This special report was created by FastCo.Works,
a division of Fast Company, in partnership with MINI.
VIRTUAL REALITY IS ON THE VERGE of transforming much of life as we know it. Putting fans courtside at an NBA game or even onstage at Lollapalooza. Giving high school students virtual tours of far-flung college campuses they might not otherwise consider. Training everyone from doctors to heavy-equipment operators in new techniques at work. Transporting policy makers to a West African hospital coping with Ebola.
This is only the beginning. As computing power improves, the only real limit of virtual reality will be our imagination.
We asked six VR pioneers to take us inside their vision, their passion for the technology—and their latest projects. If they sound as though they can’t wait for you to experience the marvels they’re creating, it’s because they can’t.
Name: Nonny de la Peña
Company: Emblematic Group
The immersive nature of VR makes it a magnet for storytellers. Trained journalist and documentary filmmaker Nonny de la Peña wants to make sure the stories being told aren’t all works of fiction. A former Newsweek correspondent, de la Peña is pioneering what she calls “immersion journalism.” She marries exhaustive reporting with VR, re-creating scenes and events in exacting detail so that viewers experience them instead of simply reading about them. In Hunger in Los Angeles (a pre–Oculus Rift collaboration with Palmer Luckey), you stand in a food line outside the city’s First Unitarian Church when a starving diabetic man crumples into a coma at your feet. In Project Syria, you are surrounded by the bustle of a street corner in Aleppo when suddenly rocket fire erupts and chaos ensues. Could VR make us more empathetic as a species? Could it bring an increasingly divided world closer? The early signs are encouraging.
“VR allows people to witness an event as it transpires. Your connection to the story is different. Being an eyewitness—as opposed to simply watching a news report about an event—is more impactful.”
“We created a digital replica of Guantanamo Bay prison. It was a way to let people visit this place that is off-limits to citizens and the press. For a piece about the conditions of Guantanamo detainees, we used VR to put people in the body of a detainee. We had viewers wearing a VR headset sit upright in a chair with their hands placed behind them. But in VR, their perspective was that of a detainee put in a stress position. Afterward, viewers claimed they had physically been in the position, hunched over. People had such an emotional reaction. I realized this was an opportunity to do all kinds of journalism. It’s an astonishing leap forward.”
“In VR, you have very little distance from the event. You can’t look away. It has your undivided attention. That’s something unique. When you feel you’re inside a space, it moves you to care, to have a connection unlike any other medium I’ve worked in before.”
Name: Xavier Palomer
Traditional treatments for overcoming phobias have included visualization, role-playing exercises, and even early forms of VR that required expensive equipment and technicians. The Spanish startup Psious is updating these techniques around the lower-cost advancements of modern VR. The goal is to make more effective treatments more accessible to greater numbers of patients. Beyond phobias, VR is touted these days for its “brain training” potential—everything from improving social skills to detecting mild cognitive impairment.
“We have [produced] VR experiences to deal with eight phobias, including flying, agoraphobia, and public speaking. The therapist controls the experience and can adjust it according to the patient’s needs. He can trigger an airplane taking off. He can trigger turbulence. He can monitor the biofeedback through sensors on the patient to measure the physiological response. After four or five minutes, the patient starts to forget that he is in a virtual environment and the experience becomes real for him. But it is controlled.”
“Historically, it takes longer for the health care industry to adopt new technology. It’s not like gaming and entertainment, where there is money and constant interest in innovating. We’re pushing hard to change that because VR can become a perfect complement for treating addictions, anxiety, and other mental-health issues. VR can also help with physical rehabilitation or pain distraction, as well as the training of surgeons and doctors. In the end, VR can positively impact the whole value chain of health care, from the patient to the physician. This is going to be meaningful.”
Name: Jens Christensen
Title: Founder and CEO
Jaunt wants to bring new expertise to established industries, pairing seasoned L.A. directors, directors of photography, and filmmakers with the company’s tech development team in Silicon Valley. The work they are planning to produce will explore moviemaking as well as travel and documentaries. A wave of top film artists are beginning to apply their talents to VR, which should only increase demand. Fox’s Sleepy Hollow just won the first-ever Emmy for a VR project. How long before the first Oscar?
