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Recently, I spoke at VRTO2018 in Toronto, Canada—which gave me a chance to see some of the bleeding edge tech in VR, AR, and Mixed Reality. Of all the VR tech I encountered there, it was Psychic VR Lab’s creation Styly that captured my imagination most of all.

Terrence McKenna once described virtual reality as a “technology that will help us show each other our dreams.” He discussed this angle at length, finding that VR’s potential to share our subjective experiences with each other on an embodiment-based medium, to have vast consequences for our species. “In the cyberdelic future, artists will rule because the world will be made of art.” McKenna further speculated that he saw VR as a potential next step in the evolution of language itself. When and how and with what technology this will be achieved has been an open question. Yet, with the arrival of Tokyo-based company Psychic VR Lab and their new tool Styly, we seem within closer striking distance to McKenna’s dream of “inhabiting” the imagination more than ever before.

Psychic VR Lab made a splash in 2015 by providing a website that hosted and processed images using Google’s phantasmagoric Deep Dream. Their new project Styly is a hyper-user-friendly platform for creating shareable VR worlds. The browser-based interface consists of just a few buttons. Model content can be browsed and imported from a variety of pre-existing libraries like Sketchfab, 3D Warehouse, Unity’s asset store, and Google Poly. This means you do not need to make your own models from scratch — they can be imported in. Images can be uploaded from Instagram, videos from YouTube (including 360 videos), and music from Soundcloud are all a single click away. Mp3s and image files can be imported from you desktop, and it also supports Unity, SketchUp, Blender, Tilt Brush, Blocks, Maya, and Mixamo.

For me, the Styly interface had about a 12-minute learning curve — And I have not played with a modeling or animation program for about 15 years. The first thing I created was a Gigeresque nightmare world, and it took less than half an hour to build.

Eliott Edge’s unreleased H. R. Giger-inspired VR world

Though still a fresh tech, what Styly made vividly clear to me was that one of the big winners in the ongoing race for VR supremacy is going to be whoever develops the first VR Instagram. Instagram was an easy-to-use streamlining of several kinds of image editing software. It ended up becoming the most successful prosumable photograph tech since the Polaroid — and far outstripping it.

“The future lies in the realization of beauty — making it more and more explicit.”

Another wonderful feature of Psychic VR Lab’s Styly tool is a gallery for users to share their own VR worlds with each other. This gallery feature, along with their easy-to-use VR world builder, is McKenna’s VR philosophy in full effect. McKenna pointed out throughout his career: whoever democratizes VR world building and sharing for user-producers, prosumers, call them what you will — artists — whatever company or tech that enables the spirit of the artist in us, just as Instagram has, is the one that is by definition going to be the most overwhelming novel, interesting, and important. The alternative VRs are going to be who has the best sandbox community, the best market-researched Whateverworld, the most addictive Blockchain Casino, the most useful listen-to-me-talk speakerspace, and so on. All that is inevitable. Nevertheless, it is whoever enables the artists that is worthy of attention; because whoever enables the artists enables the future.

Styly’s user gallery of VR worlds

The easy-to-use prosumer angle is one that will likely be the most interesting and the most ethically and spiritually important when it comes to the VR question. As McKenna said:

“The importance of virtual reality, as I see it, is that it is a technology that will allow us to show each other our dreams. We will be able to build structures in the imagination that we cannot now share with each other. I imagine a world where children begin to build their virtual realities when they are five, six, seven. By the time they are twenty these virtual realities might be, practically speaking, the size of Manhattan. Well, then what real intimacy will mean is saying to someone ”Would you like to visit my world?” My world with my visions, my values, my dreams, my fears. In a sense, what virtual reality is, is a strategy to let us turn ourselves inside out. So that we see each other’s minds […] But virtual reality is going to allow us to share much much more of ourselves. After all my reality is not how I look. My reality is who I am. And the only way I could give that to you is by inviting you inside.”

Groups like Psychic VR Lab and tools like Styly are helping to make McKenna’s cyberdelic vision a reality.

Enjoy 8 hours of McKenna discussing VR and the Future.

