VRTGO Conference 2015 – Europe’s Largest Virtual Reality Event
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Virtual reality (VR) is the future in technology. There’s no denying it. Its potential hasn’t even been fully realised, even by the brave and altogether rather intelligent folks working within the industry in its mere infancy. The possibilities in this emerging industry are countless, and altogether, somewhat unheard of outside of the technology circles that are undergoing pioneering efforts to develop it.

To attempt to combat Virtual Reality’s mystery, and alleviate the public’s genuine lack of knowledge of what’s happening with the technology, HenchTech sent me to infiltrate the ranks of the VR elite. My mission was simple: find out a little more about what’s going on, and then share some of the experiences with you, our beloved audience. And what better way to do that, than attend VRTGO in Gateshead, and see it all first-hand?

Produced by the lovely people at Secret Sauce (www.secret-sauce.co.uk), and with the brilliant Will Freeman (@spadgy_OTA) as Compere once again, VRTGO allows developers, content producers, leading tech-industry professionals, software engineers, 3D artists, amazingly talented technology and gaming journalists to network. To the layman, this means attending a conference, hearing about the VR industry’s progress straight from the horse’s mouth, learn about the exciting direction of VR, drill all developers present with varying degrees of technical questions, have a play with all the gizmos and gadgets, and then stand around after it all in a relaxed setting, eat delicious food and talk shop with all the amazing people that are making VR something truly magical.

The conference itself consisted of stand-up presentations, along with power-point displays and Q and A’s to follow. Attending somewhat later than I’d planned, I only managed to catch three of the talks presented. Among them were Play Canvas’ (www.playcanvas.com) Will Eastcott, who went into depth about the possibilities of VR technology in terms of digital marketing potential, and the need for it to be easily accessible to everyone. He explained that the likes of ‘take away experiences’ – for instance the feeling that you’ve actually been there and physically experienced it – are expected to be the future in marketing. Imagine say for VR interior design; you could see your finished kitchen, or even your entire house in stunning virtual reality complete with audio and day night cycle, even take a walk around it alone or with friends with social networking! Or see the new car you’re wanting, with your custom interior, and your brand-spanking-new alloys to match the new burning flame racing decals that you’d so obviously put on the side. The possibilities in that respect are endless, and so very clear to me now is that it’s obvious gaming isn’t going to be the only possibility with this technology, not by any margin. Eastcott also went on to mention that PlayCanvas allows you to create 3D HTML5 and WebGL games, so you are no longer restricted by 2D. And this truly does excite me.

I also had the distinct pleasure of meeting Jason Lovell, Samsung Electronics’ Senior Product manager, as well Tom Entract, also a Product Manager at Samsung. They were kind enough to show me the capability of their 2015 handset technology which integrates with the standard GEAR VR Oculus rift headsets. I was able to experience a virtual reality puzzle adventure, using GEAR VR with Samsung’s new smartphone plugged in, titled ‘Land’s End’ by developer Ustwo, also known for ‘Monument Valley’ (www.ustwo.com). Within Land’s End, the player has to navigate a VR puzzle, using nothing but head movements, and stare-to-go waypoints, to eventually arrive at puzzles that require you to look around yourself; often in seemingly complicated, yet blindingly obvious puzzles. It was a great example of quality content instead of overly focused high-end graphics with lacking content, which conventional Triple A titles often don’t balance correctly. Jason went on to present a talk on the innovative ways that mobile phone technology will play a huge part in the upcoming VR market, how VR is capable of allowing a person to feel empathy within VR, how Samsung aims to make VR easily accessible and wire-free to the end user, potentially allowing VR technology often including NEXT VR (which allows you to witness pro-sports like surfing and basketball in VR), Netflix, and Oculus games, to enter every home for the price of £79.99 on their ‘New Gear VR’ sets. I would also like to point out, that their new model allowed me to enjoy VR whilst comfortably wearing my glasses at the same time – not something I can say for all of its competitors. This is definitely one to watch!

Another concept discussed in the post-conference panel was ‘Perfect Beach’ by nDreams (www.ndreams.com/titles/perfectbeach/). A relatively ‘simple’ concept, allowing the user to visit an area of serene natural beauty, experience all of the sights and sounds in Stunning VR, and then maybe have an audio-book overlay so you can relax (literally) in your own private world whilst listening to some epic literature, guided meditation, or music of your own choosing. Sound impossible? It shouldn’t. I’ve now been within about sixteen different VR worlds, and let me tell you; the immersion is nothing short of awe-inspiring, and it is completely feasible even with VR technology still in its infancy. I’ll definitely be keeping track of ‘Perfect Beach’ and this type of relaxation concept. Total Recall anyone?

Which brings me nicely into my most anticipated VR related technology area so far. I am, as many of my closest cohorts will know, an avid viewer and collector of films. Not only do I enjoy the film for what it is, I also enjoy going to see a film for the experience. Imagine then if I told you that there is now technology, currently being tested and implemented, that allows you to actually be there. Think if you will, of the current cinema experience. You’re staring straight ahead for anywhere of up to two and a half hours at a flat 2-D projection, or if you decide to fork out a bit, a 3D projection. Imagine if I told you then, that you could watch your film, but be able to turn your head, look around, and be inside the action beside the heroes (or villains!). 360 VR technology is advancing rapidly. It’s potential is limited only by its innovators; and believe me, the VR field is a gold mine of innovation and talent, so there’s certainly no shortage of innovation. Especially since ‘Live Event broadcasting’ using 360 VR technology is now a reality. To literally be there on the set of live broadcasts, television show sets, and sporting events. This technology at its core, is revolutionary in how we as an audience, are going to brand the cinematographic experience as a whole. It’s all rather amazing, if I’m honest.

