Virtual reality's ever increasing presence in Atlanta

Examining the beauty of the goggle-based technology.

Imagine this: you’re on the beach in a country you’ve never been too. Picture Anse Source d’Argent in La Digue in the Republic of Seychelles. The day is gorgeous with a perfect breeze slipping through the air as you take generous sips of a special beverage. The sand is warm -- but not hot -- as you take slow, unplanned steps with no destination in mind. The only noises heard are the ocean crawling up the shore and the crunch of feet in the sand. You walk towards the ocean where the water is coming ashore in a pattern reminiscent of the chest of your lover as they nap under an umbrella just a few feet away. Slowly. Melodically. The water is close to your toes as you inch towards it.

And then a man named Steve sprints by with his pet wolf, throws down a crafting table and makes a boat out of planks of wood. He hops in and sails off. He shoots a flaming arrow at you just for kicks. Your vacation is ruined so you decide to go somewhere else. This is the land of Minecraft.

This is one of the many worlds of virtual reality (VR). You were playing a game the entire time as you slip off a headset that covered your sightline. The visor-like device can have any number of company logos on it. PlayStation, HTC, Oculus. It all depends on who you prefer. What’s important is you have the ability to experience these adventures. The operative word is “experience” as VR’s ambitions are somewhat tough to explain to those who haven’t tried it.

Virtual reality is something of a novelty at this point. While it’s true that it can be applied to gaming or touring in some capacity, it’s still an entirely new and largely unexplored avenue. Plus, not many people have access to the technology. It’s expensive, as headsets can cost upwards of $600. There are even some headsets that don’t come with controllers needed for games, so adds that to the cost. All this without considering if you have enough space to set up “room scale” items like cameras and cables. That’s not to mention procuring a computer strong enough to run it all. By the time you spend the ~$2,000 or so you need, you could’ve been halfway to Mexico!

The area of VR is a niche culture, much like boating or raising a child. Not everyone is built for the lifestyle. But it’s important to realize virtual reality is coming whether the world is prepared or not. Many headsets – while not as technically powerful – are being made available to the masses for relatively decent prices (Samsung’s Gear VR costs a seventh of what the phone does and Google’s less advanced, but still pretty neat, Cardboard begins pricing at $15). A very interesting development in the situation is Atlanta’s growing involvement in the VR landscape.

Atlanta is not completely unfamiliar to VR. Prior to the opening of two separate VR bars, the city celebrated the new medium by giving it a day of its own this past January. VR Day was dubbed “Atlanta’s mixed reality conference,” where co-hosts Georgia State and Nektr tried their best to share the promises of virtual reality with attendees. They’d made substantial strides in doing so by partnering with the likes of Microsoft (whose new mixed reality device Hololens made waves at the Electronic Entertainment Expo years ago); CNN; Metro Atlanta Chamber and more.

VR Day was a way to grasp an understanding of the unknown. People like CNN’s Head of VR, Ed Thomas, gave sessions on what is “real in reality.” Speakers like Samsung’s Head of VR Marketing, Bachir Zeroual, talked about what was next for VR. Professors, those with PhD's, and even a writer from one of the mightiest gaming companies in the world discussed how the technology works and why it would continue to march forward.

 

Game on

Within the past few months, two virtual reality spaces will have opened their doors for the general public. Both iSimu VR and Revery: VR Bar offer roughly the same ceremony. There are separate rooms (rentable by the half hour or hour) in which users can play with HTC Vives or Oculus Rifts and all the games they offer. But the businesses do have some differences.

Vien Ha, one of the owners of iSimu VR (located right outside of Atlanta), notes that the competition pool is growing. “In Georgia, we’re the only ones, but there are a few others that are coming," Ha said. "I think [Revery:] VR Bar…theirs is a [full] bar.”

He notes that they’re targeting other audiences though.

“Ours currently is not a bar; it’s just VR stations," Ha stated. "We’re going to be targeting a different demographic. We’ve got all types of demographics so it’s not a bar scene. We get younger kids or families a lot of times.” 

iSimu VR is simply a space for virtual reality games – a VRcade. They have no food or drinks yet, as they try to line up a way for snacks and drinks to logistically work out. Adults looking to drink and play games at the same time will be disappointed in the fact there are no alcoholic beverages planned thus far. But who needs that stuff right now?