Originally published at Medium

2016 has been called the year that virtual reality becomes a reality, as some of the most anticipated devices will be made available on the consumer market. From Magic Leap (valued at over $1 billion) to Oculus (acquired by Facebook last year for $2 billion), there’s plenty of interest in the market, and ample room for it.

Though virtual reality is often depicted as an experience for the recliner or gaming chair, a number of VR enthusiasts want us to rethink how we engage with the technology. Instead of sitting around, they’d like to get us moving and looking beyond the go-to medium of gaming. Developers of these new devices consider fields like military training and healthcare as valuable places for mobile virtual reality to be applied.

Leading this approach is a Kickstarter VR company called Virtuix, whose treadmill-like device Omni encourages users to get upright and active. The reason to develop such a device felt like a natural evolution to Virtuix’s former Product Manager, Colton Jacobs.

“If I am walking in the virtual world my avatar is actually walking…”, he says, “…then the body’s natural reaction is, I want to stand up, I want to be walking with this avatar as if I’m actually there.”

Virtuix's Omni
Virtuix’s Omni

Users first slip on a pair of Omni’s $60 slippery-bottomed shoes before stripping into a lower body harness, which allows them to shuffle and slide their feet over the surface of the device. The device looks like a treadmill, but the track doesn’t actually move; rather, the shuffling and sliding motions register on the track and translate into the VR program being used. Shuffle forward, and your character moves forward. Shuffle backward, and your character back pedals. The resulting movement is somewhat awkward looking from the outside, but a reportedly smooth and consistent experience for the user.

Engadget had a chance to try out the device earlier this year and gave a positive review: “Even the easy mode that I tried, wherein you fire where you look rather than where the gun is pointing – had my heart pounding.” Testing games like Doom and Call of Duty, Engadget reporter Andrew Tarantola recounts his experience:

“The generic ‘base defense’ shooter game that I tried blew me away. Having to actually move, turn, look around and aim was incredibly immersive and added a completely new level of gameplay. There’s no more sprint button. If you want to run faster, then you really have to run faster. I was sweating by the end of my session — and grinning harder than I have in years.”

Meanwhile, Jacobs describes Omni as an immersive experience like few others. Where your standard, handheld controls allow you to manipulate your character’s movement by toggling a joystick, Omni facilitates movement by mimicking the user’s movement.

“You can walk, run, jump, turn around 360 degrees and act out your virtual avatar’s motions. We’re doing motion tracking ourselves to the lower body so we’re going to be able to tell what direction you’re walking in and how fast you’re moving, jumping, side stepping, things like that and translate that into analog movement in the virtual world.”

Though he acknowledges gaming as the default medium for immersive VR devices, Jacobs envisions Omni’s technology applied beyond gaming.

“The gaming market is a great first adopter market for us,” he says. “That being said, we’ve had multiple orders for military installations, West Point Navy installations, where they’re doing training simulation for some emergency and disaster training… instead of sending soldiers out to the field, they can actually just do training for various types of scenarios in the virtual world together.”

By getting soldiers to actually act out the movement, they’re able to simulate the physicality of real-world scenarios more realistically than can be done with a hand-held controller.

Virtuix likely won’t stop with entertainment and military training. According to Jacobs, the company has looked into healthcare — particularly physical therapy and recovery – as a field that would greatly benefit from a device like Omni.

“We’ve had multiple universities around the world actually, go ahead and order the Omni and they’re looking to test it for various different rehabilitation, also research. Stroke survivors is one of our big ones. A traditional treadmill can get someone up and walking in a straight line but a lot of the dangers that they have when they’re walking around in their home or just walking in general is when they have to turn corners. When they have to go around an object, that’s when they have a higher fall risk. Our system could potentially help to reactivate those muscles after a major neurological attack like a stroke or Alzheimer’s.”

Though virtual reality is already used in healthcare, some ask why there isn’t hasn’t been more innovation in this area by the virtual reality industry. Perhaps Omni could be a useful bridge in moving the technology forward.

