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The Not-So-Far-Off Future

With more developers working in virtual reality than ever before, the technology is rapidly becoming more accessible to consumers and producers. A Q&A on what’s coming next with VR evangelist Tipatat Chennavasin.

The Not-So-Far-Off Future

This special report was created by FastCo.Works,
a division of Fast Company, in partnership with MINI.

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WHILE THE PUNDITS continue to flip-flop and handwring over virtual reality’s ultimate potential, Tipatat Chennavasin needs no further proof. For the past 15 years, he’s been a true believer in its immersive simulated environments. “The most powerful communication platform yet,” he calls VR.

After developing some of the technology behind early features, after working as a VR developer in Samsung’s innovation accelerator, and after nurturing rising stars as the creative director of San Francisco–based River (the first VR–focused accelerator), few in the industry are better positioned to look into VR’s crystal ball than Chennavasin.

And yet the technology didn’t actually, physically, personally change Chennavasin’s life until he built a demo that re-created a scene from The Matrix: the moment when Neo goes airborne from 40 or so stories up. He wanted to feel what that would be like. After surviving his share of rooftop plunges in virtual reality, Chennavasin says, “I accidentally cured myself of my fear of heights. It’s nuts. But that’s how powerful VR is.”

Chennavasin has a better-than-front-row seat to the continuing evolution of the technology and the coming VR economy. He’s actively helping to advance them. In that sense, he’s the latest incarnation of the stubborn optimists who built the web and who built mobile, turning a new and wild vision into something real.

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Virtual reality is suddenly getting unprecedented attention and investment. What’s this moment like for longtime believers and developers?

It’s exciting, but we’re still in the early stages. It’s chapter one of the story.
Think about if you knew the iPhone was going to be released and you knew
the impact it would have—

More than half a billion sold. How it launched the whole mobile platform and a hundred mobile ecosystems. All that.

Right. That’s where virtual reality is now. It’s the best-kept secret and the worst-kept secret. The biggest problem is that you can’t understand VR except by experiencing it, and only a small percentage of people have actually done it. So there hasn’t been big consumer traction yet. That’s about to happen.

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Before I tried it, I thought it wasn’t that different from an IMAX movie or—

VR is like that, but amplified by a hundred.

I couldn’t grasp that until I put on a VR headset for the first time.

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The difference is, when you’re in an IMAX wraparound theater, you can still see your friend sitting next to you. So you know you’re in a theater watching a movie. When you put on a VR headset, you can’t escape the world you’re seeing. There’s no reminder that it’s not real. There’s no frame of reference. There’s also a physicality to VR. It’s not vicarious—you feel like you’re there.

Like you’re actually falling or flying or—

You internalize it so deeply. I like how Chris Milk [filmmaker and founder of the VR production company VRSE] puts it. He calls it “the ultimate empathy engine.”

Clearly, we’re still in the education phase. A lot of people associate VR primarily with gaming. How do you see that perception evolving?

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VR is a lot of different things—mobile, desktop, home systems. The home system, with positional tracking and hand input, is a very high-quality experience. That’s immersive VR. Mobile—smartphone-based systems like [Samsung] Gear and [Google] Cardboard—is regular VR. Initially, mobile will have a higher reach because it’s more accessible.

Is that a concern as you’re trying to boost interest in the medium? You know, it’s the appetizer, not the entrée?

Mobile VR gives you a taste, but then you want to try the real thing. What you’re going to see before long is VR rooms.

A separate room in the house, like a living room, with the equipment where you experience VR?

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That’s it. People may look at the scale—a 15-by-15-foot area—and say it’s so much space and so much money. But I grew up with pool tables in rec rooms. A good pool table was expensive, and all you could do was play pool. But now you have this magic box that transforms your room into a [Star Trek] Holodeck. There will be someone on your block who wants to be the first, and everyone will want to go there and try it. And two years later, it’ll be cheaper, and more and more people will get one.

If it’s so new and so different, how does anyone actually know how to make VR?

This is the most exciting time to get in, before anyone has figured it out—not just the storytelling but the design, interaction, navigation, interface, all of it. There are more developers working in VR now than ever before. There are teams all over the world, from people who left Pixar to join Oculus Story Studio— they’re doing real-time animation and character-driven storytelling—to a two-man outfit in the Czech Republic with no previous VR experience but who think natively in VR. They’re not waiting for someone else to lead the way.

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Do you think previous film-or game-making experience helps or hinders someone creating VR?

Some filmmakers are going to make awesome VR, but just because you’re great in an industry like film or mobile games doesn’t mean you’re going to be
great at VR.

Wait, why don’t those skills translate?