Going to iSimu VR is for those without access to one of the few expensive rigs on the market. Sadly, for anyone who lives further away from the city, the VRcade’s location is in Duluth. It’s more of a schlep for anyone looking to spend an hour playing a game. Guests should be happy to know they do plan on opening more locations and add drinks to them as well.

Clayton Feustal, Ha’s partner at iSimu VR, says the company’s growth through advertising is taking the usual route. “We’re definitely working on expanding, and some events," Feustal said. "That’s something we’re trying to figure out how to do. It’s just a learning curve we’re going through.”

Revery: VR Bar – iSimu VR’s first bit of immediate competition – is a far more contemporary take on the whole “play VR in public” concept. They have craft cocktails under $10. They’re located in Midtown. They spent a lot of money on making everything look cool. But it’s not open yet. The first real information about the new company came from a What Now Atlanta article in April that featured a small interview with one of the owners. They plan on opening in early August.

Vincent Wynn II, co-owner of Revery: VR Bar, notes the differences of the VR gaming spaces. He likens it to a cocktail lounge that happens to offering an uncommon encounter.

“We want to give everyone the chance to try out this new experience,” Wynn wrote over email. “Furthermore, we want our customers to be able to come in and get a good, reasonably priced cocktail in cool ambiance regardless of if they want to play VR or not.”

Revery: VR Bar aims to make the space feel less like an arcade and more of a laid-back lounge. The lighting will give way to a more intimate, more mysterious design. There are semi-private rooms just for VR and a separate bar space for those who just want to drink. Rooms are set up in a way that the entire group is able to watch what the player is doing in their headset. Two large rooms will also be available for large-scale battle royals for the audience’s enjoyment.

He continued by adding Atlanta was seeking new elements of culture besides another bar or club.

“We were looking to offer a premium group experience that wouldn’t break the bank…We see ourselves as a bar first with a new-age element of entertainment,” Wynn wrote. “We are in the age of new folks and new money pouring into town, so why not offer something to get the locals and new people excited?”

His sentiment is right. Like any other major city, Atlanta is constantly on the prowl for inventive ways to entertain its masses. Take SunTrust Park. The new baseball stadium, with a multitude of diversions from baseball itself, is ingenious. Restaurants, concerts, and shopping are a few of the conveniences the addition to the greater Atlanta area offers. Top Golf, another popular attraction, has dining, drinking and a driving range. And people take advantage of at least two of those every day. Wouldn’t it make sense for Revery: VR Bar to do the same? Games are just the beginning for them.

“We have a couple single player experience rooms but mostly group rooms that hold 4+ people, all featuring HTC Vive’s, the most advanced VR headset on the market, and full cocktail service,” Wynn described. “As of now, we will be offering the hottest VR games available, but we are playing with the idea of artist installations, short films or VR live events.”

But neither Ha nor Feustal are bothered by the new business popping up. In fact, they’re more than thankful to welcome in Revery.

“There’s a lot of support from the community,” Feustal chimed in.

“Everybody wants to see everybody succeed,” Ha added.

An Atlanta-based game studio has been developing games for virtual reality since before it was popular. CCP Games, creators of the EVE Online series and its spinoff, EVE Valkyrie, began toying with the Oculus Rift back in 2012.  

Adam Kahn, Senior Director of Communications at CCP Games, recalls when the main studio caught wind of the original kit.

“[Developers in our Reykjavik, Iceland headquarters] first heard about the Oculus Rift Kickstarter," Kahn recalled. "We were one of the first backers of the Kickstarter recreationally. People were just really excited about VR.”

When asked why CCP Games chose Atlanta as its location, Kahn gave the full back-story: “There’s some history here," he said. "Atlanta was the home of White Wolf Games, which was acquired by CCP in 2006. They were a tabletop RPG book company. That went through several iterations. They started up a game to make a massively online multiplayer game for one of the properties that White Wolf had. That development ended in 2014, which led to the creation for this studio for VR games.”

