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The Coming of Age of Virtual Reality

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An Interview with VR Innovator Tony Parisi

tony.jpegWhen Tony Parisi visited a downtown San Francisco tech meetup dedicated to virtual reality this fall — the enthusiasm from the small group of developers was palpable. After all, for most of them, it was their first time meeting one of the original godfathers of virtual reality. “How many of you love Oculus Rift?” he asked the group. Most of the hands in the room shot up. “And how many of you are excited about waiting over a year to get your hands on one?” he asked only half seriously. The hands dropped like flies until Tony brought them back in with the promise of VR in their pockets, available on the very smartphones they use to call, text, and tweet every day.

That’s the promise of DIYVR, or do-it-yourself virtual reality. A movement that Tony, DODOcase, and others in the developer community are espousing as the equivalent of a free and open internet. It’s the ability to develop and code VR applications in a way that’s as simple as building a web page. So when DODOcase Co-Founder Patrick Buckley reached out to Parisi about realizing the dream of an open ecosystem for developing VR applications, he was more than game for the adventure.

Since Tony and the team here at DODOcase got in sync, we’ve launched a Kickstarter to achieve that mission. The funds we raise will go towards adding new developer tools to Tony’s 3D coding web language, GLAM (GL And Markup), that enables the easy building of apps that can run on any smartphone browser via WebGL. Our goal is to put more VR power into the hands of web developers — and in just our first few days we’ve surpassed our initial fundraising goals, putting us on the way to raising substantial crowdfunded capital for the creation of a robust, vibrant, and open ecosystem for VR creation. Learn more about our Kickstarter here, and please cast your vote with a contribution towards the developer democratization of virtual reality.

After the Kickstarter launch, we sat down with Tony to chat all things VR, including Oculus Rift, owning the future, Lawnmower Man, our Matrix-filled couch potato VR entranced future selves… oh, and how VR might help save the world.

How did you hook up with the crew here at DODOcase?

DODOcase had created this fantastic version of Google Cardboard — more affordable, easier to construct — that transforms any smartphone into a VR viewer with a simple piece of paper and the device already in your pocket; so they were definitely on my radar. But then one day over the summer I received an email from Patrick Buckley, Co-Founder of DODOcase. When I met with the team, they showed me their better version of Google Cardboard, walked me through the reception it had received, and the fact they had something like 10,000 units in production just seven weeks after Google had announced their product. I was suitably impressed. And we started talking about this idea of do-it-yourself virtual reality — beyond the hardware, or cardware, if you will — and taking this notion of VR-for-all into the developer community, we really felt like we had an idea we could run with.

How did the movement behind DIYVR (do-it-yourself virtual reality) come about?

It’s the idea that any web developer anywhere can create untethered virtual reality experiences that have the potential to transform every industry from education to automotive. And that they can do it all without spending thousands on big VR developer firms or expensive, hard to get equipment. They can build VR for everyone, those 2 billion plus people with a smartphone — and they can do it today. No single corporation should have the reins over the next virtual frontier of communication and storytelling. And thus, DIYVR was born. And so I’ve been working with DODOcase since then, talking about what the right set of platform pieces are and the ideas I had been exploring around adding VR building tools to my own open source platform for 3D web development called GLAM (GL And Markup). And they loved the idea.

What’s your GLAM coding language and how does VR play into it?

Well I had been actively working on my project called GLAM for the better part of last year, just to do 3D visualization with web-based programming language in order to build 3D applications for anything. I had my first public presentation of GLAM six months ago at an HTML5 developer conference. And I just did another meetup around a month ago in the city and it has been extremely well received.

So, in parallel with all this, virtual reality has been exploding, and I was starting to look at how to bring virtual reality together with the GLAM framework. Some of these tools are sort of out there in various forms — there are libraries that are doing WebGL development, and the browsers (Chrome, Safari, Opera, Firefox) are now giving you a way to do Oculus head tracking and stereo rendering. But now with VR Cardboard, you don’t even need new support from the browsers — your mobile browser can do it all. You can simply render your scene twice for each eye and use the built-in tracking on the phone. It all just works. And it works on the phones we all have today.

