Unity Vision VR/AR Summit 2017: Courtside for the Convergence of Realities

Virtual Reality continues to evolve, Constrained Reality is a Renowned Biologist’s take on the mind’s VR “software,” Mixed Reality is bringing it all together—and Vision Summit 2017 is where the industry’s ideas and the innovators came together.

When it comes to changing the game for XR, Unity Technologies just can’t stop. At the company’s Unite ’16 LA conference last November, we witnessed a clear emphasis on the growth of the VR/AR ecosystem—with a host of announcements geared toward simplifying, streamlining, and supercharging their system for creators of immersive content.

Vision Summit 2017—Unity’s VR/AR-centric industry conference held this Monday and Tuesday at the Loews Hotel in Hollywood—doubled down on this push in a dramatic way.

“We hold dear the thought that the world is a better place with more creators in it,” said Unity CMO Clive Downie. ““So we provide people with the right tool so they can take their ideas and creativity to reality. That’s what we’re doing in VR/AR—it’s what we’ve been doing in game making and other platforms for over a decade—democratizing development and democratizing creativity.”

This week’s VRScout Report features a taste of conference highlights:

“In terms of what we’re perceiving as we’re here at Vision Summit this year versus last year: we continue to perceive that we are in a pioneering moment of experimentation,” said Downie. “It all starts with content. What we’re seeing is a far richer degree of content from that being made a year ago. People are coming to grips with technology, they’re solving more of the fundamental problems, and I think we’re on the cusp of the killer apps coming out.”

Vision was a great place for spotting emerging trends, and none was quite as hot on everyone’s lips as Mixed Reality (MR). Monday’s keynote included a number of major announcements that herald a new era for the AR/MR ecosystem.

Mixed Reality Goes Big League


Building on the fact that 91% of all HoloLens applications built in Unity, Brandon Bray, Principal Group Manager of Microsoft, announced that mixed reality will soon be available for Unity developers. And then, building on the tradition of wild giveaways at Vision Summit, he gifted everybody in the audience a new Acer MR headset (to arrive this summer).

Google Tango with Unity

At Unite LA, Google Product Manager Nathan Martz announced the launch date for Daydream and confirmed that a Unity integration was on deck for Unity 5.6. Fast-forward six months and he took the stage to make possibly an even bigger announcement: that Unity is now integrated with Google Tango. Furthermore, Daydream will be getting an update this month to allow creators to test VR and AR alterations in their applications in minutes. This revelation is a quiet but assured inflection point for XR, bridging the gap between VR and AR content creation. Now, developers will be able to bring their knowledge of VR workflows in Unity directly into AR development—especially useful for multi-platform and multimedia immersive content.


As another leader in the AR/MR space, Vuforia debuted Smart Terrain for Tango-enabled devices. This new feature further enmeshes base reality with digital reality by allowing creators to build AR experiences that dynamically interact with real world environments. During the keynote, Jay Wright, President of Vuforia, showed how Smart Terrain and Tango were able to transform the stage into Mars and summon an astronaut who understood the geometry of the IRL world to “drill” into the digital ice on Mars that was transposed onto the podium. This use of Smart Terrain will function as the sample app when Vuforia is integrated with Unity later in 2017.

Mars 2020 Rover by NASA JPL

If any topic can rival immersive media for hot topic of the moment, it’s Mars. Fortunately for Vision Summit attendees, both came together in NASA JPL’s live 2020 Rover HoloLens demo. In it, Victor Luo was also able to showcase the power of ProtoSpace, the award-winning MR engineering tool NASA JPL uses to design spacecraft for upcoming missions.

REWIND & Red Bull’s “Flight Deck”

Red Bull may give you wings, but REWIND found a way to put them on display. During the keynote, REWIND CEO Sol Rogers showcased “Flight Deck,” an experience created for Red Bull Air race, powered by Unity and HoloLens, which allows viewers to take part in the fastest sport on the planet in a groundbreaking way—learning rules and regulations on the fly.


If there’s one place everybody agrees AR/MR technologies are going to revolutionize, it’s enterprise. AR pioneers ScopeAR took the stage to show off how this revolution is going to look with WorkLink. This AR training solution singlehandedly erases the need for training manuals—workers across fields will be able to learn complex tasks in the most intuitive imaginable way: through their own eyes.

Blending Forms

And Mixed Reality came in other forms—the line between “virtual” and “base” reality was increasingly blurred with other demos and announcements. 

Richard Dawkins

One of the most anticipated aspects of the entire conference was the keynote from Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and foremost atheist intellectual. In the keynote, Dawkins drew from a lifetime of studying human life to show how our brains are already a form of virtualized reality software in the way they interpret and “create” our reality—what he calls “constrained reality.”

“The guy has a very interesting way of looking at the world and looking at problems in the world; when we listened to his thoughts and stimulations on VR and how it has parallels with how our brains think intuitively and innately, we just felt it was stimulating to hear,” said Downie. “The germ of the idea came from us realizing that VR and AR—yes, you can treat it as a technical moment for the world, and there’s a lot of technology here—but they’re going to be so impactful to humanity, why not treat it as a more psychological moment? How do we think about it as an opportunity for the world rather than just a technology, looking top-down rather than bottom-up? This is a big moment. So having an expansive thinker talking about it felt like a good fit.”

360 Video

One of the most important industry announcements of the entire conference followed Dawkins’s keynote presentation.

“We’ve also spent a lot of time and energy working on 360 Video,” said Tony Parisi, Unity’s Global Head of VR/AR. “360’s kind of become the next hot media type, but in the past, it’s kind of been a lean-back passive experience. With Unity 2017, you can incorporate animated CG elements in realtime—and with interaction.”