Some of the Atlanta-based designers at the company put some effort in using previously created assets to introduce a build of EVE Valkyrie at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in 2013. Production essentially started for the game later that year and ended when the final version of the Oculus shipped.

 

Outside the borders of VR

Now you’re in the outskirts of London in the early morning hours. And you’re a mobster for some reason. Your now glabrous partner hands you a submachine gun and, with his Cockney accent, instructs you to shoot the guys chasing your getaway car. Of course, you do as you’re told and shoot. But the bad guys are shooting back. Several motorcycles make their way to the side of your car. You manage to shoot the people off; there are even some explosions. Suddenly, an armored van pulls in front of you. A man in tactical armor kicks the back doors open and begins firing RPG rounds at you. After exchanging a few lines with your partner, figuring out how to shoot the ammo crates in the back of the armored truck. Doing so ensures the greatest explosion you’ll see in your lifetime.

What’s interesting for virtual reality is the expanded takes companies are having on it. Even more eye-catching is one museum’s leap over the technology. Madame Tussaud’s New York has a fairly new exhibit wherein users run around like Ghostbusters. Yes, true-to-life Ghostbusters. In The Ghostbusters Experience, groups of up to three can strap on faux proton packs™, scanners and other costume accouterments for a brief safari through a haunted New York apartment complex in Ghostbusters: Dimension. Ghosts, like the infamous Slimer and the ever-gooey Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, roam the streets and it’s up to you to stop them. 

However, this is not virtual reality; it’s “Hyper-Reality” – something entirely different. Hyper-Reality is the practice of imposing digital worlds over real life spaces, working in concert with real-time effects. Both reality and the digital worlds can then be used to traverse fantastical environments from favorite movies or shows.

In an email conversation with Anna Domingo, General Manager of Madame Tussauds New York, she writes on why Ghostbusters: Dimension was a good fit for the museum.

“Madame Tussauds always aims to offer the most entertaining and most unique experiences for our visitors,”  Domingo wrote.

The museum teamed up with Sony Pictures and THE VOID to curate the experience which is said to be different to each person. But the technology behind it is beyond what we conventionally know as VR.

James Jensen, Chief Visionary Officer and co-founder at THE VOID, described the reasoning behind the leap in technology in an email correspondence. He wrote about the company’s main goal: “immersive, social and engaging experiences beyond the limitations of reality.”

Mr. Jensen added that VR has the propensity to be a lonely endeavor as it preoccupies sight and sound. However, the Ghostbusters: Dimension’s use of a playable landscapes can jog other senses.

“With this experience, fans of the Ghostbusters franchise step beyond reality and directly into the Ghostbusters storyline as they experience what it is like to be a Ghostbuster; tracking and trapping supernatural foe through a New York apartment complex in an environment that combines physical props and sets, real-time interactive effects, and VR technology” Jenson specified.

Domingo adds that the godfather of Ghostbusters, director Ivan Reitman, gave his blessing for the project. He even went through it.

“He was impressed with the attention to detail of the entire space” she wrote.

What Madame Tussauds and THE VOID have created is a spectacular new way to play with virtual reality. They’re taking the mechanics and creatively applying them to other uses, reshaping an art yet to be fully formed.

Similarly, Atlanta’s Futurus wants to stand out in their own way.

“We work exclusively in developing for cutting-edge technology like virtual reality, augmented reality and 360 [degree] capture to create experiences for our clients” co-founder of Futurus and the Atlanta Virtual Reality Meetup Annie Eaton wrote over email.

The most stimulating aspect of developing for VR often goes beyond gaming applications. The midtown-based company aims to test the limits of conventional VR. It’s a future technologies firm – Eaton outlined – that started with VR development and consulting, only to go further than their initial ambitions.

“We stay true to our roots by continuing to offer virtual reality experience creation, and it will always be our first love," she wrote. “We started the [meetup] in 2014 to create an outlet for enthusiasts and developers to meet each other and share ideas or technology.”

