From Hollywood to Silicon Beach, L.A. Creatives are Plotting Virtual Reality's Boom

From Hollywood to Silicon Beach, L.A. Creatives are Plotting Virtual Reality's Boom
Photo by Danny Liao

In a meagerly outfitted room in a Venice Beach home that once belonged to Dennis Hopper, a gnome is hiding from me.

He’s skittish, but I can sense him scurrying through the forest behind me. Every time I turn my head to find him, he’s gone. Even when I open the doors on the side of a tree to peek inside his little, sylvan home, he’s not there. When he finally appears again, we make eye contact. He wants the food that I’ve foraged. I crouch to the ground and extend my arm to hand him an acorn. He scurries away again.

I remove the headset — an HTC Vive — and it’s just a plain white room again. Outside, in the real world, a party’s happening. It’s a late August evening, and a DJ is playing under the twilight sky as guests snack on treats from Kogi in the backyard of the house, which now serves as the headquarters of virtual-reality content-creation company Wevr (formerly Wemo). They’re celebrating the launch of their latest project, Gnomes & Goblins, an immersive fantasy created by Jon Favreau, director of The Jungle Book and the Iron Man franchise and, all those years ago, the writer and star of Swingers.

Despite all the style and swagger of the partygoers, the near-empty room is the real attraction. Pull down the Vive headset, clutch its controllers, and users are transported to a lush, whimsical forest. That’s where they’ll try to feed the gnome, whose apprehension changes with each experience. On this particular evening, it takes a few minutes to lure him with food. After he finally grabs the gift, he reciprocates the kindness with a bell. Ring it, and the users become as small as he is. They can hang out inside the gnome’s treehouse. They can teeter at the edge of a rickety-looking bridge, wondering if it’s stable enough to hold their weight. There’s no harm in it — the worst consequence is bumping into a wall. Still, this world feels so real that the mind reacts with safety at the forefront, much as it would in an actual forest filled with its pursuant hazards. That’s what VR pros call “presence,” the result of a fully immersive experience like this.

“I want to create that experience, where you feel that level of comfort and that level of agency,” Favreau says, “but also that there are other things to explore and discover, almost like a Disneyland-type feel.”

Inside the headset, the hyper-realism transcends anything you’ll see at Disneyland. In virtual reality, users are Alice, growing and shrinking as they follow white rabbits into worlds that can thrill, confuse and sometimes even frighten, as only the most vivid dreams do.

In discussions about virtual reality, the pop cultural references are usually based in science fiction: Neuromancer, Snow Crash, The Matrix. But this is Lewis Carroll’s realm, a fusion of right- and left-brain functions that results in a bizarre defiance of logic.

“Scale is a very powerful tool in VR and, in the sense that you can be small and go places or be big and feel powerful, it affects the experience tremendously,” Favreau says. “I think Alice is a wonderful paradigm for the possibilities. Just like Alice could be very frenetic and off-putting, I think that there is a version of it that is a little more comfortable and feeds your curiosity more than creates spectacle and intensity.”

Once an overwhelmingly cumbersome and expensive technology, virtual reality spent the latter half of the 20th century trapped in the confines of military and academic research. For everyone else, it was little more than sci-fi. That almost changed in the 1990s, but a false start gave way to more than a decade of silence. Then, in 2012, a consumer-friendly headset called Oculus Rift hit Kickstarter and shook up the tech world, causing a tidal wave of innovation. Now that the hardware is available, all that’s missing is the piece of content that’ll get the public to buy in.

At this point, it seems that virtual reality really is the next big thing, and Los Angeles is positioning itself as the new industry’s creative hub. VR joins together Hollywood, the region’s substantial video-game world and its rising tech industry. It’s that convergence of big industries that will ultimately shape the worlds that users enter when they put on a headset. For a famed director like Favreau, this is a rare chance to build a new kind of fiction. Virtual reality does away with the fourth wall; that changes how creators approach everything, from character development and narrative structure to art direction.

