Getting weird: Why the multi-user experience is imperative for VR & AR
Charlotte Ashley meets Michel Buchner to discuss why the time was right to shift career focus to creating VR & AR experiences, and why the multi-user experience is at the core of his new company’s philosophy.
A technologist, one-time African safari guide and art school dropout, Michel Buchner’s CV may be eclectic, but a vein of creativity runs throughout it – which has now come to a fruition in new foray into the world of AR and VR.
“I always picked up technology really well at university,” says Buchner, who would later leave to immerse himself in the world of theatre, learning everything about video, sound and camera technologies. This experience teed him up well for creative roles at an event production company and experiential designer company Tinker imagineers.
“It’s funny because I used to come to Berlin and we’d philosophise a lot about where virtual technology will go. I actually found my notebook from January 2016, and I’d written exactly what we’re doing now,” reminisces Buchner, who left his role as creative technologist at Tinker imagineers in late 2017 and moved to Berlin to start afresh. Buchner and few stalwarts of the industry joined forces to create ‘Weird Reality,’ a start-up dedicated to creating customised immersive VR, AR and MR experiences for clients in the retail, museum and education space.
“What we had in common is that most of us came from the event industry where we worked with video projection, projection mapping and media services – the one shared component being that they all involve a 3D virtual space. We looked at the growth of VR and realised we were well-equipped to deliver these experiences.”
“It’s one big challenge at the moment,” admits Buchner. “Most initiatives are consumer-orientated, so we have products on the market that we want to use for professional purposes, but they aren’t made for that.” He adds: “And after a year the market has realised that consumer adoption is not that quick. We think that the adoption of AR and VR will be led by businesses.” For now, VR is the main priority for Weird Reality whilst AR is still in its “humble beginnings” and will be focused on later, according to Buchner.
Yet consumer-driven product development is only half the battle, there’s also a gap in the knowledge of clients or potential clients in what exactly they can achieve with VR. “What we notice is that when we start talking about VR is that they don’t really have the vision of what different types of VR there are (i.e. the difference between 360 and generated content in game engine), so it’s also been a matter of educating.”
“What we notice when we start talking about VR is that clients don’t really have the vision of what different types of VR there are.”
Although still a relatively new venture, the 14-person strong Weird Reality team is focusing its time developing its prototype for a multi-user VR experience, with other projects (currently including visualising a factory for a manufacturer of wood machines) also on the go. When completed, the company will seek out a launch partner for the multi-person VR application, which Buchner says is a big part of Weird Reality’s ethos when it comes to facilitating people entering the virtual world.
“We realised that what you feel in VR is that you really want share the experience, because although it’s amusing when you and your colleagues are in the same room and one of them has a headset on, it’s way better to be there together – to talk, laugh about what you see or be impressed by the same things.” He says there’s also value in creating a guiding function; “If you have the tools for a guide to show you around in the space, then you can have one person controlling the environment and showing you what you need to see and experience.” Buchner says although we are seeing some initiatives come to the forefront – particularly in the entertainment arena with attractions like the MR franchise ‘The Void’ – there is still work to be done when it comes to doing this is an educational way, or for exhibitions.
Buchner does see audio as a necessary ingredient to perfecting the virtual experience, but admits a lack of focus from the manufacturing side means the industry at large is concentrating on the visuals. “We had one manufacturer’s processor here to experiment with 24 speakers we had in house, but only to find out that they didn’t develop the product any further into the 3D space. Clearly their focus was not on VR, even though it could be a huge market for them.” One offering the company has had better luck in experimenting with is what Buchner labels a “revolutionary system” for playing with directional sound from fellow Berlin start-up Holoplot. “At the moment we are visually focused, but once our prototype is running we’re sure that a 360 audio experience will be added – but right now the industry still needs to catch up,” says Buchner.
Although Weird Reality has been able to make the hires it needs, in part thanks to its location, Buchner foresees that change has to come to mean we don’t suffer a shortage of the kind of technologists we need later down the line. “To be very honest I think our society will change over time and I think in 5 to 10 years it will be even more visually orientated than it is now, and all that content has to be made,” states Buchner. “Today’s curriculums don’t see the need in educating people in game engines. I think a game engine like Unity or Unreal should be mandatory for creative courses, the same as 3D drawing. That’s the future: everything will happen digitally. I think there will be a big shortage of people making the experiences they want, so this will be a growing challenge.”
When it comes to VR and AR technology in particular, speculation is rife regarding a time-frame to when they may be an intrinsic part of our lives. Gartner forecasts that VR will ‘plateau’ in two to five years on last year’s Hype Cycle. “When you think about how crazy it seems that last year was a decade since the iPhone’s release, it just shows how technology develops exponentially – and the development of VR should be even shorter. My safe assumption is somewhere between 8 and 12 years, because you need time to adapt other types of media too,” says Buchner. “But I think we’re going to see new concepts within a few years that persuade people to have a VR headset and become part of a large community.”