Inside LA’s exploding VR and AR scene

The VR games, AR movie apps, and hardware coming out of LA’s virtual tech hub
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This past April, San Francisco-based VR team Upload VR followed the lead of so many other VR tech firms - they moved their headquarters to Los Angeles.

Los Angeles has emerged as a major hub for virtual and augmented reality innovation. Startups founded there can quickly form partnerships with Hollywood's filmmakers, poach tech talent from CGI studios and video game developers, and pitch ideas to venture capitalists looking to jump ship from traditional films into the "next big thing".

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So we went to explore the scene in greater depth. We spoke with award-winning VR filmmakers, AR app devs working on apps for your favorite film franchises, and promising hardware creators, all representing the best that LA's tech scene has to offer.

These are the names in VR and AR, big and small, that need to be on your radar.


Inside LA’s exploding VR and AR scene

Location: Culver City, CA

8i's original claim to fame is its volumetric VR technology. 360º videos anchor you in one spot and don't render anything beyond what you can see; by comparison, volumetric films render everything in true 3D, letting you observe objects from every angle.

Their particular focus is on "photorealistic human holograms with true volume and depth" that can appear in either VR or AR. "8i is the only company to offer a scalable end-to-end solution for volumetric capture, creation, and playback of 3D human holograms on any device or platform," says Amy Sezak, 8i's Head of Communications & Brand. Delivering "the highest fidelity photorealistic reconstruction of human holograms", 8i claims to surpass motion capture, which is "expensive, labor intensive...and not photorealistic, dragging the viewer into the uncanny valley."

Using this technology, 8i created Buzz Aldrin: Cycling Pathways to Mars, a VR film that described Dr. Aldrin's plan to settle humans on Mars. In the experience, Aldrin walks freely through the virtual world as a complete hologram.

This past June, 8i released Holo: a mixed-reality app that "lets users add holograms into their world and take videos and photos they can share with friends on social and messaging apps", says Sezak. Some of the app's current holograms include Spider-Man, Jon Hamm, Aldrin, and a series of silly figures like zombies and gorillas.

As Google and Apple launch ARCore and ARKit, respectively, in the coming months, Sezak and her team believe the demand for holograms and volumetric content will grow on a "massive scale", and they've already begun partnering with personalities across various industries to insert as many real people as possible into VR worlds.

Here Be Dragons

Inside LA’s exploding VR and AR scene

Location: Los Angeles

Here Be Dragons dominated the VR buzz at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, with its powerful anti-poaching piece The Protectors by award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, to The Last Goodbye, a Holocaust survivor's final trip to the Nazi concentration camp where his family died. Emphasis on storytelling over tech demos and on partnerships with experiential filmmakers has already netted the production company four Emmy nominations.

More recently, at San Diego Comic Con, it showed off a mixed-reality Hololens experience based on the FX show Legion. Users enter the memories of Legion's mentally troubled mutant protagonist, David, only to discover things aren't as they seem. Here Be Dragons uses the HoloLens to warp real-life objects and actors' faces around the guest, mimicking the character's struggles with reality and paranoia.

Inside LA’s exploding VR and AR scene

There's an odd thematic gap between the Dragons team's documentary films like Last Goodbye and The Displaced—the story of three refugee children in Sudan, Ukraine and Syria that received two Emmy nods—and its branded tech demos for Legion, Ghost in the Shell, GE, and Stubhub, among many others.

In fact, its eclectic slate of films mirrors the strategy of most LA Hollywood studios: create flashy moneymakers with plenty of ad revenue, then use that money for meaningful documentaries that attract awards and acclaim. And the decision to branch out into augmented-reality experiences, while maintaining their attention to compelling storytelling, makes it a company to watch closely as AR and MR hardware continues to evolve.


Inside LA’s exploding VR and AR scene

Location: Venice, CA

Wevr first came to our attention as the creator of some truly strange VR music videos: Old Friend by Tyler Hurd, which we named best VR music experience of Tribeca 2016, and apocalyptic fever dream Apex by Arjan van Meerten, our 2017 Best Music VR pick.

But the immersive entertainment studio extends far beyond this genre: its platform-agnostic subscription service, Transport, curates some of the best VR content available on mobile and PC, and uses the proceeds to compensate VR creators on the platform.

Neville Spiteri, Wevr's co-founder and CEO, gushed about the company's talent for attracting creative Hollywood talent: two-time Academy Award winner Andy Jones of Avatar and Jungle Book fame is a Wevr team member, and Wevr recently partnered with Iron Man director Jon Favreau for fantasy project Gnomes & Goblins.

Beyond these creative thinkers, Spiteri argues that Wevr's success stems from the fact that they "are obsessive, no, fanatical about quality", and that they "lean into what is unique about the VR medium that isn't possible about other formats."

