The Oscars of Virtual Reality

Zombies on the Holodeck, a Proto Awards winnerEXPAND
Zombies on the Holodeck, a Proto Awards winner

There are at least 300 people squeezed around tables inside the Blossom Room at the Roosevelt Hotel for the first Proto Awards. Laptops and cell phones lay next to plates of tiny desserts. For the overwhelmingly male crowd, jeans and plaid shirts have replaced award-show attire you might expect at a venue restored to its old Hollywood glamour.

The fact that the inaugural Academy Awards event was held here isn't lost on anyone. In fact, that's mentioned in the press materials and in the speeches. On Friday night, though, the awards weren't for film. Rather, they were for content and the rising innovation wasn't sound, as was the case at the dawn of the Oscar age, but virtual reality.

The team behind Friday night's Proto Awards.
The team behind Friday night's Proto Awards.
Liz Ohanesian

Proto Awards founder Jonnie Ross stands before the crowd with a slouch and a mop of curly hair skimming an eye. As a director, he has made videos for Muse and Belle and Sebastian, commercials for Wrigley's and sketches for Funny or Die. Locally, he's known as a champion of virtual reality, having co-founded the meet-up group Virtual Reality Los Angeles (VRLA) with 19-year-old USC student Cosmo Scharf. Ross addresses the argument that, maybe, it's still too early to hand out awards for something that still hasn't caught on with the public at large.

"Is it too soon?" Ross asks the crowd before answering his question with an emphatic "Yes!"

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"Do we care?" he continues. The crowd is hyped. They join him in a cry of "No!"

The history of virtual reality is decades long, but, until recently, it was technology for the elite. For the masses, the idea of entering a world that isn't real is almost fiction. It's a concept we know from movies, television and books. It's not something that we use to ingest pop culture, at least not yet.

Change came two years ago, when a device called Oculus Rift hit Kickstarter. The campaign to create a headpiece suited for VR gaming was wildly successful, ultimately raising over $2 million dollars, despite its relatively modest goal of $250,000. Since then, games made for the Rift have turned up at big events like E3 and IndieCade. Last weekend, Oculus VR announced its latest prototype, Crescent Bay, would bring the company a little closer to releasing the product to consumers. Right now, it's only available as developer's kits, but that alone is a major step towards accessibility. Developers who previously didn't have the means to play with this technology are now embracing it.

OlivierJT, from France, won at the Proto Awards for Synthesis Universe in the Best Art Direction category.
OlivierJT, from France, won at the Proto Awards for Synthesis Universe in the Best Art Direction category.
Liz Ohanesian

After Oculus Rift, enthusiasm for the technology spread across industries. Scharf, the USC student who launched VRLA, is a film student but is trying to transfer over to interactive media. "As a career, I really want to be a part of VR," he says. That's why he started the meet-up group. VRLA had a good start, and by the third event, they drew more than 600 VR pros and fans. "By the third one, we entered the kind of VR tourism phase of it," says Adam Levin, who works with Ross and Scharf on the meet-ups, "where we made it very accessible and people were coming just to try VR."

For some, VR was part of the fiction that nudged them toward this field. On hand at the Proto Awards is Brett Leonard, director of The Lawnmower Man, the 1992 film that made reference to virtual reality. At the event, he says that people kept telling him how much that movie inspired them to work in VR. Leonard appears excited about the prospects that VR holds. "It's changing the idea of narrative, as truly cinema changed the idea of literary narrative before," he says.Some have been waiting for years to experiment with VR. French game-maker OlivierJT started work on his Proto Award–winning project Synthesis Universe as a regular game three years ago. After Oculus Rift hit the scene, he immediately turned it into a VR endeavor. "I'm really trying to get people inside a special universe," he says.

There is a lot to explore with VR, but its effect on the video game industry is still small. "It doesn't change anything quite yet in terms of how we work creatively because the tools are still being built," says Ross.

People are learning that making virtual reality games is a different process. "A lot of the old tricks from games don't work," says Graham Matuszewski of Culver City studio Survios. "In order to be truly creative in the environment and create the world that you want people to play in, you have to do things differently." Matuszewski is clearly getting the hang of it, as his game Zombies on the Holodeck won at the Proto Awards.

Graham Matuszewski of Culver City studio Survios won the Best Overall prize at the Proto Awards for his work on Zombies on the Holodeck.
Graham Matuszewski of Culver City studio Survios won the Best Overall prize at the Proto Awards for his work on Zombies on the Holodeck.
Liz Ohanesian

The next day, across the street from the Roosevelt at the Loews Hotel, developers are gathered for Oculus Connect, a conference surrounding this potential game-changer. Inside the demo lounge, a Culver City-based group called Otherworld Interactive shows off a few projects. Robobliteration is similar to old arcade games, where you shoot at the space-based enemies that head towards you, except you're wearing a headset, of course. Upon first play, it felt a little disorienting, as though I were standing on the screen of an arcade classic. On the second go-round, I started to notice the details that weren't straight ahead of me. There were planets to either side of me, and a control panel that appeared as I tipped my head.

But VR isn't just about games. Robyn Gray, Otherworld's lead designer, sets me up to enter Café Âme. Once the Oculus Rift and headphones are on, I'm transported to a café in Paris. The music is soft, maybe a little melancholy to match the rainy evening. There's a huge, constant puff of steam rising from the cup of coffee in front of me. I look down and notice my hands, now resembling a metal skeleton. My body doesn't look quite normal either, the chest jutting out like a piece of armor. There are gears in my metal arms. I look to the left. Nothing particularly out of the ordinary there. I look to the right, at a window. Hey, I'm a robot! Gray says that users typically notice their robot hands first and the face in the window last. She'll see them smile once their virtual reality identity is revealed.

The kinds of experiences that VR developers can create are vast. "It is definitely going to start with entertainment," says Amir Rubin, who has spent 20 years working in VR. "You will be in the movie. You will be in the concert. You will be in the sports event. You will be able to have the best seats in every sports event without the requirement of paying the kind of money it takes to get there."

But virtual reality could mean a lot for education too. Jason Huff, an Android developer who works on VR projects in his spare time, is looking forward to this application. He says that he envisions a VR space where children can visit historical sites that they would not otherwise be able to see up close.  Rubin, whose company Sixense is working on technology that allows the user to use his or her entire body in the virtual world, agrees, using subjects like ancient history as an example.

There is a lot of optimism at both Occulus Connect and the Proto Awards, a general sentiment that VR can change the world in egalitarian ways. For Rubin, who began his VR work in the 1990s with sports and military simulators, this has been part of his mission. "It should not be just for military or privileged usage and research," he says. Virtual reality can be for everyone. Now the task is to make sure the technology reaches everyone. 


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