The new medium came at a perfect time for the film industry, in particular. Film L.A.’s “2015 Feature Film Study” indicated that, while California continues to be at the top of the cinematic-production heap, its dominance is trending downward in favor of cities and countries with more attractive incentives. That drop has been hard on the visual-effects industry. Despite the rise of effects-driven blockbusters, business has slowed for the creatives who remain in L.A. In 2014, The Hollywood Reporter noted that more than 500 people protested just this fact outside of the Oscars, and Film L.A.’s report shows that work on 2015 films continued to move to countries like Canada and the U.K. But, VFX artists, adept at both creative and technological challenges, are suited for virtual reality. It appears that’s where they are heading.

From Hollywood to Silicon Beach, L.A. Creatives are Plotting Virtual Reality's Boom (4)
Photo by Danny Liao

The buzz is big right now, but virtual-reality technology isn’t new. In fact, it began to take shape in the 1960s. Even the prospect of VR for the masses is a 20th-century ambition. It just took a little longer to get there.

VR’s roots are in an odd, immersive cinema invention called the Sensorama. The gizmo didn’t take off, but the idea of engulfing users in an unreal world took shape at universities and in the military for activities like flight simulation. By the 1990s, gaming companies had attempted to bring VR to the public. Sega had plans for a headset that never came to fruition. In 1995, Nintendo released the 3-D headset console Virtual Boy. It bombed.

“Really the hardware was the limitation,” says Jonnie Ross, co-founder of the virtual-reality convention VRLA and the annual industry honors, the Proto Awards. Technology wasn’t ready for home-friendly VR in the ’90s. That didn’t change until 2012, when Palmer Luckey introduced Oculus Rift, a headset that promised to bring virtual reality to home gamers. An early prototype of the device was made to accompany an installation at Sundance’s New Frontier that year. By fall, Luckey had launched a Kickstarter for the VR headset, which he’d cobbled together in his parents’ Long Beach garage. The Oculus Rift was small enough to work at home and made with inexpensive technology. It wouldn’t come cheap, but you didn’t need a military budget to afford it, either.

Since then, Oculus has been bought by Facebook for $2 billion, and the device reached the marketplace earlier this year. So did the similarly immersive HTC Vive, the headset used at the Gnomes & Goblins launch. Budget-friendly products like Google Cardboard, as well as the mid-range Samsung Gear, are also available to consumers. “This is the first year where there has been commercially available hardware, where you can walk into a store and buy a Vive or an Oculus Rift,” says Adam Levin, executive producer of the Proto Awards and co-founder of VRLA. “That’s a sea change for this industry that had been, previously, about either experiencing it at an event or some sort of installation or knowing someone who was in the VR business. Now, you can go to Best Buy.”

On a recent Saturday night at Avalon, a few hours before the usual weekend party crowd had descended upon Vine Street, an international group of virtual-reality professionals gathered for the third annual Proto Awards. Two years ago, the VR honors kicked off inside a ballroom at the Roosevelt Hotel — a nod to the first Academy Awards but with a crowd dressed mostly in jeans. Since then, it has grown in size and formality; this year, some of the attendees were actually wearing suits. But that low-key tech vibe was still alive when the night’s first winner walked onstage in a hooded sweatshirt and gave a two-sentence acceptance speech. Ron Funches, the comedian who hosted the event, jokingly asked, “I could have just showed up in a hoodie?”

Back in 2014, when Ross suggested to his friend Cosmo Scharf that they should throw a VR awards show, it was a random idea, the kind that one throws out on long road trips (in this case, from L.A. to San Francisco). “Someone’s going to do it. We should do it because we would make it awesome,” he recalls having said.

Ross spent years directing commercials and music videos and was about to start work on funding his first feature film when he found out about Oculus Rift. He was immediately smitten with the prospect of accessible virtual-reality tools. In the ’90s, when he was a teenager in Baltimore, Ross wanted badly to step into VR. He called local arcades looking for one that might have a device. They laughed off his youthful curiosity before putting him back on hold.