Futurus uses the meetups as a way for anyone to enjoy VR either for the first or 50th time. Each session is themed, creating an educational environment in which users participate.

“We generally have two types of meetups - expo and education," Eaton described. "For the expo meetups, we welcome anyone with a new project or concept to share what they’ve been developing. The goal is to breed an environment for constructive feedback and expose the community to all that the Atlanta area is creating. On the education side, we have workshops, seminars and panels, alternating with the expo events. We choose a topic (some of which have been recommended by our attendees) and find people in the area with the experience and know how to speak on the subject.”

Evolving the definition of virtual reality is occurring relatively quickly. Feustal recounts the first time he became interested in the medium. His Oculus Rift was on backorder, so he went circumvented the norm to play with a pre-release version of the device.

“One of the first things I did in Atlanta was go to one of the VR meetups," Feustal said. "That was my first experience with the Oculus DK1.”

The DK1 version of the Oculus was released to developers as early as 2014. But in just three years the art has already gone beyond the headset. Hyper-reality essentially sidestepped the maturation of VR.

Mr. Jensen explained the workings of THE VOID’s hyper reality, which was created by one of his co-founders Curtis Hickman – who used unconventional methods.

“[He] is a professional magician with more than 10 years of stage experience. His background in illusion has helped ensure every aspect of the experiences are truly immersive,” he wrote. “The experience is constructed on a custom physical stage, and THE VOID’s proprietary software is used to layer virtual worlds over the physical spaces, which participants are able to see while wearing THE VOID’s proprietary and custom RAPTURE™ gear.”

All of this may sound like technical babble but, what it boils down to is fun. That’s all that Futurus, iSimu VR, THE VOID and Revery: VR Bar want their customers to have. Fun. Now users can do that with their friends by their side.

“I believe half the fun of VR is seeing people really let loose and submerge themselves in the game, so I wanted people to feel somewhat engaged with each other,” said Mr. Wynn. “We have set up our rooms so that everyone in the group can actually see what the person immersed in the virtual environment is experiencing.”

 

An expensive hobby

You decide to get back to mundane life. You go to a job simulation office to see what new career awaits. There’s so many to try; auto mechanic, gourmet chef, store clerk, office worker. Having been in an office all your life, you decide to go with gourmet chef. The first task is to make tea and crumpets for a British tube TV monitor with an English accent. You grab a water pot from the cabinet, fill it up with water and toss it on the stove. A robot companion tells you to get crumpets and put them in a toaster. After several attempts of putting crumpets in the toaster, you’re finally successful. Throwing the food on the plate is as tough as the toaster task but you manage. After a few more hit-or-miss objectives, another floating tube TV monitor robot comes out with a camera to say “that’s a wrap.” It turns out you were on a set the whole time. Your floating robot companion tells you it was an honor to work with you and he hopes to see you again.

Virtual reality’s place in media outside of gaming is not to be overlooked. Every single outlet is trying their hand at it – some version of it anyway. The New York Times has been putting out daily 360 degree videos for over two years, of various lengths and topics. The goal is to educate those watching on issues around the world, all the while the user clicks and drags their view of the video. Looking behind, to the left, and to the right is entirely possible and extremely smooth.

Viewers can visit a 3D model of Pluto’s surface as an unseen voice guides them through the science of the journey. Or join a professional mountaineer as he climbs the World Trade Center. Or see how a healthcare center in Vancouver is helping heroin addicts wean off of the drug or just give them a place to have clean needles. Or see the first hand damage of an airstrike in Yemen. Or watch as 60 million people are uprooted from their homes because of a war-torn country. All of this made possible in virtual reality (don’t worry if you don’t have a headset; you can watch the videos anywhere).

While all of that may sound cool, investing in virtual reality is very expensive. Of course, there are cheaper options like Google’s Carboard or Samsung Gear VR, but those cannot capture the beauty of true virtual reality. For anyone seriously interested, you’ll need a powerful computer and one of the headsets and a set of controllers.

Ha sees iSimu VR as an opportunity for amateurs to get a taste of the fun for a decent price.

