Lessons from SXSW 2017 – Part Two – Virtual & Augmented Reality

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By Robert Lowe 5 months ago

This is our first attempt at distilling the SXSW 2017 experience into manageable chunks, focusing on the key trends from the conference. Part two focuses on the sh*t load of VR and AR tech at this years conference. There was more virtual, mixed and augmented reality technology and software of show than you could possibly imagine.

Whether is was the subject of one of the 1,300+ sessions or an exhibit in the massive tradeshow – if there was an excuse to use a virtual reality headset, it was at SXSW 2017. I have never worn so many headsets and it was the first time I knew that ‘Headset Hygiene’ was a thing!

If showcasing new VR tech was a competition, the surprise winner was Sony. Sony presented; ‘The Wow Factory’ at SXSW – a warehouse transformed into an innovation laboratory immersing you in cutting-edge creative and technological concepts developed with a spirit of open-minded and unbridled experimentation.

Stepping inside The Wow Factory was like seeing into a future where virtual and augmented reality are full-body experiences taking over all of the senses. While none of these technologies are ready to buy, Sony’s ambitious set-up was seriously impressive and certainly set them apart from any of the other major tech exhibitors at SXSW.

Although probably the most impractical and expensive thing I saw at SXSW, the Synesthesia Suit was also my favourite. This virtual reality experience is truly immersive. The suit has 26 actuators that vibrate all over your body. Instead of simply hearing the music’s bass through the TV or a pair of headphones, the suit radiates sensation throughout your body, from your arms to your ankles and down your torso. It brought the game to life in a totally unique way.

There was also a VR team game in which we collected treasure and traveled around on a mining cart… or at least thought we did! The testament to the technology here was that we avoided bumping into each other.

Throughout SXSW there was more VR than I can possibly do credit. From VR projection mapping technology, VR exploration of a NASA launch pad, live-action VR documentaries, VR music studios in which you can compose symphonies in real time. There was also the Swiss invention ‘Birdy’, where you are strapped into a machine that let’s you fly like a bird over New York.

NASA’s presence and implementation of VR made them a close runner-up to Sony at SXSW. Space exploration has been the realm of robots and astronauts — until now. NASA is using immersive storytelling tools like Facebook 360, YouTube 360, Google Cardboard and Microsoft HoloLens to convert mission data into shared experiences for people on Earth. NASA are using VR to walk on the surface of Mars to study the geology of the planet for future missions.


So… what’s the point?

The constant niggling that I could not shake whilst experimenting with all of the new VR tech was; ‘what’s the point?’. Other than gaming and potential immersive experiences at exhibitions etc – what are the main consumer applications for new VR & AR tech? Although reducing, there is still a large cost associated with the application development and hardware of VR.

The novelty of new tech needs to be tempered by whether it’s any good and fit for purpose.

Gary Vaynerchuk touched on the ‘consumer readiness’ of VR in his Q&A session.