Scharf, who was still a college student in 2014, had moved from New York to Los Angeles for USC’s film school, but the new VR tech had changed his ambitions. On the internet, he found others who shared his newfound interest, and they started a group called VRLA. They were from different backgrounds, different generations, even, but they shared a fascination with technology that has the potential to reimagine everything from entertainment and social media to educational films. The first VRLA meetup took place on a motion-capture stage at VFX company Digital Domain, where one of the co-founders, John Root, was then employed. Matt Groening was among the attendees. (On a recent episode of The Simpsons, Mr. Burns stepped into virtual reality, and the show aired a VR couch gag in connection with Google Spotlight Stories on Oct. 16.) Less than six months after their first IRL meetup, the Proto Awards came to life.

A lot has changed in two years. Now, people in the VR world are clamoring for more tickets to the Protos. “People who are ‘old-timers’ in this new generation of VR have staffs that are composed of recent college graduates who say, ‘I’ve heard about this, can I go?’ ” Levin says.

Also, the content has changed. “The first year, we were awarding demos that were sketches of things,” he says. Levin mentions TiltBrush, the app that allows people to draw in virtual reality, which was awarded at the inaugural event. TiltBrush was later bought by Google and came back this year to win another Proto. Wevr’s theBlu also won for another year now that its three-episode season is available.

Initially conceived as a 3-D, flat-screen piece, theBlu shifted once Neville Spiteri, co-founder of Wevr, got his hands on Oculus’ Kickstarter-funded development kit. Spiteri had read Howard Rheingold’s book Virtual Reality back in 1991, when he was a college student. “To say that it stuck with me is to put it lightly,” Spiteri later explains by phone from Paris. By 2013, when it looked as if consumer-friendly virtual reality was nearly here, Spiteri and his partners got to work.

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The first part of the series, called “Encounter,” takes place underwater, where the user will get close to a massive blue whale. TheBlu’s animation director, Andrew Jones, worked on The Jungle Book, and when he ducked out of film work to catch a demo of the VR work, Favreau tagged along. The director was so taken by the experience that he spent the night working on a new idea. The following day, he showed Jones a sketch of the gnome he wanted to bring to virtual life.

Favreau had been involved with VR marketing projects for The Jungle Book, but Gnomes & Goblins was his first stand-alone piece for the medium. The version released in early September was a preview that takes around 10 minutes. Ultimately, the goal is to create a world that a user can explore for hours with a central character whose reactions feed off of theirs. “It was hard because we wanted the character to act differently based on how fast you approached him, how respectful you were, how much trust you gain — almost like training an animal,” Favreau explains. “I think the fun is that the world goes on even when you’re not there, so you want to come back and dip in and see how the world has changed based on what you’ve done and catch up with characters that you know.”

Gigi Prtizker, the Chicago-based film producer of Drive and Ender’s Game, who is CEO of Century City’s Madison Wells Media, fell for virtual reality while checking out the New Frontier programming at Sundance. Reality One, a VR/AR studio under the Madison Wells Media flagship co-produced Gnomes & Goblins. The company also invested in Wevr. Reality One recently struck up a partnership with Sony Pictures. (Sony has also released its PlayStation VR headset.)

“We haven’t been at the advent of a new medium in my lifetime,” she says by phone. “Telling stories in VR is different. It’s not just a way to extend a piece of content that was originally film or television.” Pritzker notes that you can’t “fade to black” in virtual reality. Those who have been inside a dark headset know that it can feel unnerving, like stepping into a void. “What’s the new way to do the equivalent of a fade to black?” Pritzker asks rhetorically. “It’s a new language with a new set of tools and a new way to tell stories that I think is really fun and really exciting.”

VR has infiltrated events like San Diego Comic-Con, where fans can slip on headsets and step into the worlds of TV and film franchises. It’s come to dominate the New Frontier exhibition at Sundance, where attendance for the tech-forward programming section swelled to 21,000 people in 2016.
Here in L.A., where there’s already an industry full of people who have worked at the intersection of art and tech, VR has taken special hold. Those VRLA meetups have grown into a twice-yearly event at the Los Angeles Convention Center, showcasing the latest hardware and content. VRLA consistently sells out, even as capacity increases.

