After sitting in traffic for nearly two hours, I was thrilled as I walked through the Hollywood and Highland Center passing numerous people with the familiar lanyard-badge combo on my way to the Loews Hollywood Hotel.  I walked into the lobby of the hotel, freshly invigorated by the rush of Hollywood, and found myself surrounded by lots of people who looked techy – a mix of young and old with most dressed in pseudo-business casual clothing.  I eagerly checked in and got my lanyard and badge and headed to the main hall for the Keynote talks.

Sitting down, I quickly noticed the high production value present – it felt like a high-end concert venue with the huge stage, gigantic video screen, wispy fog, and complex stage lights.  Even though I knew Unity was putting this on, I was still surprised by the overall quality of the experience.  Before the talk started, I sat and soaked in the excitement that was nearly tangible in the room. I listened as people excitedly discussed the demos they most wanted to see, the people they were most eager to hear talk, and what they wanted to do while in Hollywood.  There were people with a lot of experience and people brand new to the world of XR.  (XR is a word I heard for the first time at this conference – it stands for Extended Reality and it’s an all-encompassing term for Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed Reality experiences.

The show started off with flashy light movements, loud electronic music, and a show reel of stunning-looking VR and AR experiences built with Unity.  Lights moved, people whooped and cheered (I saw several people fist pumping to the music, too), and the first speaker, Tony Parisi – Unity’s global head of VR/AR – came onto the stage.  The next two hours were full of moving, inspirational, and intelligent talks about the industry.  From deeply emotional to highly technical the talks covered a wide range of topics.

My personal favorite talk was from Maureen Fan of Baobab Studios (the folks behind Invasion!, Asteroids!, and Rainbow Crow – if you haven’t heard of them, you should check them out!).  She gave a talk in which she covered what VR is to her.  She discussed personal topics (e.g. her parents telling her she’d never succeed if she wanted to pursue animation) and technical topics (e.g. the custom shaders that they built using Unity for their most recent film Rainbow Crow).  She ended the talk with rejecting the common notion of VR not being a unique medium by saying that VR is unique because it “brings together the empathy of film, the agency of games, and the motivation of life”.  Overall, she left the audience feeling inspired and empowered to go forth and create their own content – just like she once did when she started Baobab Studios.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the final talk which ended up being a conversation between surprise guest Brendan Iribe (co-founder of Oculus!) and John Riccitiello.  He covered a wide range of topics, but it was refreshing to see that someone in his position was still so passionate about what he was working on.  It could be easy to let the fame and fortune go to his head, but Brendan was incredibly down-to-earth and encouraging to everyone just starting out their careers in the world of XR.

The rest of my day was spent in more personalized breakout sessions that took place in three different breakout rooms.  These were more casual and more conversational.  There was a vast range of topics from social issues like “Social Impact and VR” and “Sex, Violence, & Propaganda: Ethical Conundrums in VR” to technical tutorials “XR Graphics in Unity: Maximizing Your Game’s Potential” and “Improving Your Applications with VRWorks and Ansel”.  I enjoyed attending these a lot.

Finally, there was the expo hall which had a vast range of demos being showcased.  There were some amazing demos being shown.  Baobab was screening Rainbow Crow, One Hamsa was touting a huge green screen space where players could play Racket: NX while being placed directly in the game environment live on screen for spectators to watch, and Blueprint Reality was showing off their their game Awaken while using their tool MixCast VR which places users directly in game environments live without a need for a green screen at all!

Overall, the majority of people at the conference expressed a cheerful optimism about the future XR.  Everyone understood that consumer XR isn’t fully here yet – but maintained an incredibly hopeful and encouraging tone for the future.  There was a lot of emphasis on the importance of new developers and smaller teams and how these were the companies that will forge the true future of VR – not just the Microsofts, the Googles, and the HTCs of the world.

VR is so close to being here, and these conferences are what keep proving that to me.  Looking at this conference for instance – there was a huge turnout and it was held in the heart of Hollywood, there were winding lines, there was fantastic catering – it was an event.  There’s also VRLA which more than quadrupled in size for this year’s event at the LA Convention Center from last year’s event (the whole conference from last year would have fit in the space just one exhibitor from this year).  People both in the industry and out of the industry are excited and eager to embrace XR and as prices continue to drop and diverse content continues to be produced, XR will become more of a commonplace thing.

Personally, I can’t wait to see what the future holds and I’m thrilled to be a part of shaping the future of musical theatre using XR technologies here at Apples and Oranges.  If you’re interested in hearing more about what we’re doing with XR and the world of theatre, signup for our newsletter below!

About the Author

Zach Anderson is Apples and Orange’s Studios Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality developer. He’s obsessed with futuristic technology and is currently working on creating AR tools to aid teams through the creative process and crafting exciting new VR experiences to enable a rich, interactive future of musical theatre. When he’s not working, he’s probably playing with the Vive or spending time with his his two cats, Amy and Alex.