Tell us a bit about the Kickstarter campaign and what you hope to achieve for open virtual reality web tools?

We’ve put together this Kickstarter so we can get support from the world to really build out this open platform. I’ve got a working set of library code for GLAM, and we need added efforts to make it VR ready. For example, we can create tags to let you quickly say, “okay, I am going to make this stereo rendered scene for Cardboard, please track the scene for me so I don’t have to figure out how to write that code,” and the camera will move automatically. All you need to do is put the content in there. And all that should be able to come from writing some markup language and having an easy way to import content from professional tools like 3D Studio Max, SketchUp, or Blender. The idea being, if you are a 3D artist, you can team up with a web programmer and in about a month have a really cool Cardboard VR app.

So, my goal is for anybody who can code to be able to author this stuff. With the money from the Kickstarter campaign, we can build the basic Cardboard support into GLAM, give developers more widgets to work with, and create an array of automatic behaviors to develop around so they don’t have to invent so much themselves.

And if we raise a lot of money, we’ll actually start building out a back end infrastructure for people to publish and share. That’s the paramount goal of the whole thing. We would like to see a democratized platform for development, and then what would essentially be a WordPress style environment, where people can freely author and publish VR applications for phones without friction. That’s the ultimate vision.

What has the developer community response been so far?

The VR enthusiasts really like the ideas behind GLAM and DIYVR, because it’s going to lower barriers to entry for developers to make things and for consumers, educators, and gamers to get their hands on it. So it’s been an incredibly good response so far. The fact that we reached our initial Kickstarter target in a few days is proof of that.

How does the more affordable Cardboard compare to the high-end products like Oculus Rift?

I was at the first Oculus Connect Conference earlier this year, a few months back, and they showed Crescent Bay, which is essentially the third version of their developer kit for the project. And it blew my mind, it just floored me. I mean, I was like — I was in another place. The graphics were amazingly rich. There were certainly things that weren’t perfect about it, but it had nothing to do with the Rift at that point. It was more like I’m in this wonderful virtual room. There is a chair, whoops, I can’t sit down, because I am going to fall on my ass, because there’s no actual chair there. It becomes the different sort of human factors issues at that point. But the experience is incredible. I can’t wait for that to become a commercial product. And it looks to be headed for living rooms with the immersive entertainment experience and the high production value that comes with that.

But from my point of view, all of this wonderful platform stuff doesn’t matter if you’re not reaching users. And DODOcase is reaching eyeballs with their iPad cases and now with their Cardboard VR. It’s just fabulous. They have a distribution pipeline and they’ve got a great product.

And personally, I don’t get that same feeling from the major headsets that I get from doing a Cardboard based experience. And maybe it’s because they’re shorter form of experiences. These tend to be two minute experiences, not the full, deep in — I’m going to play a whole game with it. And I love those shorter, bite-size experiences with Cardboard.

In terms of the other tech coming — the Samsung Gear VR is really cool. I really liked all the demos I’ve seen. It is pretty promising. And the visuals look amazing. But it’s going to cost around $1000 bucks to get into that game as a consumer. You have around a $200 headset plus a $800 phone (less with carrier subsidies). Whatever the cost there, it’s nothing like DIYVR. It’s just not affordable.

Do you see a larger technology play with virtual reality and ownership of our digital future?

Absolutely. I kind of see it as a David versus Goliath situation. Large corporations spending billions of dollars trying to create an infrastructure that could pay back in spades for them on the one hand. And then on the other hand, a lot of DIY, lean, small startups, individuals, independents, not for profits — the whole gamut being able to create an entire ecosystem of stuff.

And in the long haul, I believe David is going to win. Just take the internet and the web as an analog to that. When the web got started it was kind of a homebrew — bulletin board people, geeks, researchers — and although we had all these fancy tools for making web documents, people self-published their own web pages, instantly shared them, updated them, and the world wide web was born.

To bring it back to today and how a free and open web is a great example for the virtual reality community — think about what the internet would be today if you had to download an app every time you want to see this week’s news? We wouldn’t have the same openness and access anymore. VR needs to be the same — equally free and open. It needs to be instantly publishable, and instantly accessible.

