With E3 in the rearview and VRLA on the horizon, it's hard to imagine carving out any extra mental space for yet another conference, yet another round of panels and product announcements and business cards to clutter your suitcase.
But Virtual & Augmented Reality Toronto World Conference & Expo won't be like anything you've ever attended.
When I hopped on the phone to talk to VRTO Executive Director Keram Malicki-Sánchez earlier this week, I really didn't know what to expect. I had some questions prepped so that I'd be able to best cover the event while I'm there. After hanging up, I was buzzing with excitement. I didn't reference my questions once -- this guy's passion and depth of engagement just spilled out of him.
When it kicks off this weekend, VRTO is going to:
1. Literally Make History
...with a proposal to ratify a Code of Ethics for Human Augmentation, spearheaded by Steve Mann, the Chief Scientist for Meta and General Chair of the IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society. Mann, who holds patents for the first smartwatch (from back in the 1980s) and the camera-based contact lens, has been donning an eye display throughout the last 4 decades, so it's understandable why he's been called the "father of wearable computing."
"He has written a bunch of papers that he's going to announce at this show, having to do with what he's observed," Malicki-Sánchez said. "It's not just 'Steve Mann's Code of Ethics.' We want to ratify and underwrite this with participation of others." On the panel directly following Mann's keynote address, he'll be joined five other experts, among them Brett Leonard, famous for directing Lawnmower Man in 1992, considered the first seminal film to explore virtual reality.
"Brett is somebody who, if you look back at his work, some of it is very B-movie-ish," said Malicki-Sánchez. "That's not because it's a poor director making feeble attempts at virtual reality movies. On the contrary, it's somebody who's making grindhouse films as cautionary tales against a possible future, that, you know, we should probably think about a couple times before we unleash it."
Imagine it's 2020. You're sporting a spiffy new augmented reality headset. You're walking down the street when you spot an intriguing stranger. Imagine right then that you can access all kinds of information about this stranger using your AR headset -- and they can do the same to you -- all before you've said a word to each other. What information should be made available to us in this case? What about to corporations and the government? A code of ethics helps create a starting point in finding solutions to the complicated questions we've yet to encounter.
"This is not about the fun police coming in and being the PTA or whatever -- it's about saying, 'You know when we'll really have fun is when we have a basic general agreement between us to not be complete assholes about this thing,'" said Malicki-Sánchez. "It's way too easy to exploit people in this tech. You're basically hijacking their sympathetic nervous systems, blindfolding them, and immersing them completely and setting all their senses on fire... and then giving them a highly focused, curated message within that. If that's put into hands that only care about the bottom line, it's terrifying what can happen. There are deep physiological and neurological implications to the use of this tech, whether it's short- or long-term, and they're really only documented in hardcore academia. Aside from very basic, common-sense suggestions that are in the literature when you get these products, there's no other standards that exist."
This isn't to say that we should approach VR and AR with doom and gloom. Quite the contrary!
"There are millions of beneficial applications," said Malicki-Sánchez. "You can take a legless veteran and let them have walking experiences again, you can take a grandmother in a convalescent home and have her back in her childhood bedroom, you can take someone who's afraid of spiders or elevators or public bathrooms or driving on freeways and provide exposure therapy in a way you can't anywhere else."
And this is only the very beginning.
"This may explode into something totally unexpected. We can see this happening already in the industry -- the fact that Chris Milk just a few days ago announced that Vrse is going to call itself 'Within,' belies what just two years of exposure to this new medium has already revealed: a whole longer road that we didn't even consider."
So how do you tap into all the awesome potential of VR for the light side of the force?
2. Redesign How We Share VR
In attending a variety of conferences and festivals, Malicki-Sánchez noticed flaws in the way VR is exhibited. Take Kaleidoscope, for example.
"They basically truck a bunch of swivel chairs around the country -- which is totally great -- and they evangelize 360 videos -- which is totally great -- and they oversell these venues for 3 hours and people line up and then they got hot and sweaty and frustrated -- and that totally sucks," said Malicki-Sánchez. "That's not the way they should be herding people through these experiences. It's bottlenecking us into this horrible carnival-barker type attitude and it cheapens the effect."
And this model will prove especially unsustainable once we all have our own VR headsets, a realization Malicki-Sánchez made at Kaleidoscope's NAB pavilion.