There are a lot of people who are betting that VR is the wave of the future. “I think it was a long time coming,” says Kamal Sinclair, director of New Frontier Lab Programs at Sundance Institute. “You’re talking about [a] 100-plus-year[-old] medium called film. You’re talking about a 40-plus-year[-old] medium called gaming, and they’ve been trying to find convergence for a long time, with more failures than successes because they’re two different experience mediums. I think, with VR, there’s this great chance to take the learning from both and establish a brand-new medium.”

Sony partnered with Reality One ahead of the mid-October release of PlayStation VR. Meanwhile, Technicolor is beefing up its VR focus with a new studio that’s currently under construction in Culver City, as well as R&D work in Belgium on how to better transmit VR content into the home. That’s not to overshadow the volume of virtual-reality creatives who rose through the ranks working on visual-effects and animation teams for major movies and video-game franchises.

“It’s obvious to me this is going to be a future medium,” says Jake Rowell, director of theBlu and creative director of Gnomes & Goblins. Andrew Jones, the Academy Award–winning animation supervisor for Avatar, who was animation director on both theBlu and Gnomes & Goblins, likens this moment to the “invention of animation.”

That’s something you hear a lot in VR circles. VR has been in the works for about half a century, yet it’s still so new that there are no rules about how to create, no clear path to follow to make a hit. Ask people what it will take to make VR headsets as ubiquitous as video-games systems, and you’ll get a variety of answers.

“We talk about that every day. All day, ad nauseam actually,” says Marcie Jastrow, VP of immersive media for Technicolor and head of Technicolor Experience Center. “I know a little bit about it. There isn’t anybody who knows a lot about it. We’re all putting our toes in the water.”

Some believe that technology needs to advance further before virtual reality will be commonplace home entertainment. VR headsets have come a long way, but they could still be more comfortable. (For instance, four-eyed users should note that you can wear your glasses, but they’ll probably come off with the headset.) For the highest-quality interactive experience, you’ll want an Oculus or HTC Vive, and those headsets cost hundreds of dollars. Moreover, they require powerful gaming PCs that are also expensive.
Plus, for deep immersion in VR, you need freedom to move. At VR companies, demos often take place in a separate, nearly empty office. That kind of space may not be available at home, but arcades like VR Territory in Northridge are emerging to provide access to those high-end systems.

Ultimately, accessible technology can only get the industry so far. People have to want it. “If you have that watercooler moment with a piece of content where everybody is talking about it, whether they’re 10 years old, 20 years old, 50 years old, 100 years old, that’s what’s going to make it to the masses,” Jastrow says. 

Jake Rowell and Andrew Jones
Jake Rowell and Andrew Jones
Photo by Danny Liao

Film and television marketing teams see that potential. In the past two years, VR experiences tied to television shows like The Walking Dead and Mr. Robot, and films like The Hobbit and Suicide Squad have hit VR portals and the fan-convention circuit. For those who don’t have home access to virtual-reality experiences, events like Comic-Con have become the place to try out the new wave of entertainment through these marketing experiences. “People go to Comic-Con to see what’s being launched and to get a sense of things, the new story or a new insight, and I think that’s why you’re seeing a lot of interest in VR at Comic-Con,” says Tim Dillon, executive producer for Moving Picture Company (which is owned by Technicolor), who has worked on virtual-reality projects for several different film and brand properties. “People want to try it out.”

At an event like a convention, VR can be a draw to suck in crowds bombarded with marketing noise throughout the weekend. It’s no longer enough to throw swag at the crowd from eye-catching booths. Now, the studios are selling properties to the curious by letting them live inside the world for a few moments. In that time, the studios have access to undivided attention in a venue where distractions are plenty. But they can and will be going farther than that. This year, a 20-minute VR gaming experience based on The Martian has received loads of acclaim, including a Proto Awards nomination. Last year, the Cartoon Network show Adventure Time released a VR game based on the series. Soon, Adult Swim’s hit series Rick and Morty will enter VR with a game release as well.

The future of virtual reality as entertainment, though, may not be in the hands of the professionals. It might be the users who figure out the new narrative templates. Visionary VR is one of the companies preparing the tools for user-generated content.