You’ve been working in the VR space for over 20 years… what originally interested you about VR?

I love visual media. I’m a geek, I grew up with comic books. And comic books are about two things: pretty pictures and about how anything is possible. The imagination was the only limit. And so, for me, VR is the ultimate embodiment of that kind of idea. It offers us the opportunity to realize those dreams and fulfill our imaginations. To me, that’s the whole thing.

What was your background and schooling that brought you into 3D development and VR especially in those early days?

I went to school for Computer Science at UMass. And I got an A+ in my linear algebra final, which is a form of mathematics that turned out to be indispensable for doing 3D graphics. Later I spent time working as a software engineer at a couple of companies, including Lotus — the folks that invented spreadsheets. And then I worked at a small startup.

Then, in the early ‘90s, my wife and I decided to move out to San Francisco, and I landed right into the web revolution and VRML. So around 1994, I started doing VRML, began my first startup in 1995, and have been doing startups in the Bay Area for the last 20 years.

I got into VR originally because I love visualization, I love 3D graphics. It’s part of the fabric of everything I’ve been working on over the last two decades. VRML was too early — not ready for primetime. But I kind of kept going at it, working on visualization projects, and over the past few years before this year’s VR explosion, I had most recently been working in WebGL.

And this has all been a part of this realization that I’m still writing for that hardcore developer on that dev team. That’s who I’ve always wanted to empower. So just after I published my most recent book on WebGL, I really started working feverishly on GLAM. And GLAM is essentially VR plus Markup. It’s VRML all over again but fully realized for today in an environment where there is consumer readiness and reception waiting for it. So maybe 20 years later I get a second VR act and it’s going to work. That’s what I’m excited about.

And all these years later… what’s your perspective on that symbiotic future for man and technology?

Before the explosion of smartphones, I probably would have still been in the camp that said, “That’s pretty far-fetched, it’s never going to get that far.” The Strange Days, The Lawnmower Man, Max Headroom, all of that from the ‘90s era. But when you see people standing in a line at Starbucks and they’re fully immersed in their email or Foursquare or whatever they’re doing. You know, whatever they’re doing, they can’t get their heads out of their phones, they would rather do that than look up and around at the people in line in front of them. So in a way — we are there already. We are in the Matrix and people love the cyber worlds they inhabit every day. Of course today it’s 2D but now it’s just about taking that next phase into 3D technologies, communications, and worlds. How much time we want to spend in those places will be up to us.

What does the future of VR look like?

Maybe we can help visualize climate change and figure out what to do about it. We can certainly teach better. And if we can teach better, then we can understand better. If we can simulate better, maybe we can understand other cultures, get a better sense of history, all those things are possible and going to be made better with VR if done well. Then, we can really help the world.

But it’s not going to solve everything; all of the problems we have as a planet or society. Not everything will be better in VR. I believe VR is like any of these other technological innovations. I believe it’s value neutral — it’s as good or bad as the people harnessing it as a technology, communications, and storytelling platform — and can ultimately be used for good or ill. I think we’re going to see abuses of it, surely. I think we’re going to see over-exuberance with what it can do. But that will all be tempered over time, and eventually the laws of the market and consumer attention will just shake it out and we will see VR wins in certain segments — for example, housing and real estate, retail, and travel all have phenomenal potential in VR.

So now we can bring this back to DIYVR. Let’s imagine a distant future where that virtual reality metaverse where everyone is connected and fully jacked in. Take that future, and imagine that one company is controlling it, all the content is built on one platform, mediated by one portal, and delivered through one mechanism. As long as that VR metaverse is free and open, we’ve got nothing to worry about. If it’s not — then it’s the Matrix. It’s bad news. What we want to see with DIYVR is a diverse, robust ecosystem that allows developers to freely build across platforms with web tools that have no barriers to entry. And from that starting point our distant future remains much brighter. It’s absolutely that free flowing digital society we want to see thriving in the years ahead that drives people like Patrick, myself, and the team at DODOcase to help contribute where we can.



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