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SXSW 2017: VR Moves onto Center Stage

SXSW 2017, was a transformational event for Robert Scoble and me in many ways. We went there as authors and media people: We came home as business consultants. There could not have been a better time and place.  The show was filled with talk and exhibits featuring VR--very often connected to causes. But the many big brands we taleked with, representing brands like GM, Mercedes, Comcast, Discovery, Nickelodeon, Disney, USAA, PGA, Sacramento Kings Shell, Sephora and other, they were looking at the quality and direction of these exhibits and they were seeing future experience for their customers., From 2016 to 2016, there were huge changes in attitude and intent. Last year, big brands were passingly curious tire-kickers. At most, they were looking for safe little ways to dip their toes into the Mixed Reality ocean. This year, brand thinkers  came looking  for pieces to actionable strategies. Last year, they meandered, while this year they displayed a sense of urgency: they want to move before customers and competitors get ahead of them. Even more important, the topic moved from the wings to center stage. VR and AI-based bots were the two most discussed topics from what I experienced. And any talk of AI is a factor in any thoughts on the future of Mixed Reality.  AI is what will make smart glasses smart. Smart Glasses will generally look like everyday glasses except that will have MR and AI in the componentry. They will know your patterns, preferences and where you look better than the people closest to you in real life. A much higher percentage of the panels and kiosks were on AR and VR this year than last. I only attended a couple of the panels and was impressed by the depth and knowledge, not just of those presenting,but also by the questions asking by attendees. They were not the questions of the passingly curious, so much as those of professionals working out problems.  While last year, there were fewer people marvelling at how fast Mixed Reality was moving forward, this years there were expressions of frustration, that hardware and software was not evolving fast enough.  I heard several conversations about problems with standards and compatibility--issues ignored by most pioneers but essential to business strategists. As for the kiosks, everything I saw was in VR Film, a term that becomes an instant oxymoron. While last year, I recall about a half dozen videos being shown, this year there were 36 VR creations in the SXSW film track.  I spent a few hours in one room that offered about 15 VR Film kiosks. The selections that I saw were all more polished and richer in content that what I saw last year--where the most exciting VR I saw was a Groove Jones-produced Tiltbrush activation for McDonald's. While that wowed most people last year, this year's year's show stopper  was  from Within, a VR Studio, launched by VR maestro Chris Milk and backed by Hollywood money. Milk previously directed Clouds over Sidra, perhaps the most-acclaimed VR film to date. At SXSW, Milk's team was showing Life of Us, which had won Sundance Awards a few weeks earlier. In 15 minutes, I got to personally experience the entire story of evolution from protozoa, to tadpoles,  dinosaurs, apes, humans and beyond into cyborgs. As I talked with a companion, my voice changed from that of a fsh to that of an ape. It was breathtaking entertainment, and clearly a better way to educate children about natural history than has previously been possible. My second-best experience was actually an aside. Will Mason, co-founder of Upload, Robert, and I played hooky for part of an afternoon to go visit Owlchemy, developers of Job Simulator, the most popular children's VR game. Thanks, in part to the effervescent Cy Wise it was among the most fun company visits I have ever had. The whole team is a bunch f overgrown children who create wonderful stuff through digital play. I got to put on an HTC Vive and play an unreleased version of the game. I resisted taking off the headset when the game was over. Back at SXSW, I also greatly enjoyed  Cycling Pathways to Mars,  featuring Buzz Aldrin. among the few people on Earth to have walked on the moon. Cycling allowed me to take a stroll on Mars with Aldrin. Neither of us will live long enough to get there, but the VR Video is an attempt to muster support for the NASA manned-Mars program.  I was impressed with the sophisticated 3D rendering of the VR Aldrin. A year earlier, virtual people were generally lame, resembling robotic mannequins. From a few virtual feet away, the astronaut looked pretty authentic to me.  As I got closer, however, his eyes seemed to be coated with cataracts: he did not respond to my smile or an attempt to make him flinch.  Based on the progress I saw from last year to this, I think it will be maybe two years before virtu people can make eye contact, and respond to my gestures and facial expressions.  Perhaps a few years after that, he and I will shake hands or hug and feel each other as if we were both real and on the Red Planet. Like the Aldrin video, others had documentary agendas attached. here were videos to show you what it was like to be in solitary confinement, or in a refugee camp, or to gruesomely understand death tolls from the wars that took place in one year. The common thread of each of these was a demonstration of the incredible improvement to the ancient art of story-telling VR is bring to the table. This will allow all sorts of things in the nearterm future.  Children will understand battles, or the Barrier Reef by VR storytelling. They will tour the White House or Buckingham Palace in VR. Shoppers will try on clothing through Virtual or Augmented Reality. Sephora already allows people to try make up via an AR phone app. Celebrities  they admire will walk them to products of choice in shopping malls, as Aisle411 already allows on Lenovo's Tango-enabled phone. Travellers, will enjoy augmented tours of their points of destination, checking out rooms, restaurants and points of interest, curated by a virtual narrator. Further out, AI will allow that curator to answer questions. How soon and how long? I keep writing that the future is closer than people think. Robert staunchly believes the future will start on June 5, at the Apple Developer Conference. If he is right, then we will soon be saying that the future is today. When that happens, I hope you won't be regretting that your business kept waiting and seeing until it became too late.