"It was a roped-off area with a bunch of people swiveling around making awe-struck faces while people outside the rope took pictures of them with captions like, 'Wow, look at the future of VR' and 'We're all doomed,'" said Malicki-Sánchez. "It was a humiliating, debasing, un-inclusive experience. It was like they were on display. And I thought, where's the privacy for these people, where's the respect and dignity for these viewers who are submitting themselves to this vulnerable position? If the people weren't so excited to see the technology in the first place they might think twice about that and think, 'Why should I submit myself to that kind of ridicule?'"
So Malicki-Sánchez took an entirely different approach with the FIVARS (Festival of International Virtual and Augmented Reality Stories) pavilion at VRTO, which will feature a host of world premieres.
"We do it for 8-hour stretches," said Malicki-Sánchez. "We run an algorithm that decides how many people can go through in a day, so that each viewer has a 25-minute choice of what they see, never has to stand in a lineup, and is never rushed through. And then, not only that, but they have a certain amount of discretion, and afterward they have an opportunity to talk about what their experience was with it -- either with the filmmakers themselves or our guys who can share the feedback -- rather than being carted out of their seat so the next person's ass can be plopped down in it. Because at this point it should be about a conversation and about discovery, and how each unique person who sits down in one of those chairs matters. They matter! It's not just tickets. They're people who are going see that RYOT documentary about Aleppo from their point of view and that totally matters. That matters as much as the content, if not much more."
"FIVARS is not a virtual reality film festival because I don't think virtual reality and film should really be put together in the same sentence," said Malicki-Sánchez. "It's an experimental festival that forces the question of the submitters, 'What novel mechanics are you introducing with your project?' It's kind of a jerk thing to ask. Like, 'Wow, it's not good enough that I made a good 360 video that tells a good story, now you want me to introduce a unique mechanics to that?' And I say, 'Yeah, for sure, try something and fail at it miserably and let's learn from that.' And we manage to find 15-20 pieces a year (this is our 2nd year and we've done about 4 shows), where we keep finding new mechanics, where people say, 'Let's keep the camera stationary and do theatre-in-the-round,' or 'Let's convince Samsung to allow us do multi-directional audio on a Gear VR and have 4 simultaneous stories happening at the same time,' or 'Let's have you move through a Van Gogh painting but you're using an Xbox controller.'"
With each success and failure, we learn something new about the budding media. In the case of the "The Night Cafe," it was made exceedingly clear that motion sickness can occur in even the most serene VR environments.
"If it had been some kind of fragging, first-person shooter and everybody got sick then we'd be like, 'Oh yeah, of course.' But it wasn't -- it's a gentle, calm painting and people made themselves nauseatingly ill by not using the controllers properly."
3. Emphasize People, not Products
"VRTO is not something where the keynote was purchased by a company and then delivered by their Head of Sales," said Malicki-Sánchez. "Not a single talk was purchased or paid for. I didn't allow it. I also didn't allow merchants or vendors to buy floorspace so that they could drop a stack of business cards and then walk away and check their Tinder. Every booth has to push forward our modes of thinking, it has to challenge what we're doing. We can't afford to have platitudes and generalizations and 'just good enough,' and then phone this in the way Best Buy phoned in 3D TVs."
Malicki-Sánchez was a young adult when the Internet began to enter the public conscious.
"In 1992, when we were starting to shift into graphical interfaces for this incredible, telephathic new technology that was suddenly emerging and being gifted to us by the military-industrial complex, I said, 'How long are we going to have this present before somebody takes it away? How do we vanguard against the inevitable paywalls that are going to come up? They're going to figure it out and all of a sudden we'll have scarcity models, sales funnels, and paywalls, and this will all be taken away. Sure enough -- there's more data than there's ever been up online, and all we do is go to Facebook."
So what can we do to make sure that VR doesn't become a corporate commodity?
"It's about being open-hearted, honest, authentic, and noble," said Malicki-Sánchez. "And also being careful to try not to impose restrictions that limit kinds of creativity that we're unfamiliar with, because there are people who might have really amazing ideas that don't resonate with us, and it's not our obligation or privilege to drown them out. We have to keep it wide open. It's a tricky thing to do, isn't it?"
4. Generate Cutting-Edge Conversations
Malicki-Sánchez's tenure as Editor-in-chief of Indie Game Reviewer put him front and center for the indie game renaissance of the aughts.
"The software and the tools got democratized and it wasn't incredibly difficult to make video games anymore, and all of a sudden it became this cultural tool for expression. You got Twine and GameMaker. It grew, it blossomed, it became a leveraging tool with major consoles. And now VR is feeling the same way."