Of course, an important component in such applications is ensuring that the system is safe. After all, the thought of wearing a head mounted display (HMD) while sliding around a track sounds like an accident waiting to happen.

“Safety is definitely a top priority,” Jacobs says. “You can’t actually see your surroundings while you’re in the Omni. You need to be strapped in, make sure you’re safe, but you’re also standing on a frictionless surface. You have to watch a video of this to really understand, it’s very hard to say in words.”

But so far, Omni has stood up to the gaming obstacles, which speaks to potential opportunities for use in healthcare-type settings.

“With our harness and our safety support structure, we’ve never had anyone fall on the Omni, especially in a high-intensity gaming situation; it’s even more intense when there’s zombies flying at you.”

Human civilization has always been a virtual reality. At the onset of culture, which was propagated through the proto-media of cave painting, the talking drum, music, fetish art making, oral tradition and the like, Homo sapiens began a march into cultural virtual realities, a march that would span the entirety of the human enterprise. We don’t often think of cultures as virtual realities, but there is no more apt descriptor for our widely diverse sociological organizations and interpretations than the metaphor of the “virtual reality.” Indeed, the virtual reality metaphor encompasses the complete human project.

Figure 2

Virtual Reality researchers, Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson, write in their book Infinite Reality; “[Cave art] is likely the first animation technology”, where it provided an early means of what they refer to as “virtual travel”. You are in the cave, but the media in that cave, the dynamic-drawn, fire-illuminated art, represents the plains and animals outside—a completely different environment, one facing entirely the opposite direction, beyond the mouth of the cave. When surrounded by cave art, alive with movement from flickering torches, you are at once inside the cave itself whilst the media experience surrounding you encourages you to indulge in fantasy, and to mentally simulate an entirely different environment. Blascovich and Bailenson suggest that in terms of the evolution of media technology, this was the very first immersive VR. Both the room and helmet-sized VRs used in the present day are but a sophistication of this original form of media VR tech.

Read entire essay here

A Lifeboat guest editorial

Richelle Ross-sRichelle Ross is a sophomore at the University of Florida, focusing on statistics and data science. As a crypto consultant, she educates far beyond the campus. Her insight on the evolution and future of Bitcoin has been featured in national publications. Richelle writes for CoinDesk, LinkedIn, and Quora, providing analysis on Bitcoin’s evolving economy.

In 2003, I remember going to see my first IMAX 3D film,
Space Station . My family was touring NASA at Cape Canaveral Florida. The film was an inside view into life as an astronaut enters space. As the astronauts tossed M&Ms to each other in their new gravity-free domain, the other children and space_station_1I gleefully reached our hands out to try and touch the candy as it floated towards us. I had never experienced anything so mind-blowing in my 7 year life. The first 3D film was released in 1922. Yet, surprisingly, flat entertainment has dominated screens for in the 9½ decades that followed. Only a handful of films have been released in 3D—most of them are animated. But now, we are gradually seeing a shift in how people experience entertainment. As methods evolve and as market momentum builds, it promises to be one of the most groundbreaking technologies of the decade. I foresee Virtual Reality reaching a point where our perception of virtual and real-life experiences becomes blurred—and eventually—the two become integrated.

Ever since pen was put to paper, and camera to screen, audiences have enjoyed being swept into other worlds. For those of us “dreamers” being able to escape into these stories is one way we live through and expand our understanding of other times and places—even places space_station_2that may not be accessible in our lifetimes. Virtual reality is the logical progression and natural evolution of these experiences.

I caught the VR bug after one of my Facebook contacts was posting about it and sharing 360 degree videos that were of no use to me unless I too had the headset. Having been a Samsung user for the last several years, I purchased the Samsung VR headset to understand what all the hype was. Just as with my childhood experience visiting the space station, the VR Introduction video sent me floating across the universe. But this time, it was much more compelling. I could turn my head in any direction and experience a vast heavenly realm in 3D vision and tied to my own movements. Behind me was a large planet and in front were dozens of asteroids slowly moving by.