SXSW 2017, was a transformational event for Robert Scoble and me in many ways. We went there as authors and media people: We came home as business consultants. There could not have been a better time and place. 

The show was filled with talk and exhibits featuring VR--very often connected to causes. But the many big brands we taleked with, representing brands like GM, Mercedes, Comcast, Discovery, Nickelodeon, Disney, USAA, PGA, Sacramento Kings Shell, Sephora and other, they were looking at the quality and direction of these exhibits and they were seeing future experience for their customers.,

From 2016 to 2016, there were huge changes in attitude and intent. Last year, big brands were passingly curious tire-kickers. At most, they were looking for safe little ways to dip their toes into the Mixed Reality ocean. This year, brand thinkers  came looking  for pieces to actionable strategies. Last year, they meandered, while this year they displayed a sense of urgency: they want to move before customers and competitors get ahead of them.

Even more important, the topic moved from the wings to center stage. VR and AI-based bots were the two most discussed topics from what I experienced. And any talk of AI is a factor in any thoughts on the future of Mixed Reality.  AI is what will make smart glasses smart. Smart Glasses will generally look like everyday glasses except that will have MR and AI in the componentry. They will know your patterns, preferences and where you look better than the people closest to you in real life.

A much higher percentage of the panels and kiosks were on AR and VR this year than last. I only attended a couple of the panels and was impressed by the depth and knowledge, not just of those presenting,but also by the questions asking by attendees. They were not the questions of the passingly curious, so much as those of professionals working out problems. 

While last year, there were fewer people marvelling at how fast Mixed Reality was moving forward, this years there were expressions of frustration, that hardware and software was not evolving fast enough.  I heard several conversations about problems with standards and compatibility--issues ignored by most pioneers but essential to business strategists.

As for the kiosks, everything I saw was in VR Film, a term that becomes an instant oxymoron. While last year, I recall about a half dozen videos being shown, this year there were 36 VR creations in the SXSW film track. 

I spent a few hours in one room that offered about 15 VR Film kiosks. The selections that I saw were all more polished and richer in content that what I saw last year--where the most exciting VR I saw was a Groove Jones-produced Tiltbrush activation for McDonald's. While that wowed most people last year, this year's year's show stopper  was  from Within, a VR Studio, launched by VR maestro Chris Milk and backed by Hollywood money. Milk previously directed Clouds over Sidra, perhaps the most-acclaimed VR film to date.

At SXSW, Milk's team was showing Life of Uswhich had won Sundance Awards a few weeks earlier. In 15 minutes, I got to personally experience the entire story of evolution from protozoa, to tadpoles,  dinosaurs, apes, humans and beyond into cyborgs. As I talked with a companion, my voice changed from that of a fsh to that of an ape. It was breathtaking entertainment, and clearly a better way to educate children about natural history than has previously been possible.

My second-best experience was actually an aside. Will Mason, co-founder of Upload, Robert, and I played hooky for part of an afternoon to go visit Owlchemy, developers of Job Simulator, the most popular children's VR game. Thanks, in part to the effervescent Cy Wise it was among the most fun company visits I have ever had. The whole team is a bunch f overgrown children who create wonderful stuff through digital play. I got to put on an HTC Vive and play an unreleased version of the game. I resisted taking off the headset when the game was over.

Back at SXSW, I also greatly enjoyed  Cycling Pathways to Mars featuring Buzz Aldrin. among the few people on Earth to have walked on the moon. Cycling allowed me to take a stroll on Mars with Aldrin. Neither of us will live long enough to get there, but the VR Video is an attempt to muster support for the NASA manned-Mars program. 

I was impressed with the sophisticated 3D rendering of the VR Aldrin. A year earlier, virtual people were generally lame, resembling robotic mannequins. From a few virtual feet away, the astronaut looked pretty authentic to me.  As I got closer, however, his eyes seemed to be coated with cataracts: he did not respond to my smile or an attempt to make him flinch. 

Based on the progress I saw from last year to this, I think it will be maybe two years before virtu people can make eye contact, and respond to my gestures and facial expressions.  Perhaps a few years after that, he and I will shake hands or hug and feel each other as if we were both real and on the Red Planet.

Like the Aldrin video, others had documentary agendas attached. here were videos to show you what it was like to be in solitary confinement, or in a refugee camp, or to gruesomely understand death tolls from the wars that took place in one year.

The common thread of each of these was a demonstration of the incredible improvement to the ancient art of story-telling VR is bring to the table. This will allow all sorts of things in the nearterm future. 

Children will understand battles, or the Barrier Reef by VR storytelling. They will tour the White House or Buckingham Palace in VR.

Shoppers will try on clothing through Virtual or Augmented Reality. Sephora already allows people to try make up via an AR phone app. Celebrities  they admire will walk them to products of choice in shopping malls, as Aisle411 already allows on Lenovo's Tango-enabled phone.

Travellers, will enjoy augmented tours of their points of destination, checking out rooms, restaurants and points of interest, curated by a virtual narrator. Further out, AI will allow that curator to answer questions.

How soon and how long? I keep writing that the future is closer than people think. Robert staunchly believes the future will start on June 5, at the Apple Developer Conference. If he is right, then we will soon be saying that the future is today.

When that happens, I hope you won't be regretting that your business kept waiting and seeing until it became too late.

Shel IsraelComment