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VRTO 2017: Where New Giants Stand on Giant Shoulders

Grab your tickets to VRTO, which kicks off June 25 at Rogers Communications Centre in Toronto.

To understand what separates VRTO from any other VR conference in the world, take a look at something VRTO Founder and Executive Director Keram Malicki-Sánchez said to me somewhere in the middle of a 2-hour discussion (that ostensibly began as a rundown of VRTO):

“All of this is simply highlighting the nature of the virtual reality that we as humans inhabit anyway,” said Malicki-Sánchez. “Life is an interface for human beings in the way that it’s processed. When we look at a flower, we look at a flower as a uniquely human experience; nothing else sees a flower the way we see the flower. We see color and shapes and patterns in a human way that’s reliant on our cognitive biases. And all this [XR] media amplifies that fact, because when we participate in creating an interface or a sense of a reality that makes us feel that that’s good enough to be believable, what we’re actually creating is a fossil record of what the human needs to perceive reality.”

And that’s just one of a veritable platter of high-level gems he shared during the discussion. You can begin to see why “Giants,” this year’s edition of VRTO, held June 25 and 26 at the Rogers Communications Centre in Toronto, is going to be unlike any conference you’ve ever attended.

As a lifelong artist and futurist, Malicki-Sánchez has designed VRTO to be an exploration of consciousness—one that’s facilitated by our work to develop immersive technologies (XR) that include and transcend the usual suspects in VR and AR.

“I spent a lot of time studying alchemy and esoterica growing up,” said Malicki-Sánchez. “The most salient takeaway was drawing the creative forces of the divine spheres down into the mud of the primordial kingdom—in other words, manifesting visions and turning dreams into realities.”

How it All Takes Shape

Okay, so the founder has some wild ideas, but how do they take actual physical shape in conference form?

High-Level Conversations

One problem that has emerged among industry conferences is an overflow of talks/panels that are either redundant—particularly for those who have encountered VR beyond the basics—or outright product placement. While this is a necessary feature of keeping conferences afloat, it can leave attendees hoping for rich, surprising, and specific talks. 

Meanwhile, VRTO has been curated and refined to offer a variety of different conversations—many of which have never been given before. A quick sample list includes the likes of: “From Cathedrals to Gone Home: The Art of (Un)Structuring Spatial Narratives,” “Haptics and the Somatosensory System: Understanding the Physiology of Tactile Technologies for the Body,” “‘Poisoning the Well’ & the Importance of Creative Experimentation in VR,” “Manimal Sanctuary: Dev Notes from a Lurking Simulator,” and “Your Left Hand is Not a Menu: Using Spatial Controllers in VR Apps.”

These are discussions that altogether skip the “small talk,” facilitated by the fact that the VRTO team has not only been particular in its curation, but in ensuring that these people talk to each other beforehand so that they can optimize the discussion.

“I connect all of my speakers to each other in advance of the show, whether they be keynotes or trainers,” said Malicki-Sánchez. “[That’s] to reduce overlap, maximize utility and discovery and use the show as the flashpoint.”

And it doesn’t end with the connection among speakers. VRTO is an annual conference that focuses on driving these discussions, which means it generates a growing body of information, evidence, and ideas that Malicki-Sánchez can in turn incorporate into building a virtuous loop between speaker and audience.

“I am deeply interested in the emergent qualities in the use of technology,” said Malicki-Sánchez. “We have to listen to the user and how they might bend and warp the original intention for the tech. We listen and fold those discoveries back into the conference and the installations and how we set them up and share that with the big tech companies and the schools building curriculums.”

This emphasis on cross-pollination of knowledge and networks also extends to researchers and developers.

“I had the surgeon who performed the world’s first lung transplant come up to me after my talk at ideacity wanting to discuss possible collaborations or networks for building VR,” said Malicki-Sánchez. “I was able to tell him, point blank, with a straight face: VRTO is designed to be a bridge between the research and the developers, to find a way to understand the need and connect to those audiences or users.”

Interconnecting the Work of Giants

Conversations are only as good as the participants; part of this netting of knowledge stems from the people Malicki-Sánchez has been able to assemble for VRTO 2017, including:

  • Dr. Maria Karam (Co-inventor of the Emoti-Chair, Founder of TADs inc., Co-Founder of eye-live media, the Coffee Lab, Vibrafusion Lab, and Silicon Drinkabout Toronto)

  • James Jensen (Chief Visionary Officer & Co-Founder of THE VOID)

  • Dr. Walter Greenleaf (Stanford University research neuroscientist, technologist, and leading authority on the medical applications of virtual reality technology)

  • Graham Smith (Canadian VR pioneer; Chief Science Officer of Dutch educational technology company WebChair).

  • Eyal Kleiner (VP of Virtual Reality at IMAX)
  • Moses Znaimer (Creator of Dora Award-winning audience-interactive play Tamara and “Tour of the Universe,” the world’s first flight simulator ride)

  • David A. Smith (Creator of the first 3D interactive game The Colony and the virtual set/camera used in James Cameron’s The Abyss)

Moses Znaimer (Photo by Michael Stuparyk/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

“VRTO—which is just a bunch of letters, really—represents something quite different,” said Malicki-Sánchez. “It represents this real desire to investigate where we can go right now. And as we move into this era where human jobs will be displaced, there’s nothing to fear.”