Digital Domain

Inside LA’s exploding VR and AR scene

Location: Los Angeles

Think of a big budget, CGI-heavy film in the past quarter century: Digital Domain probably worked on it. Winner of three Academy Awards for effects on films like Titanic and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Digital Domain's upcoming films include Avengers: Infinity War and the VR-focused sci-fi flick Ready Player One.

Switching from big-budget blockbusters to a new, unproven medium might appear a strange choice for an established effects company, but the Digital Domain team was excited to expand to a "new frontier", and to "deliver an entertainment experience that is truly immersive."

The team has hosted a prominent mixture of high-profile 360º livestreams, including red carpet coverage for the Met Gala, Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globes in 2017, and sporting events like X Games Minneapolis and UFC 212.

It's also sought to build its VR base with original cinematic VR experiences, including Dreamworks Voltron VR Chronicles, an action-adventure tie-in game for the recent Netflix series due out in late September, and Playstation VR exclusive Monkey King.

"We quite literally are a one stop shop for all virtual reality needs," the Digital Domain team told Wareable. "We transform ideas into stunning visual experiences and manage the entire pipeline of content... Our full complement of hardware, software, creative services and production expertise enables us to look at VR projects more holistically and also helps reduce the production time and expense involved in bringing highly engaging new VR content to consumers."

After all that time actualizing the visions of Hollywood directors, Digital Domain has freed itself to create content based off of its own ideas through the VR medium, and then has the expertise to make those ideas into an immersive, visually stunning reality.

NextVRInside LA’s exploding VR and AR scene

Location: Newport Beach

The NextVR app provides a free look at how virtual reality will invade the live television industry in the near future. For anyone not able to afford tickets or travel to the NBA finals, El Clasico, Wimbledon, or the latest primetime boxing match, NextVR's streams move past the standard viewing experience and give court-, pitch-, and ringside seats to anyone with a smartphone.

With over $100 million in venture capital and partnerships with virtually every major international sporting league, NextVR is uniquely suited to bring sports to VR headsets on a regular basis, not just for major events.

Last year, when we interviewed NextVR about its streaming services, co-founder DJ Roller claimed the company was ready to broadcast whole sports seasons and sell virtual subscriptions to teams, once enough sports fans had adopted regular VR usage. As of now, it's still focused on major sporting events, however, while it keeps waiting for that VR base to grow.


Inside LA’s exploding VR and AR scene

Location: Los Angeles

Survios co-founders Nathan Burba and James Iliff got their start at the USC Mixed Reality Lab, which Survios COO Robert Nashak called "the birthplace of the modern VR revolution." Oculus founder Palmer Luckey and VR exposure therapy expert Skip Rizzo count among its other talented alumni.

Another co-founder, CTO Alex Silkin, emulated the technology and ideas he saw as a member of NASA JPL in nearby Pasadena. Inspired by the motion controls and tracking tech used on NASA missions, he applied them to the "anthropomorphic robots in space" found in their first VR shooter, Raw Data 0 the "first VR title to hit $1M in sales in its first month" and top the overall Steam sales chart.

Survios does its best to surpass other games on the market by "addressing difficult-to solve shortcomings" in VR experiences. Most VR games, for example, keep users in a cockpit or have them teleport across a world to avoid nausea triggered by rapid movement. But for Survios' most recent game, Sprint Vector, it developed a "Fluid Locomotion" system: the only way to sprint through the fast-paced world is through an intricate series of head and body movements, tricking your mind into believing you actually control your virtual movement and preventing nausea.

In Nashak's mind, Survios' success derives from its "holistic approach to hardware and software development", where Silkin and other team members build the architecture and features of their games in-house rather than wait for game engine and headset improvements from outside sources. In doing so, it's setting itself up as technological trailblazer for other game devs to follow.

As the company waits for headset prices to drop and the mass market consumer base to grow, Survios focuses on taking its experiences to the consumers, attending most major gaming and tech conferences, partnering with technology brands like Intel, HTC, Nvidia, and Oculus, and "dominating" the VR arcade market, where Nashak sees "incredible growth and opportunity".


Inside LA’s exploding VR and AR scene

Location: Santa Monica

Once venture capital funding and the initial VR craze finally slows down, VR filmmakers and developers will have to stop giving out free tech demos, and start monetizing their content to justify virtual reality's expensive production costs. But Vertebrae is offering a marketing-based solution that just might prevent VR films and apps from skyrocketing in price.

According to Vertebrae, VR users remember elements of 360º videos "eight times more" than traditional 2D TV, including advertisements, and are "3X more likely to buy [a product] after seeing an ad in VR.

This May, Vertebrae released its SDK for a drag-and-drop platform for 360º videos, where users can design 3D objects and then place them inside their projects in seemingly natural locations.

Considering VR ads stick with users more strongly than normal, VR creators can charge higher advertising prices from corporations while keeping videos low-price or free for users.


