Virtual reality to be in SIGGRAPH 2014 spotlight

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The next big thing in computer entertainment could be virtual reality, and the latest hardware and software promising full-immersion experiences will be on view when SIGGRAPH returns to Vancouver with its annual convention and exhibition.

The Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques first staged its yearly gathering in Vancouver in 2011. SIGGRAPH 2014 takes place from Sunday to Thursday (August 10 to 14) at the Vancouver Convention Centre.

A number of events are open to the public. An “exhibits plus” pass costs $75 and includes admission to the art gallery, emerging-technologies demonstrations, tech talks, and the exhibition, which runs Tuesday to Thursday.

On Sunday at 3:45 p.m., a panel of pioneers will talk about recent technological advances in augmented and virtual reality at an event titled The Future Is Here. NextGen Interactions cofounder Jason Jerald will moderate the conversation, and in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, he called the participants “amazing”.

On the panel will be researchers Steven Feiner (Columbia University) and Henry Fuchs (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), and developers Jeri Ellsworth (Technical Illusions’ CastAR), Palmer Luckey (Oculus VR), and Richard Marks (Sony’s Project Morpheus).

Virtual reality (VR), according to Jerald, is a simulation that “completely replaces the real world with computer-generated cues”, while augmented reality (AR) “enhances the real world”. Kimberly Voll, a computer scientist at the Centre for Digital Media, said VR “helps your brain feel like it’s really there”.

The public has a sense that VR came about in the ’90s and then went away, Jerald noted. The truth is that the first head-mounted display for AR and VR was designed by Ivan Sutherland in 1968. Even if the public stopped paying attention, Jerald said, academic and military research and development continued apace. But those systems can cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars”.

“Most people don’t have a few hundred thousand dollars to install a VR system in their home,” Jerald said, “but some of them do have $350. That is really the explosion of interest in VR. It’s become affordable, and it’s…increased in quality, too.”

Voll, who backed the Kickstarter campaign for the Oculus Rift headset, told the Straight that her “childhood fantasy” about virtual reality is being reified.

“The very fact that Facebook stepped in to purchase them I think vets the idea in a really big way,” she said by phone, referring to the US$2-billion acquisition earlier this year.

Other AR- and VR-related events at SIGGRAPH include a more scientific panel discussing technologies on Monday at 9 a.m. and a discussion of the history and future of AR and VR later that day. There will also be demonstrations by developers during Real-Time Live! on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m., and a meet-up at the Pan Pacific Hotel Vancouver on Thursday morning in which developers will show off their experiences.

An indie-game showcase curated by the Media Indie Exchange, an organization that gives independent developers opportunities to bring attention to their works in progress, takes place Tuesday to Thursday.

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