Last August, Visionary VR debuted at VRLA a new app called Mindshow. In the demo, users could choose to portray an alien or a space explorer and then act in a scene, taking an encounter between the two drastically different characters to whatever end they wanted. Like a choose-your-own-adventure book, Mindshow goes beyond immersing users in the story. It gives them the agency to guide the story.
The Visionary team — which includes VRLA co-founders Jonnie Ross, Cosmo Scharf and Adam Levin — works inside a downtown high-rise that overlooks the city’s smog-capped summer skyline. They are surrounded by corporate L.A., with crowds of people carrying designer briefcases milling through the surrounding streets. Visionary, though, is a jeans-and–T-shirt sort of workplace, replete with a Mario statue and a mildly battered piñata that resembles Pikachu in the office.

Like many others in L.A.’s VR community, Visionary CEO Gil Baron comes from the visual-effects world; he counts The Matrix among his credits. After more than 20 years in the industry, virtual reality caught his attention. “It was the same feeling that I had when I saw Star Wars when I was 6,” he recalls, “and I said, ‘I want to do that.’ ”

Baron isn’t alone in his immediate desire to want to make VR content. In fact, Visionary VR is keeping in mind those users who want to be a part of VR. Levin says he tells people that Mindshow is their chance to step inside cartoons and become a character.

“The idea that you can actually do that, that you can inhabit a character and play as another character, is really freeing and exciting,” he says.

Visionary COO Adam Levin, CEO Gil Baron
Visionary COO Adam Levin, CEO Gil Baron
Photo by Danny Liao

What remains unknown is who will become the great storytellers of VR. At this point, it could be anyone from the movie studios making additional content for franchise films, video-game companies looking for new adventures for beloved characters or VR start-ups building brand-new worlds. It could be music-industry pros, who are already using VR to bring fans closer to bands and concerts. Or, maybe the new narrative will come from news organizations, like The New York Times, which released “The Fight for Fallujah” as a 360-degree VR video.

They might be current college students. USC’s Games and Interactive Media program has already been working with students on a virtual-reality project. And the VR company Jaunt (which recently announced a partnership with Disney) set up the school’s film program with a virtual-reality lab. The goal is to get students from backgrounds as diverse as animation, writing and acting to learn how to work with virtual reality. “You can’t take a script that was written for a 2-D film and shoot that in VR,” says Grant Anderson, who heads Jaunt’s Santa Monica studio. “You really need to reimagine it in terms of virtual reality. I think that the killer app — and we haven’t seen this yet, but everybody is looking for this — it really is going to be, for me, a combination of cinema, gaming and interactive theater.”

Maybe for some it seems like too much, too fast. But it’s not, especially taking into account how traditional media suffered in the internet age. In July, Variety reported a decline in ticket sales during the summer blockbuster season. Also in July, Billboard reported that music sales continued to fall as streaming increases in popularity. Meanwhile, Pew Research Center found that newspaper advertising revenue declined in 2015 at a level not seen since 2009. The funds that are being poured into virtual reality now are in a way speculative — companies and individuals are working off the feeling that this is the future of entertainment — but it’s also building a solid foundation, even if years pass before headsets are found in every home.

“We’re as excited about VR as anyone, but I like to think that we’re also being very realistic about it and trying not to drink our own Kool-Aid, so to speak, and be excited for the things that move faster than we expect and also be prepared for things to take a little while,” Ross says of the attitude at Visionary.
It may take the younger generation to make virtual reality a mass success. “All the people that we put in VR for the first time — most are our age or older — will put on a headset and be like, ‘I can’t believe this exists,’ ” Baron says. “Kids who try it take it off and say, ‘Why have you been hiding this from me?’ ”

He says that his own daughter first tried VR when she was 3. Now, at age 5, it’s a regular part of how she plays.

Similarly, Jastrow sees the future of virtual reality in her children when she shows them hardware. “It is innate in them,” she says. “The generation that is growing up, they only know about computing, they only know about mobile.

“Who are the new creators of experiences in immersive media?” Jastrow asks before answering: “I don’t know. It could be my son, who is 10 years old. He could become the next Steven Spielberg.”

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