“A lot of developers want to see VRcades grow. [It’s] the medium where consumers who don’t have $800 to buy a Vive and another $1000 to buy a computer to run it can come and try out VR, experience VR," he said. "I think the experience is important in the development industry. A lot of people can watch it on TV or see videos of it. Until you try out the technology, you just really don’t know what it’s like.” 

Kahn agrees with the criticism of cost.

“It’s still a lot to swallow for an average player. We’re really hoping the manufacturer can get the price down quickly," he said. "Until they do, it’ll be all about enthusiasts; people who are really dedicated to VR. Anyone who tries it will tell you the ‘it moment’ is now. It’s super compelling. The price needs to come down."

For the birds

The sun is setting in Paris. The Eiffel Tower is seemingly miles away, distance you can most assuredly cover. To your right is Notre Dame. A voice informs you that humans are gone and the wild is slowly taking over urban cities. A bear’s growl can be heard in your left ear as you pass by a bundle of empty apartments. You’re an eagle, flying over the serene wonder of a dystopian Paris. As you near the tower, you can see ivy is creeping up the metal beams and moss patches splotched in random places like a teenager trying to grow out a beard. The voice narrates over your movements: “Nature here can be both beautiful and brutal. But you will find your place...”

One of the most anticipated functions of VR is traveling. A user can slide on a helmet and suddenly take a family trip to Sicily or swim around the Great Barrier Reef or enjoy the architecture of Cusco, Peru.

Eaton suggests traveling with VR can be used for more than vacations.

“I absolutely think it will be key to the future of travel and tourism," she wrote. "We did work at the VA Hospital where we filmed a beach and brought it to retired veterans who hadn’t been to the beach in many years." Their reactions were teary pricelessness. “It will not just have an impact on those who cannot afford to go, but also those who cannot physically travel,” she continued.

Georgia is slowly distancing itself from its typical southern roots. It was recently named the number one place in the world for production.

Kahn is happy with the new attention to the city: "Atlanta -- when you compare it to San Francisco for example, where there are a lot of gaming companies -- cost of living [isn’t] even in the same world. From my point of view, that makes [our city] really attractive” he said happily.

Ha believes that it’s just a matter of time until everything clicks into place. “One of the issues is there may be a lot of developers, but there’s no centralized hub for these developers to meet," Ha stated. “With our VRcade we’re trying to foster or be a place where developers can meet.”

Futurus’s meetups aim to act as the hub Ha describes. In fact, the technology company is working with iSimu VR at this moment to set up their next event. Eaton noted that one of the biggest issues of procuring a space for a meetup can be the location not having the proper equipment to run everything. But that doesn’t worry her too much. She sees the city strive for VR excellence.

“I can name off the top of my head dozens of people who have been working, successfully, in this space and it’s only growing,” Eaton wrote. “We’re generating fantastic talent from local schools and with the promotion of the tech community by the private and public sectors, we’re going to grow quickly. I feel fortunate to be in the center of it all at such an exciting time.”

Wynn is also ready for the VR boom in the city. And he should be with Revery: VR Bar’s prime real estate.

“We wanted to be close to Georgia State, Georgia Tech, and Emory gamers, but not far from our Edgewood and Poncey-Highland ragers [sic] and we landed on a spot right in the middle,” Wynn said. “Luckily, we are a destination type of bar, otherwise I wouldn’t advise being in the back of a building. But we have our little cove of fun.”

Virtual reality is a tricky beast. It’s not something that can be mastered easily. There are nuances creators must consider. Is what the viewer or player looking at interesting? Can they have repeat trips to this destination? Will they be able to easily show their friends? Will said friends be as amazed? Does this help justify the user’s purchase of a headset and computer?

Whether or not a VR project can answer even one of those questions is solely up to the people creating applications for it. Atlanta is the prime place to start up virtual reality development. It’s a good thing the medium isn’t limited to gaming. Movies, shows, concerts and more can, and should, be experienced through VR (to the very least 360-degree videos). As the city welcomes film and television development, so too does it recognize the new art form of virtual reality. 

Chad White works in the 11Alive digital department and can be found on Twitter sometimes.

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