In preparation for assembling VR Toronto, he spent the last 12 months attending and researching conferences.
"I found that a lot of these panels were a re-skin of the same talk, you know, 'Storytelling in VR,' over and over and over again. And of course we're very interested in the fact that VR is disruptive to the very nature of narrative itself! But I found a lot of those answers already existed in the indie game space, which has been doing incredible work in exploring non-linear approaches for years. And without drilling down into how amazing that whole conversation can be, what's important is that all these people are being catalyzed to have this conversation again by way of the current virtual reality renaissance. These people were there for the indie game explosion, they were there for the Internet's information superhighway explosion, and every couple of years they kind of cluster together and start sharing ideas again."
To capitalize on this swell of energy, Malicki-Sánchez got straight to recruiting for VRTO.
"I went and I cherry-picked all of the hotheads that had really radical or controversial opinions and put them together for this show. It was like The Muppet Movie, I went around and found them and convinced them to come to Toronto. And believe me, two months ago nobody knew what the hell I was talking about -- like, 'What backwoods thing is this, I'm sick of VR shows, I've been to all of them' -- I said, no no no, this is different, I promise. And now they're all looking at each other going, 'Holy shit, you're going to be there?' And I'm just excited to see what it manifests."
Why go to such pains to make a non-traditional conference?
"People say, 'Why do you have to be such a disruptive pain in the ass?' And it's not just the punk history I'm coming from, it's the fact that we have to create more space because we're already getting bottlenecked by habituation. All these companies keep saying, 'It's all about the content,' and people just echo that because they don't know what to say. 'It's all about the content.' Well what does that mean? So for instance we have a panel called, 'OK, So We Can Shoot in 360. Can We Start Making It Interesting Now?' These panels are not just talking heads -- they're highly curated. I can't control what they're going to say and I have no intention of doing that. I don't know if they'll go well or they'll go poorly, but at least I know they'll go really well or really poorly. The won't be boring."
5. Announce Toronto as a VR Hub
Malicki-Sánchez has called Los Angeles home for 20 years, so why not host the conference there?
"LA's amazing, I really love LA. I've learned a lot there, a lot of the smartest thinkers in this space are there -- but when I thought between LA and my native Toronto, I thought, Toronto is strangely a much more volatile gestation ground. It's sort of New York and Chicago and Detroit and Montreal and Buffalo, and it's on the other side of the border, and there's Canadian grants and subsidies which allow things to be developed for their own sake, not necessarily as market-driven. The nature of the research is different."
What's more: Toronto was also recently named the Most Multicultural City in the World. This makes it a hotbed for the kind of forward-thinking necessary in maintaining a culture of technological innovation.
"There's something about [Toronto] to me that's much more sociologically experimental," said Malicki-Sánchez. "This whole notion of a 'melting pot' doesn't exist -- it's a mosaic. People just come here and then they just are. So it's a powerful place to stage the meeting of East and West. Steve Mann himself comes from Toronto -- the Chief Scientist for Meta, which is in Silicon Valley, is still based in Toronto! So I convinced him we should stage this in Toronto, the announcement of this Code of Ethics, because what Fort Lauderdale is to space travel, Toronto is to wearable technology and augmentation. And he agreed."
VRTO might also clear up some misconceptions about Toronto in helping it emerge as a tech powerhouse.
"It's not some kind of South Park-y utopia, it's just a crazy, incredible mess of cultures and things going on. It's labyrinthian, it's like Blade Runner, it really is. All of these things on top of each other, influencing each other, affecting each other. It usually leaves me pretty breathless."
And VR is just the beginning of what Malicki-Sánchez suspects is a long, fascinating road -- one full of trial and error and learning of all sorts.
"I always remember this poem when I was growing up about plugging things into the wrong sockets to see what blows up or what lights up," said Malicki-Sánchez. "So, every time we're about to turn a corner into darkness, if you really make a big mess, you might just suddenly realize there's a crack up in the ceiling above you, and then there's a whole new horizon. I just feel like there's all these people saying 'Aw, VR's been here forever, this is just another version of it.' But what if it's not? What if it's not that at all? What if there's a history of experimentation and exploration and a foundation upon which we can build -- and that's substantial and important -- but what if this new confluence of art forms and sciences and philosophy and conjecture and psychology and physicality are not about VR at all but about the future of the human race? And as this inevitable, massive cruise ship sets out to sea, I want to kick it with my running shoe and see if I can slightly alter its course to be a good one, and not just sail into a gigantic iceberg, sponsored by McDonald's."