Canada Takes on Virtual Reality

E21_Canadas Take on VR

What do Google, Sony, Samsung, Microsoft and Facebook have in common in Canada? They are all mega players in the field of Virtual Reality.

Canada has become one of the leading hubs of Virtual Reality (VR) activity in the world. Vancouver was the largest center of VR development in Canada until Montreal took over that spot by a hair because of a much better tax credit situation.

What made Vancouver such a world-class hub can be attributed to a couple of unique variables. Firstly, Vancouver is a hotspot for hi-tech companies in general. It might be because of its closeness to Silicon Valley, the tax incentives the province offers to draw innovation, or the amazing amount of support mechanisms in place to nurture hi-tech startups. The BC Innovation Council encourages the development and application of advanced or innovative technologies with programs and initiatives that creates jobs and promotes economic development in the province. Their mandate is to support startups and developing entrepreneurs by helping them accelerate technological commercialization.

Secondly, Vancouver is a global leader in game development. It wasn’t hard to see that coming, with an anchor tenant like Electronic Arts making such an impact in so many areas. The ecosystem for gaming is robust and supportive. It has a scholarly facet to it as well, Simon Fraser University (SFU) and the University of British Columbia (UBC) both are leaders in VR research. SFU, in their iSpace Research Program, investigates what constitutes effective, robust, and intuitive human spatial orientation and behavior. This fundamental knowledge will be applied to design novel, more effective human computer interfaces and interaction paradigms that enable similarly effective processes in computer mediated environments like virtual reality (VR), immersive gaming, and multimedia.

The Vancouver Film School (VFS) is also a leader in educating future game developers with their game design and programming programs.

For the unversed, VR is a computer technology that allows you to experience an immersive experience in which your head movements are tracked in a three-dimensional world using an interface. This is well suited to games and even movies.

VR is definitely the next big thing. I know we’ve heard that before – remember 3D? 3D never really took off because it didn’t live up to its hype; but how could it? You are looking into a scene, not really part of it, and after awhile you see it as an effect not being immersive, which was the point in the first place. It never really took you there, to be part of the scene. If you wanted the 3D effect in your home, you would need a movie-sized screen in your living room.

With VR, it’s immersive, it transports you into a 3D world, and it delivers the promise of an experience beyond what you expect. It takes 100% of your vision and immerses you into the scene you’re watching. You know what I mean, if you have experienced watching a game with Oculus Rift eyewear – you are in it. If you haven’t experienced it yourself, you may have seen people wearing the Oculus flailing about and moving as if they are waist deep in alligators fighting for their life. They probably are because the VR takes them right into the action.

VR tends to be all-immersive by definition, but the ones that can take you to the next level – feeling the presence, is experiential and mind-blowing. When you are in a VR room scale setup you experience the six degrees of freedom tracking; front, back, sideways and up and down. I’m afraid to buy one because I’d probably forego work and stay at home to immerse myself.

The whole point of VR is to feel like you are somewhere else, doing something else, whether it’s to scare yourself silly or experience something you wouldn’t consider or be able to do in real life – like flying like Superman. The goal for next year is to lose the wires and take it yet another level.

The major players are coming into VR in force, but the Indies continue to lead the way with Research and development and innovation. From heavy investment to mega tech companies, everyone is converging to build VR. The indies are the ones pushing the edges in technology. If you remember the technologies from the past that worked in a vacuum and failed to get traction, today’s developers are forming strategic partnerships with hardware manufacturers to make a seamless platform that is going places.

CCS Insight, the marketing information, analysis and intelligence firm, recently published a report – Augmented and Virtual Reality Device Forecast, 2015-2019 – that states hardware device sales will increase 10 fold to 24 million in 2018. That’s coming a long way from the introduction of the high-end and very expensive Oculus Rift. For those of you who think the only way to enjoy VR is to buy one of these pricey units at $1000 there are a few entry points to the VR experience.

From the Google cardboard VR device to the Gamers choice Oculus, each will give you a different experience. The Google cardboard will give you a taste of VR, it’s primitive, but at $20 it’s money well spent if you have never tried a VR device. The mobile VR world like the Samsung Gear VR is more interesting and certainly affordable for around a hundred bucks, but it lacks those six degrees of freedom. The experience from mobile VR, is that, while it is cool, you really don’t want to spend much time in it. It’s just the feeling you get.

Sony made the biggest leap and did a great job doing it with their VR system that attaches to their PlayStation 4. With solid hardware and 50 million PlayStation users, they need to increase production to meet the demand. This is ‘good’ VR and if it’s your first introduction to VR, you will be satisfied until you try… the Oculus.

The granddaddy of VR, or rather the one that made it popular, is Oculus Rift. Right up there with it is the HTC Vive. Some say the Hive is better than the Oculus because of its 78 sensors, a full 360-degree view and a cheaper price tag than the Oculus. The company behind the Hive is Valve, that has developed a humongous gaming ecosystem for it. I think this is the best overall VR system on the market now.

It’s clear that the consumer has only been waiting for good quality equipment before joining the VR world. IDC forecasts worldwide revenues for the AR/VR market to grow from $5.2 billion in 2016 to more than $162 billion in 2020, a compound growth rate of 181.3%.

My interest in VR and the people creating it comes from my experience with a new Vancouver ‘player’, Blueprint Reality. Blueprint is doing to VR what Apple has done to the first ‘brick’ phone. Innovation and a philosophy that if they build the tools to help themselves in conjunction with building a product, they will have exceptional tools to sell to other developers and a product for consumers.

CEO of Blueprint, Tarrnie Williams, said, “For the first time in history, the state of the art in Virtual Reality has the ability to emotionally transport people beyond our world.” He goes on to say, that “As a creator, I’ve spent my career building games to give people amazing experiences outside their normal lives, and now we can truly deliver. I’ve never been more excited about the journeys we can build and the stories we can tell.”

“It’s a very exciting time in the industry, and I’m truly thrilled that Tarrnie and his team have turned their attention to creating games and stories for Virtual Reality. I expect great things and look forward to seeing their products reach the market soon.” said Gael Seydoux, Director of Immersive Research and Innovation Lab at Technicolor, a worldwide technology leader in the media and entertainment sector also pushing the boundaries of storytelling in VR.

These guys at Blueprint are pioneers in the VR industry in Vancouver and as one of their team, Ben Sheftel, CTO, told me, they are constantly “seeking newer, more efficient approaches to game development, and I think that will be of great benefit to this new wave of creators.”

Blueprint is going places. They are launching their first big game and developer tools at the VRX Conference in San Francisco on Dec. 7 & 8. As VRX states on their website, “Put Your Business at the Forefront as Virtual Reality Goes Mainstream”.

This company is definitely creating a lot of buzz in Vancouver and with a seed round ramping up to raise $750,000, their vision of creating the best tools to create the highest quality VR will go from virtual to reality.

This is the REAL thing!

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