Inside LA’s exploding VR and AR scene

Location: Los Angeles

Where many of these LA wunderkinds have jumped into the exploding VR/ AR industry over the past couple of years, Trigger is by comparison a wise, grizzled veteran of the industry. Since creating a "webcam-based AR experience for District 9" in 2009, Trigger has logged over 90,000 hours of AR advergames, apps and websites for Hollywood studios.

Trigger's President and Executive Creative Director Jason Yim proudly claimed that where other companies rely on "theory and academic knowledge" to excite financial backers, it has the trust of major corporations based on its experience running global marketing campaigns for Lego, Disney, Google, Lucasfilm, Nike, Visa, Honda, Sony and more.

Despite its corporate client base, Trigger maintains a more casual, "inventor's workshop" office space, Yim tells us, since AR is "usually tied to a physical component". It combines the typical digital clutter of a tech company with the branded toys and 3D printed models involved in its latest campaign, creating a more playful, hobbyist-like environment for their team as they work on the latest global film or brand.

This week, Trigger launched the "Find the Force" tie-in AR app for The Last Jedi, which lets smartphone users snap pictures and record live videos with various Star Wars characters like Admiral Ackbar.

And after the success of its Spider-Man: Homecoming app, with an AR suit explorer and other features, Yim plans to use analytics to "give ourselves and our clients a wealth of data about users' behavior in guide the next initiative".


Inside LA’s exploding VR and AR scene

Location: Los Angeles

Picture the most stressful moment you've had in a hospital, waiting to get a broken arm fixed or to go under for a serious procedure. Now imagine that, as you waited, you were sitting on a cliffside beach in Portugal, listening to guided meditation.

Partnered with six hospitals across the United States, appliedVR uses VR headsets to distract patients during traumatic procedures. Patients undergoing chemotherapy, being treated for severe wounds or burns, or experiencing post-op pain or rehabilitation have overwhelmingly enjoyed the chance to try out an immersive, out-of-body experience.

appliedVR's product bundle includes a Gear VR headset, a subscription to a library of relaxing and distracting experiences, and a training regimen geared towards specific types of therapy or procedures. For instance, it recently began to provide headsets to help pregnant mothers relax and focus during labor.

According to independent scientific and case studies, results have been amazingly effective thus far. Patients reported a 63% reduction in anxiety while using VR headsets while waiting for a surgical procedure. And during the procedure, they reported a 24% decrease in pain compared to patients watching a calming 2D video.


Inside LA’s exploding VR and AR scene

Location: Los Angeles

Our US reporter Husain Sumra recently sat down with Mira CEO Ben Taft to try its augmented-reality Prism headset—a $99 alternative to Microsoft's $3000 devkit that only requires an iPhone - and came away from the experience wowed.

The device projects standard stereoscopic images from your phone through a lens that makes images hover in front of your vision, or project to a specific surface like a table. Multiple Prism users can play a game together, while other smartphone users can spectate on the action without a headset.

"While my co-founders, Matt [Stern] and Montana [Reed], were building some of the first VR experiences for major Hollywood studios... they kept running into the same issue: VR is inherently an isolated experience," Taft tells us. "At the same time, I was working with very high-end AR technology in the enterprise sector... We put our heads together and had a vision to create an accessible AR solution that was social by nature."

The team built their first Prism because they couldn't afford a Hololens, and no doubt other would-be startups interested in AR content face the same hurdle. Taft expressed pride in "designing the first truly accessible premium AR hardware solution that gives developers the opportunity to start building consumer-facing immersive AR content, and consumers the opportunity to experience the power of immersive AR."

Devs received the Unity-based SDK to create AR apps for Prism this month, and consumer pre-orders will be fulfilled this holiday season. The hardware has already gone to production, so in the meantime the Mira team will focus on software, third-party outreach, and maintaining their team atmosphere: "curiosity, experimentation, hard work, passion, late nights, and most importantly: tons of fun."


Inside LA’s exploding VR and AR scene

Location: Los Angeles

Speaking of high-end, expensive augmented reality: Daqri has developed a series of Smart Helmets and Glasses, designed for industrial workspaces and pricing in between $5-15,000.

Both the Daqri Helmet and Glasses use a cord-free rig powered by an Intel m7 processor. The Helmet famously gives the user X-ray vision, using AR tech and thermal vision sensors to let them look inside of machinery and scan throughout a room from one spot. All of Daqri's devices use a combination of RGB and infrared cameras and a light projector to help the device infer depth of field.

As Daqri-clad employees work, the helmets and glasses will project relevant data, guided work instructions, video calls, and more; new employees will be able to see how to complete new tasks as they acclimate, or supervisors can observe a difficult procedure remotely and describe or sketch out instructions as needed.

Daqri also created a smart driving HUD currently installed in about 150,000 cars. Its "dynamic holography" software ensures the driver never has to look away from the road - which is pretty amazing.


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After years of freelance writing for several major tech blogs like Techradar, Wareable, and Digital Trends, I am now Senior Editor at Android Central, a Mobile Nations blog dedicated to the Android ecosystem. 

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