He holds that while the disruptive nature of these technologies will of course live up to their disruptive properties, what emerges—if we approach it the right way—is an optimistic, humanistic future. The first step in that direction is taking a deep breath and looking to what the great minds of the past learned decades ago.

“There’s only a need to turn back towards the full scope of human imagination and understand that a lot of these pioneers were working in a void; they were working without any precedent, without any assurance.” said Malicki-Sánchez. “So these are the actual people that I’m bringing, and when I say that this year’s theme is ‘Giants.’”

At one point, a friend cautioned Malicki-Sánchez against the name, saying it might sound a bit like a “chest-bumping thing.”

“And I said, ‘Yeah but let’s not take it out of context.’ In the end what we mean by giants is not masculine hubris, it’s actually going back to the phrase, ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants,’” said Malicki-Sánchez. “I’m interested in some of the more esoteric innovations that happen and sometimes get lost in the research labs and never really go beyond that phase—and what it would mean to bring a lot of those people together, many of whom may not have met before in person.”

These are people whose work is instrumental in where the current industry is today—and remembering

“When you understand that this technology didn’t just come from Best Buy or Microsoft, that the people at Microsoft got there because there are geniuses who think weird, who are outliers—they’re freaks and mavens and mavericks who buck the system—then you may continue to approach the future of this with a different kind of a fearlessness and an open-mindedness,” said Malicki-Sánchez. “I feel that the essence of VRTO 2017 is to bring those pioneers in terms of their ways of thinking, their unique set of influences, and the wisdom of their experiences and failures and successes together all at once to see what new ideas we may derive thereof.”

Like last year, his work in curation paid off, and he was able to bring experts from many different fields, both directly and indirectly related to XR. One way he’s hoping to take the ethos even further is to see how much he can help facilitate new collaborations and intersections.

“There’s a real value to cross-pollinating things and jamming things into the wrong circuits and seeing what blows up,” said Malicki-Sánchez. “That’s something I worked on a little more this year, was to see how to bring disparate experiences and companies together to work on projects together and presentations together at the show.”

Breadth of Segmentation

Meanwhile, some of this cross-pollination occurs when different groups are able to present concentrated ideas. That’s why Malicki-Sánchez has carved out different spaces for discrete segments, allowing participants to engage with XR in particular ways.

Janus Camp

Led by the minds behind JanusVR, Janus Camp runs for days, exploring the frontiers of WebXR. It includes workshops, classes, and interactive demos that will help equip participants with the insight and tools to start building in the immersive web (included with Special Exhibits Pass).

ARt Gallery

A showcase of augmented reality art featuring international works by Branislav Dordevic, Dan Goldman, Daniel Leighton, and Alex Mehew.

FIVARS Pavilion

Malicki-Sánchez also hosts Festival of International Virtual & Augmented Reality Stories, and each year he reimagines the FIVARS Pavilion in VRTO to present the best in immersive narrative in a unique way. This year, it will be hosted inside an 8K projection-mapped spherical cylinder from Igloo Vision, who will be making their Canadian debut.

VR Arcade

And the games! The stylized arcade will feature multiple VR experiences from Iris VR and Secret Location.

There are also dedicated sections for spatialized audio, health applications, and much more.

Community

As was the case last year, the VRTO team is still deeply rooted in the idea of community—both as it applies to the burgeoning VR community as it does the broader city of Toronto.

“We are legitimately seeking to help and understand small businesses developing in this space,” said Malicki-Sánchez. “And ground that into a manifest application, connecting various communities—not even necessarily in VR—to feel representation from all walks of life…tech savvy or otherwise.”

Many of the speakers hail from Toronto (and elsewhere in Canada). In addition to the aforementioned, Steve Mann will be joining again—after last year’s landmark keynote and ratification of the Code of Ethics on Human Augmentation—via teleconference, where he and his students will present an open-source version of his EyeTap technology, as well as a one-year update on developments with the Code.

Looking to the broader XR community, Malicki-Sánchez sees VRTO as an opportunity to take novel approaches to existing knowledge—much in the same way VR combines existing art and technologies in new ways.

“It’s fundamentally a social experiment,” said Malicki-Sánchez. “It brings young fresh—maybe even hesitant imagineers—together with veteran pioneers, progenitors, who may feel forgotten or discarded or tired. It brings business and marketing people together with developers and programmers and producers so that they can have conversations about how to really effectively use this medium and produce content. All of those cross-sections are being given opportunities at this show to legitimately meet and collide and produce things at the every show itself. We expect to exit the show with a consortium that maintains those connections and empowers them to continue, rather than just wrapping up in a tent and moving off to the next trade show.”

Ultimately, what’s so refreshing about Malicki-Sánchez and VRTO is that it’s not about profit or power—it’s truly a labor of love.

“When I walk the floor of VRTO, it is like living in the most perfect dream, one where every part of it is like a magic character come to life,” said Malicki-Sánchez. “I have no idea what will happen, but I know I spent every day of a year finding my favorite things and then watching what happens when I throw them in a blender with pop rocks.”

VRTO is about making a space where we can come together, have new conversations, and change the world.

“None of this does anyone any good,” said Malicki-Sánchez, “unless it does anyone any good.”

Tickets to VRTO are available here.

About the Scout

Jesse Damiani

Jesse Damiani is Editor-at-Large of VRScout and the CEO of Galatea, a writing and project management tool for immersive storytelling. 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 Quartz, IndieWire, and HuffPost.

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