“You can bring unique travel experiences to people. Some of the greatest sites—the Himalayas or the Taj Mahal— are not places most people can easily experience in person. But in VR, you’re able to look around with real depth perception. Not only can you see how beautiful it is, you also get a feeling for the scale.”
“As more people start getting VR headsets, you realize there’s a dearth of content out there. It’s such a greenfield opportunity right now.”
Name: Nick DiCarlo
Title: General manager of immersive products and virtual reality
Samsung is betting on two major virtual-reality initiatives: its headset, Gear VR, and a video app, Milk VR. The former is the platform, the latter content. Samsung hopes to establish a library of what it is calling “360 videos” to meet a groundswell of demand now that Gear VR is available. Each piece is free to watch, with topics ranging from VR versions of the Spike TV show Lip Sync Battle to highlights of the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. What does it feel like to be totally immersed in daredevil action from Red Bull or gritty documentaries from Vice? We’re about to find out. They’re all content partners on Milk.
“I was a skeptic at first. This was a couple of years ago. I am probably famous around here for saying, ‘This is a bad idea.’ But I’m a believer now. The tech has improved to the point where, my gosh, you feel like you’ve been teleported.”
“You’ve got companies like Matterport developing virtual-reality tours of real estate properties. You can virtually walk through houses to see how the rooms flow and appreciate the quality of the finishes. YouVisit is doing virtual college campus tours so people can look at schools without spending $5,000 on a summer pilgrimage. This was the star of the show last year at a conference for admissions counselors. Almost every industry trade show is having some VR person come now.”
“I joined the wireless industry in 2002, so I saw the evolution with mobile phones. I see that happening with VR.”
Name: JC Oliver
Title: Global head of innovation
Instead of immersing wearers in an isolated VR experience,
Microsoft’s HoloLens headset overlays virtual objects onto the real world. Early testers of the device, which is expected to launch in 2016, have been struck by the sharp holograms of people and dimensional display screens that magically appear in their immediate physical surroundings. (Imagine the tech in the movies Minority Report and Iron Man finally coming to life.) What could you do with, in effect, holographic superpowers? You could turn an hour on the treadmill into a jog through a virtual redwood forest. Or design products virtually with your colleagues located around the globe. Or…anything.
“We’re trying to help people be more productive. Here’s just one example: imagine architectural teams being able to see the building that they are designing as they work—being able to walk around it and inside it in VR as they collaboratively create together. You’ll be able to do that now.”
“The only way you ever get the benefit of technology is when it becomes invisible. When it doesn’t interfere. If the user is able to forget what the purpose of the technology is and can just use it, that’s huge. There must be value after you get over the wow factor.”
“Radical innovation has to be on the cutting edge. If something’s been done before, it’s not as radical as you think. What we’re trying to do is allow people to see holographic experiences untethered. HoloLens is essentially a computer that sits on your head and is taking in the light waves, transforming them into images, and then processing it all in real time. You’re still in the real world, the physical world, and you can see what you’re doing and all around you, but there are holographic objects and experiences that are integrated into
Name: Juan Santillan
Title: Founder and CEO
Vantage.tv could make VR the ultimate social experience. Starting this fall, headset owners will be able to tune in and experience concerts and sporting events with their friends—live—from onstage or on the field. Vantage.tv, an inaugural member of Rothenberg Ventures’ VR accelerator, River, developed a network of coordinated cameras onstage, backstage, and in the crowd to capture and live-stream the action in 360 degrees. Already, the technology has been deployed at Coachella, Austin City Limits Music Festival, and Nascar and PGA Tour events. As fans, we’ve always thought the best seat in the house was the front row—you can’t get any closer. But VR is proving otherwise.
“We teleport fans to an event to feel the excitement of actually being there. Recently, we live streamed from Lollapalooza. It was huge—three days of live-streaming a five-camera, multiangle VR experience.”
“We’re creating a very intimate way for fans to interact with their passions. It’s a platform that content-rights holders, promoters, artists, and teams can use to connect with their fans, and vice versa.”
Interviews by FastCo.Works staff
Illustrations by Alison Cowles