Similar to visiting the Grand Canyon, this is one of those novel experiences you really have to experience to appreciate. Within about ten seconds of trying it out, I had become hooked. I realized that I was experiencing something with far greater potential than an amusement park roller coaster, yet I also recognized that any applications I might imagine barely scratch the surface. This unexpected adrenaline rush is what leads tinkerers to the imaginative leaps that push new technologies into the next decades ahead.

Video games are probably the industry everyone thinks of being affected by this new paradigm. I immediately thought about the Star Wars franchise with its ever expanding universe. It will be a pretty exciting day when you can hold a lightsaber hilt that comes to life when you wear a headset and allows you to experience that universe from your living room. You could even wear a sensored body suit that allows you to feel little zaps or vibrations during gameplay. With more connected devices, the possibility of Li-Fi replacing Wi-Fi and so on, video games are just scratching the surface.

I discussed what the future of VR could offer with Collective Learning founder, Dan Barenboym. We explored various difficulties that impede market adoption. Barenboym was an early enthusiast of virtual reality, having worked with a startup that plans to deploy full-body scanners that give online life to gamers. The project began long before the film Avatar. Berenboym suggests ways that this would improve online shopping dan_barenboym_5624sby allowing people to see their avatar with their own personal measurements in various outfits. This doesn’t have to be limited to at-home experiences though. Dan suggests that instead of walking into the boutique changing room, you walk into one with mirrors connected to VR software. Your reflection ‘tries on’ different virtual outfits before you pull your favorite one off the store rack.

We also discussed the current obstacles of VR like the headset itself, which is a hindrance in some respects as it is a bit uncomfortable to wear for prolonged use. The other looming issue is money. There are many ideas similar to the ones we brainstormed, but startups may struggle to get off the ground without sufficient funding. The Oculus Rift is one great example of how crowdfunding can help entrepreneurs launch their ideas. It is easier than ever before to share and fund great ideas through social networking.

Facebook creator, Mark Zuckerberg, shared his own vision in 2014 after acquiring the Oculus Rift. Zuckerberg eloquently summarized the status of where we’re headed:

Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction. But the internet was also once a dream, and so were computers and smartphones. The future is coming and we have a chance to build it oculus_rift-transtogether.”

What could this mean for the social networking that Zuckerberg pioneered? I’d venture to say the void of a long distance relationship may be eased with VR immersion that allows you to be with your family at the click of a button. You could be sitting down in your apartment in the U.S., but with the help of a 360 camera, look around at the garden that your mother is tending to in the U.K. The same scenario could be applied to a classroom or business meeting. We already have global and instant communication, so it will serve to add an enriched layer to these interactions.

The concept of reality itself is probably the biggest factor that makes virtual reality so captivating. Reality is not an objective experience. Each of us has a perspective of the world that is colored by our childhood experiences, personality, and culture. Our inner dialogues, fantasies of who we want to become, and areas of intelligence determine so much of what we’re able to accomplish and choose to commit to outside of ourselves. Michael Abrash describes how VR works with our unconscious brain perceptions to make us believe we’re standing on the edge of a building that isn’t really there. At a conscious level, we accept that we are staring at a screen, but our hearts still race—based on an unconscious perception of what is happening. Tapping into this perception-changing part of our brain allows us to experience reality in new ways.

As VR becomes more mainstreamed and incorporated into all areas of our lives such as online shopping, socializing, education, recreation, etc., the degrees of separation from the real world that society applies to it will lessen. Long-term, the goal for VR would be to allow us to use any of our senses and body parts. We should see continued improvements in the graphics and interaction capabilities of VR, allowing for these experiences to feel as real as they possibly can.

One can only imagine the new vistas this powerful technology will open—not just for entertainment, but for education, medicine, working in hazardous environments or controlling machines at a distance. Is every industry planning to incorporate the positive potential of virtual reality? If not, they certainly should think about the potential. As long as we pay attention to present day needs and issues, engineering virtual reality in the Internet of Things promises to be a fantastic venture.

Author’s Note:

Feedback from Lifeboat is important. I’ll be back from time to time. Drop me a note on the comment form, or better yet, add your comment below. Until then, perhaps we will meet in the virtual world.
— RR