Unfortunately, due to my unforeseen late arrival, the guest speakers I didn’t get to hear from were Keynote speaker Sony’s Jed Ashforth; Senior Game Designer attached to PlayStation VR, Joe Robins from Unity, Founder and CEO of nDreams; Patrick O’Luanaigh, Whispering Gibbon’s CEO and Founder Joe Stevens, and Crossrail’s Marie Gilmour (@Crossrail). Apologies to anyone I may have forgotten to mention here, please do not hesitate to get in touch if that is the case.

I had the honour of meeting dozens of extremely talented innovators in the VR industry during my stay at VRTGO 2015. Amongst them, aside from those I’ve already mentioned, was ARM’s (www.malideveloper.arm.com) Roberto Lopez Mendez. Roberto explained that ARM has introduced a new innovative Oculus port engine, with fully working demo that I was lucky enough to have a go at. Boasting optimised custom shaders and shadow use within the engine, using ‘static cube mapping’. It’s as impressive as it sounds, and in Roberto’s own words, “it produces perfect shadows”. I was certainly impressed with the technology, that’s for sure.

I was lucky enough to meet the independent development team of an up and coming production titled ‘Dimensional’ by Brett and Kelly Jackson (www.headstartdesign.co.uk), in which the game utilises a grid on the floor space on which you are using to incorporate your real movements into the VR gaming world. The objective of the game centres around a rookie soldier attempting to rescue alien offspring, with help from his handy droid, in a typical ‘Tomb-Raider’ style environment, with elements of ‘Portal’ ‘s puzzle-solving and physics; all the while having orders barked at you by a virtual commander. There were also lasers. Gold star from me!

It was my distinct pleasure to bump into and then get talking to the chaps over at Spearhead Interactive Ltd (www.spearheadinteractive.com), from Middlesbrough. Dan, Chris, and Darren were absolute gents, not to mention absolute geniuses, and were attempting to explain to me one of their latest brain-babies: ‘The Perception Neuron Thirty Two Point Finger and Body Tracking System’ over a beer later in the evening. Say that three times fast after a long day, I dare you. Yes it really is as amazing as it sounds ladies and gents. The application for this technology may well be limitless, and I was kindly invited by Managing Director Dan Riley, to attend their HQ and see it in action for myself. Here’s hoping that they are gracious enough to let me write an introductory piece on this technology very soon for you all to enjoy, in the not so distant future.

I briefly had a word or three with Virtual Umberella’s Samantha Kingston and Bertie Millis (www.virtualumberella.co.uk) during the evening social event. These delightful people specialise in spreading the word about small VR developers and helping them get off the ground. Pretty cool people, with a good mission. Maybe check them out if you have your own project needing to get off the ground.

Amongst the aforementioned industrial pioneers, I was also extremely fortunate to sample some of the games available on VR itself. And let me tell you folks, the scope and array of some of the games available, or soon to be available, it’s nothing short of stunning. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Lindsay Kirk, senior 3D artist from Coatsink (www.coatsink.com), whom has 3D sculpted much of the beautifully crafted, and hilariously voiced ESPER and ESPER2. I had a dabble on ESPER2, and I must say, I was certainly immersed, not to mention impressed. My telekinesis abilities are second to none now too, thanks to the aptitude tests Lindsay and her colleagues put me through. Cheers guys! Expect public news from the developers on these titles soon.

I was lucky enough to rub shoulders with Nosebleed Interactive’s Andreas Firnigl (www.nosebleedinteractive.com), whom gave me a solid and rather entertaining demo of ‘Vostok Inc’, a space-spanning interplanetary conglomerate spaceship business game, incoming for multi-platform release soon. Aside from a few belting one-liners, and a scope that’s completely off the chain, the dev team has even included themselves within the coding, as ‘Corporate Execs’, often posing themselves in hilarious ‘Wolf of Walstreet’ style scenarios. Andreas himself chose the hot-tub full of money scene, with him and his wife inside said tub. Because let’s be honest, we’d all choose that scene too.

One of the most personally exciting projects I came across, was 4pmgames’ Bojan Brbora’s latest, and dare I say it, shockingly brilliant ‘Negotiator’ demo. You play the role as a hostage negotiator currently on scene to prevent the mass murder of hundreds of people aboard a grounded jet liner. At your disposal is multi-option dialogue, a military radio, a telephone linked directly to the hostage-taker, and a fully loaded Assault Team ready to go at a moments notice… And of course your wits. Without ruining the plot, or stealing Bojan’s thunder, I will point out that he remarked that I was the only person he’d seen able to extract the entirety of the plane’s hostages out of the scene. I see that my usual motto of ‘Maximum aggression, maximum results’ proved infallible, once again. I strongly advise all readers to check out Bojan’s Website over at www.4pmgames.com and his twitter @BojanBrbora to lend your support for this innovative project.

My experiences at these types of events always leave me in absolute awe of what technology and the people behind it, are able to accomplish. It always manages to amaze me just how much it can enrich people’s lives all over the world, or how it allows otherwise penniless but talented developers to create their own content and create full immersion just from putting their ideas into VR, gaining them the exposure within the industry that they need to become successful. VR has the ability to connect, educate, and entertain in ways we couldn’t have imagined just a few short years ago, and VRTGO and other events like it, allow these creative professionals to do just that. It all leads me to ponder about what is just around the corner, but then, when you’re immersed in Virtual Reality, you can just lean over, and take a look for yourself.

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