Parisi brought Unity Sr. Product Marketing Manager Natalie Grant to the stage to show an experience built by Mirada Studios that highlights Unity 2017’s capabilities with 360 videos. Now, the system supports 3D compositing, occlusion, and realtime rending—marking an incredible moment for 360 filmmakers and game makers alike—allowing creators to easily populate 360 films with 3D objects or turn 360 environments into interactive worlds.

Timeline & “A Mighty Kingdom” Streaming

Cinematic VR is blurring the bounds not only between game and passive experience, but between how we engage with these experiences (2D vs VR). Unity Product Manager Mike Wuetherick and Unity VR Evangelist Sarah Stumbo took the stage to show how the capabilities of Timeline and Cinemachine let creators author and display these experiences using Unity 2017.

Using Cinemachine, the two gave a live, Mixed Reality broadcast of “A Mighty Kingdom”—a God-mode demo that showcases the fluidity of storybuilding with Timeline.

Facebook Spaces

At F8 two weeks ago, Facebook launched Spaces—a platform that displayed the vision of Social VR Zuckerberg has been hinting at since acquiring Oculus in 2014 (one that many were pleased to find includes selfie sticks). During the Vision keynote, Rachel Franklin, Head of Social VR at Facebook, announced that Spaces is being built with Unity, situating it as the lynchpin of what many regard as an unprecedented convergence of base and virtual realities.

Spiraloid Workshop’s Nanite Fulcrum

Many have taken stabs at VR comics, but nobody has addressed the form with such innovative zest as Bay Raitt and Spiraloid, who use the cell frame as a mechanism from which to portal directly into frozen moments, movies, and games—all within the context of a heartbreaking and action-packed story. Spiraloid has created something powerfully groundbreaking, channeling fundamental storytelling principles into a form-pushing experience that enriches the language of interactivity in narrative VR.

The keynote can be viewed in its entirety here:

Of course, it wasn’t all MR at Vision Summit; other highlights included a-glimpse of the never-before-seen 360 video of the winning touchdown of the Super Bowl 2017 via NFL Films, John Riccitiello’s a fireside chat with Brendan Tribe about the future of immersive media, a demonstration of Audi’s VR experience (realtime video compositing and rendering with millions of vehicle permutations), and the announcement of the 2017 Vision VR/AR Summit Awards:

The 2017 Vision VR/AR Summit Awards

  • Best Game: SUPERHOT VR (SUPERHOT Team)
  • Best Cinematic VR:  Zero Days VR (Scatter)
  • Best 360 Video: MIYUBI (Felix & Paul Studios, in collaboration with Funny or Die)
  • Artistic Achievement Award: Chocolate (Tyler Hurd)
  • Technical Achievement Award: Ghostbusters: Dimension (The Void and Hyper Reality)
  • Narrative Achievement Award: Zero Days VR (Scatter)
  • Best AR Experience: ProtoSpace (NASA)
  • Best VR Experience: ASTEROIDS! (Baobab Studios)
  • Social Impact Award: Out of Exile: Daniel’s Story (Emblematic Group, Atrevida Productions, True Colors Fund)

The Made with Unity showcase featured some of these groundbreaking experiences along with many others. For a glimpse of the showroom floor, take a look at our wrap video below:

The weekend was also full of hard-hitting and high-level panels, discussions, and workshops, including: “Big AR Talk: Three Innovators Discuss Unlocking AR’s Potential,” “XR in Pop Culture,” “Location-based VR: Creating New Entertainment,” “VR Production in Hollywood,” “Docs and Devs: Combining Expertise to Improve Life-Saving Medical Training With VR” “Sex, Violence & Propaganda: Ethical, Conundrums in VR,” and “Get Ready: The Money Is Coming Everything You Need to Prepare and Get Excited for Advertising in VR,” among many others.

Yes, you can treat it as a technical moment for the world, and there’s a lot of technology here—how do we think about it as an opportunity for the world rather than just a technology, looking top-down rather than bottom-up? This is a big moment.


Longtime Unity enthusiasts will notice a shift in how the system is being labeled—from a numbered series (“5.6”) to one based on the year (“2017.1”). This wasn’t an accident.

“The motivation was to make our numbering more obvious,” said Downie. “We’re in a world now where we launch a new version every quarter, and what we wanted to do was make it easy for people to understand which version was the latest. The other reason we did it is we wanted to signal a legitimate change, because Unity 2017 really does contain a raft of very new developments that are around our //  It’s very different from Unity 5. It’s a new tool that still takes all of the foundations of Unity but builds on that in some very distinct areas, so we just thought it was time for a change.”

Unity continues to set the standard—in a literal sense—for how VR is built, but it’s the company’s work in fostering growth of the VR ecosystem that has established the Unity name as a pioneering one in evolving the language of immersive media.

“We’ve spent over a decade making what we perceive to be the world’s best game engine, and what that’s allowed us to do is now make that tool more relevant to a new type of creator who isn’t making games in VR and AR,” said Downie. “We think game-making is really the cutting edge of creativity—it pushes the technology the hardest—and game-makers have pushed us to make the best possible tool in Unity. That now gives us permission to take that tool to other places that benefit from realtime rendering as we move toward a visual-compute world.”

Unity 2017 is available in beta here.

About the Scout

Jesse Damiani

Jesse Damiani is Editor-at-Large of VRScout and Deputy Director of Emerging Technology at Southern New Hampshire University. He's also Series Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Wesleyan University Press) and the author of @endless$pectator: The Screens Suite #loliloquy (BlazeVOX, 2017). Other writing can be found on Adweek, Billboard, Forbes, Quartz, and The Verge.

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