and because of its benefits?”
This statement perfectly expresses my main takeaway from the SIC about virtual, augmented, and mixed reality technology; it’s certainly a groundbreaking tool, but only when it is used in a thoughtful way to address problems that require its unique attributes can we consider it an innovative one.