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.

Michel Buchner, co-founder of VR/AR start-up, Weird Reality, headshotA 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.”

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