The language of film or games is based on looking at a rectangle. In VR, you have to think in an entirely new way. It’s 360 degrees. I tell game studios not to think about how to take a game that already works on Xbox and make it in VR. You have to think about something new that’s made specifically for VR. What types of games have never existed that could come to life in this medium?

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You must see new examples of VR all the time. What are some of the coolest applications you’ve seen lately?

One that blew me away takes slices from MRI scans and creates this volumetric model of the human body to scale. When I put on the headset, I could use the controllers to peel back and look at any cross section of the body and stain it or change the depth and see contours. You’re taking all this data on the body and presenting it in a way that’s more accessible to people.

You could see that becoming standard in medical education.

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This could help doctors treat patients in so many different ways. It’s an absolute breakthrough in medical imaging, and it’s done by Solirax, a small team in the Czech Republic.

Another company, Vivid Vision, is curing perceptual disorders like lazy eye. People have been concerned that using VR might be bad for vision, but here’s an example of putting on the headset and using it to correct vision.

From pilots to quarterbacks, training is another fertile area for VR. What makes the technology well suited for these types of scenarios?

VR lets people train in a safe way. It gives them access to environments where training hasn’t been possible. Some of the earliest applications were flight simulation for pilots. They could get hours of flight training without launching a jet. You’re seeing all kinds of VR training applications now. Look at mining companies. They can’t train workers underground, where one mistake can be dangerous or expensive. So they put them there with VR.

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You’re also seeing VR used in behavioral management. For example, in shipping and trucking, so many accidents happen because people are drowsy. VR can be used like a mental Breathalyzer.

How so? While they’re on the job or before?

Before you get behind the wheel or operate dangerous equipment, the VR will tell you if you’re alert enough to do that work. That could save lives.

You’ve been identifying VR startups to invest in for a while now, first at the accelerator and now for venture-capital firms. What do you look for?

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It’s always the demo. It has to really showcase a deep understanding of VR and offer something unique. It goes back to this: How are you solving a problem using VR that couldn’t have been solved in other ways? Some startups seem to think that just because it involves VR, it’s enough. It’s not.

So if we’re only, as you say, in chapter one, what needs to change for VR to realize its potential?

I heard [Oculus founder] Palmer Luckey talk about this recently. He said, basically, that at this point we’re limited by computing power. You need 10X processing power. The chip manufacturers are super excited about that.

Entrepreneurs are flocking into the virtual-reality space. How about large companies?

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We’ve been talking to a lot of large corporations—media, packaged goods, electronics, manufacturing companies. They have innovation labs that have been dabbling in high-end VR. Now you have the beginning of the consumer wave, costs coming down, and startups coming out, and the large companies are looking around and asking whether there are startups that can help with the things they need to look at.

Meaning they solve a tangible problem and demonstrate the value of VR?

Exactly. This is an important opportunity for startups, because it’s about two years until you see real revenue here. So how do you survive until then? You
find different revenue sources, like attacking the enterprise market.

What’s a trend that you think we’ll start seeing soon?

You’re going to see a shift from VR being a consumption platform—watching this cool content—to a creation platform: users making more of the content themselves. That’s what I’m most excited about now.

VR allows a different degree of collaborative design. Look at what Microsoft is doing with HoloLens, where several designers in different locations can work on a design together. They go into VR, bring whatever they’re working on to scale, and create the design together. This is the sort of seamless workflow I think you’re going to see in the future.

That creative process hinges on interacting with objects in VR, touching them. How far along is that?

There hasn’t been a lot of gesture-based input until now, but you’re starting to see it in the new hardware. I tried an application the other night called Tilt Brush [acquired earlier this year by Google], where you walk into a 15-by-15-foot room and paint anywhere with light or sound or particles. You do it all in space. You draw, and you can see what you’ve made hanging in the air in 3-D. I painted a dragon that breathed fire and I could walk all the way around it. That’s a new type of art form that couldn’t exist in any other way.

Do you see the technology advancing so that eventually virtual touch is indistinguishable from real touch? Is that the holy grail?

That ability to touch a wall and know it’s hard and touch a puppy and tell it’s soft—that’s much further away. People are using vibration now to create a sense of touch. I’ve heard of experiments that shoot electricity into your nerves to have touch, but, yeah, that’s far off.

How do you top that? With smell?

Actually, some people are playing around with aromas. No one has had a breakthrough, but you can imagine how it would make the experience more real. The question becomes, how many more senses can you engage?

If you’re chasing reality, I guess you’re never quite done, right?

I think of it differently. You want to create magic in the real world. So the idea is, what is the most magical thing you can do?


Chuck Salter for FastCo.Works
Illustration by Cranio Dsgn