The Immersive Technology Alliance (ITA) is a group dedicated to promoting what it calls "immersive" technology, which includes obvious tech such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), but also innovations in stereoscopic 3D, gesture control, and more. The ITA is also the driving force behind the upcoming Immersed conference for the AR/VR (and more) industry, an event being held in Toronto on November 23-24.
We sat down with the ITA's Executive Director, Neil Schneider (who is also the person primarily responsible for organizing Immersed) to fire questions at him about AR/VR, the Immersed conference, and why we all should care.
Tom's Hardware: What is the ITA’s purpose and how do you fulfill it?
Neil Schneider: Our reason for being is to make immersive technology successful, by that I mean virtual reality, augmented reality, stereoscopic 3D, gesture tech, and more. As a non-profit corporation, we have no vested interest in specific technologies.
To date, we have been having regular meetings and are gradually forming working groups according to the energies of the membership. We are identifying and helping solve problems with our joint resources, problems too difficult for any one company to solve on their own.
Our most recent initiative is the Immersed conference. It's a big deal because people are flying in from all over the world to take part, there are going to be some very cool product launches and announcements, and by the time the conference is over, I think people will take the potential of immersive technologies like virtual and augmented reality very seriously.
We are very proud of the names attached so far. John Gaeta is Creative Director for New Media and Experiences at Lucasfilm. You know Bullet Time in the Matrix movies? John and his team won an Academy Award for that. People talk about the Matrix and how it moved them and blah, blah, blah. Well, John's the man!
Habib Zargarpour, Creative Director at Microsoft Studios is flying in. A creative genius who has worked on everything from Star Wars: Phantom Menace to Twister plus countless games and projects. An absolute genius. You'll hang on every word.
Ever heard of The Sleepy Hollow Oculus Rift experience from Comic Con San Diego? James Milward, Founder of Secret Location will be speaking, as will AMD, as will Nvidia, as will Khronos, and so on and so on.
TH: Why did you organize Immersed, and what do you hope will be the end result of this conference?
NS: I've been working in this industry since 2007, and I can't tell you how many times I've flown to California for a conference for 3D, or video games, or immersive tech. Meanwhile, 60% of Canada's game development community is driving distance from Toronto. The cinema world is also very strong here. The U.S. has a great content-making presence on the East Coast, too. It's crazy, right? Why should California have all the fun? It's time to meet some new faces and see some wild new ideas!
If the industry is going to count on every content maker to release imaginative experiences and products, it has to expand its focus. A lot of opportunity is being missed because there is too much attention on a relatively small area.
If you need to be trained with AR/VR technologies, if you want to start a business in this space, if you are a gamer or consumer and just want to try things out for yourselves -- get yourself registered. There is something for everyone.
For me, I will be thrilled when people get to try out all the cool gadgets and content during the public exhibit, I want to see the investment community and government groups super-excited about this technology so more doors are open for would-be content makers and entrepreneurs, and I want to see innovators getting the skills they need to release the next great product.
TH: Many people see AR/VR as little more than gimmickry, particularly as it pertains to gaming. What would you say to those critics?
NS: I've owned a 3D camera for years. It has two lenses on it, so when you play pictures back, it's really in 3D! Every time I'd take a picture, people felt compelled to stick their hands out in front of them or do something funny with their bodies, when most of us see in 3D every day. At SIGGRAPH, I took a picture of Palmer Luckey from Oculus VR, Richard Marks from Sony PlayStation, Jeri Ellsworth from Technical Illusions, Jason Jerald from Nextgen Interactions, and more. These people live and breathe in 3D, and yet they couldn't resist doing that, too. I just think it's interesting that people feel compelled to do it.
Now is it a gimmick? I had the chance to try Oculus VR's Crescent Bay demo at Oculus Connect in September. Physically walk around an environment with cars flying overhead and dodging shrapnel with your body. Is this a gimmick? What if you can't step over a virtual ledge because your body believes it to be real. Is this a gimmick?
I met someone who is writing a game that can actually detect whether or not you are performing CPR correctly. Is potentially saving lives a gimmick?
At SIGGRAPH 2014, Oxford University researchers used augmented reality glasses to capture the surroundings with a mounted webcam and pass on the visual data in a simplified form that makes it possible for legally blind people to see in a meaningful way. Is this a gimmick?
Imagine sitting in your living room but experiencing a courtside seat on a basketball court and being able to look around as though you are really there. It's not Pay Per View anymore, it's Pay Per Experience. Is this a gimmick? Is that bleacher seat still worth the paper it's printed on?
These are all meaningful uses and experiences that are redefining media as we know it. No gimmicks here.
TH: What does the average person need to know about AR/VR and its purpose in their lives? (Now, and/or in the relatively near future?)
NS: What we are seeing and experiencing today is just the first of many waves of modern technology. I firmly believe we have a future to look forward to that features a wide range of products, and the hardware and software is just going to get better.
Content is not born equal; at least not yet. There are some experiences that are going to really impress you, and there are far more that definitely need work as the industry goes through its learning curve. Things will of course get better, and they are!
As for purpose, I'm confident it will grab hold as a required part of our day-to-day. The same way I clamor for my email and chat on my smartphone, I think fashionable augmented reality glasses will bring practical use to how we live our daily lives. VR is already a proven vision in that sci-fi shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation's holodeck or movies like The Matrix gave us a fantasy or idea we naturally strived for (minus the Agent Smiths!).
TH: What does the VR/AR industry need in order to get to the next level?
NS: During the days of 3D standardization, I used to know someone who was high up in the display industry. He told me that there was a new policy that employees were forbidden to speak to employees of competing companies. The only time they were allowed to talk or exchange was when they were in the standards meeting, and they were forbidden to do so outside that room, even socially. The joke was that one of his coworkers was married to someone who worked for a competitor. True story.
The end result of this unwillingness to collaborate between brands devastated 3D, far more than glasses, bad content, silly looks or evil spirits. Billions of dollars were wasted because of crappy politics.
We have a new shot with immersive technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality to really launch a new class of mass market media. 3D is still in the game, by the way. Dimension Technologies Inc. is planning to show a new glasses-free prototype at Immersed -- something I'm told is very cool.
When you ask about the next step, I will frame it this way: the Immersed conference has more than 25 speakers flying in from all over the world to speak and train others in Toronto. The investment community, government and media will be there, as will many of the top vendors. There is even a free opportunity for the general public to get involved. It's very unusual to have a mix like this under one roof to build and foster a new industry. All the tools will be present.
Provided everyone is onside and Immersed is a visible success, I really think we will have nurtured new talent and opened new doors and resources that were previously unavailable to would-be content makers and entrepreneurs. Immersed is a politics-free zone, which is why so many industry leaders are getting involved.
When we have achieved this visible success, the industry will have moved on to the next level.
Tom's Hardware is a media sponsor for Immersed. Stay tuned for more coverage and interviews with Immersed speakers in the coming weeks.
If you wish to register, there's a temporary promotion code ("gettingimmersed") that will knock $200 off the registration cost; hotel discounts are still good for a few more days. Primarily, Immersed will consist of industry folks, but there is a free public exhibition on Sunday afternoon, November 23.
In any case, space is limited, so register in advance if you want to claim a spot. The Immersed conference is running registration through the Eventbrite page.
Update, 10:06 AM 10/23: Fixed date of public access to free public exhibition.