What is all this VR, AR, MR stuff? My last day at SXSW 2017.

What is all this VR, AR, MR stuff? My last day at SXSW 2017.

I spent my final day of South By Southwest on the VR/AR track. It was the official open for those sessions, but it would be the only one of the three days I could experience. As much as I would have loved to learn more, I’d arrived on March 10th for the start of the design sessions, so having even a single day of the AR/VR was great.

As I said, though, it was the only day I’d have with this emerging technology space, so I wanted to get the most out of it. That boiled down to a series of lines (how shocking!). Starting at 11 AM, I bounced from session to session. I was thankful that most of my rooms were in the JW Marriot, as it helped ease my schedule. The day went something like this:

  • Speed walk to venue.
  • Hop in long line. Ask at least three people and a volunteer if I was in the right line (when they bend around corners, it’s hard to tell).
  • Stand for 10–15 minutes.
  • Bounce into the next line over when I hear I’m in the wrong line.
  • Stand for 30–45 minutes.
  • Talk to people in the surrounding area to keep boredom from creeping in (after all, talking to new people is some of the fun).
  • Go into session.
  • Get my “sardine” on (they really cram us into those rooms).
  • Furiously take notes.
  • Run to bathroom.
  • Sprint to corner store for an over-priced, pre-packaged sandwich and be grateful to have anything to eat in line.
  • Hop into next line which already has 50–100 people in it.

All of this became so normal over the last week that it the oddest part of the day was when my group went for dinner and we didn’t have to wait in line… at all.

Of the five sessions I tackled, only one was on a topic other than VR/AR. Titled “Lo-Fi Museum Moments in a Digital World,” this was the only specifically-museum session I attended. I didn’t have any lightbulb moments, though, so I’ll skip over that one to get into VR.

Participants sit in one of around twenty different VR booths.

Before I get into today’s sessions, a little about the differences between VR, AR and MR for context.

The Oculus Rift. Photo courtesy of Oculus.com

VR — Virtual Reality: immerses a single user (almost exclusively) in a virtual world. This means completely shutting out the real world by way of vision. VR may also incorporate sound, movement, and sometimes feelings (i.e. wind blowing on your face). This is primarily used for gaming right now, but film makers are stepping into the space at a rapid rate.

The Birdly uses movement, wind, action, sound, and visuals to create their VR world.

The Microsoft HoloLens. Photo courtesy of Microsoft.

AR — Augmented Reality: combines the real world and the virtual world in seamless and interactive ways. While this technology is still in it’s theoretical infancy, progress is rapid. Ultimately, this will be a lifestyle product which you use even more than your smartphone. Most daily interactions with people, products, brands, etc. will filter through your personal AR device.

MR — Mixed Reality: this is a term which can, for all intents and purposes, be interchanged with AR. With this space emerging as rapidly as it has, businesses and consumers have yet to settle on a consistent name. As it stands, AR seems to be the favored term, but perhaps Apple will settle the debate by naming theirs the iAR.

I’ll apologize for the stock imagery used. Surprisingly, this batch of sessions opted for visual-less presentations. I found it odd considering the industry, but it did help me focus on the content. For the sake of giving credit where credit is due, the photo at the beginning of this blog is courtesy of Microsoft.

OK, onto the good stuff!

A common theme among the panels was about how much this industry will alter the way in which we interact with absolutely everything. While that may seem obvious, let’s dive into it a bit deeper.

We currently live in digital 2D spaces. Facebook is 2D (even the 360 videos are viewed on 2D). Texting is 2D. FaceTime is 2D. Now, imagine all of that, and more, in a 3D space. How would web design change if instead of up/down and left/right scrolling, the actual webpage took up a 3D space? What if you learned physically? Instead of studying pictures of human anatomy, you got to look at all parts of a human body — inside and out — while the interface assisted you.

This will actually be a more natural interaction for us, as we physically operate in 3D, so the transitions should be pretty easy (and freaking cool!).

This brings me to a poignant moment from one of the sessions. While we are all currently​ excited for the possibilities and the fun of swimming underwater as part of a new video game, practical and long term application has yet to be created. I believe it was Mark Cuban who said it, but forgive me I’m wrong, as I heard it third hand, but AR/VR will not have “arrived” until we do mundane and boring things with it.

So, who and how are we determining what these mundane and boring things? I’m sure there’s think tanks pulling all-nighters contemplating how we’ll be able to use our toaster by blinking, and research is already being done in drastically different industries.

  • The medical community has discovered VR is more effective than morphine for pain management in the burn units.
  • Following a year of VR therapy, paraplegics participating in a study began to regain control of certain functions, such as bladder control.

While I am unable to cite these studies since they were discussed briefly in a session, just imagine the power these technologies may bring to changing our physical being.

Image courtesy of The Medical Futurist.

What will we learn about each other?

An interesting concept came up in my very last SXSW session. A fellow on the panel, by the name of Ola Bjorling, was in the midst of discussing how film makers will go about changing the movie industry and how a new time of videographic research is underway:

  • what might we learn about individuals while they are in private experiences.
  • when no one else is looking, what do you choose to view within your virtual space?

More to the point regarding filming and controlling a person’s viewpoint during a 360 experience, he advised videographers and directors to be less concerned with whether they can successfully​ control the public’s 15° of focus. As he put it, “if you have an interesting scene over here, and the viewers opts to stare at a blank wall, he has other issues.”

They are predicting that within just four years, you may be able to watch your favorite sports team play a game on your kitchen table. Image courtesy of Microsoft.

A few things I will remember going into the future (feel free to use these for yourself, too):

  • I don’t think we will be able to “opt out” of this one. Whereas some have chosen to keep their old flip phones instead of upgrading to a smartphone, I doubt that will be an option, going forward. Not only will more and more items begin to incorporate technology, this new tech will undoubtedly be a requirement for operating in the real world (i.e. unmanned checkout counters).
  • Maybe hold off on any new facial piercings for a while. Until we get a more stable form to the wearables, we can’t predict how they’ll sit on our faces/bodies. Certain existing headsets get caught on my nose stud, and I don’t think the visual result is pleasing for anyone involved.
  • These spaces are new. We need to be both patient and impatient. Patience allows us to get the quality products we want while giving the infrastructure space to catch up. Impatience is what’s driving the industry forward.
  • Keep some Pepto nearby when using the current VR headsets. Poorly shot video will lead to “hurl moments” every time.
  • Expose kids to these things. They will live in this future world longer than us, so let’s give them a leg up.

Here ends my daily SXSW 2017 blogs. I don’t think I made too much of a dink of myself in Austin, and I only have about eight new bruises to prove my speed walking is not yet up to par. All-in-all, a successful and rewarding journey (I say as I smack my head on an overhead cabinet).


What is all this VR, AR, MR stuff? My last day at SXSW 2017. was originally published in Austin Startups on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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