VANCOUVER — Denise Quesnel is the program chair for this year’s VR Village, which will be presented at the Anaheim Convention Center when SIGGRAPH 2016 takes place, from July 24th through the 28th. Post spoke with her just as her committee was solidifying this year’s program. This year is the second appearance of the VR Village at SIGGRAPH, following its debut in Los Angeles last summer. Here, Quesnel provides an idea of what attendees can expect, what they’ve learned from last year’s effort, and what’s on the radar for SIGGRAPH 2017.
Post: How much space is SIGGRAPH dedicating to the VR Village this year?
Quesnel: “Even though the Anaheim Convention Center is quite small, VR Village has a pretty big chunk of the hall. What we are calling the ‘experiential venues,’ which in the past has been everything from VR Village, to Studios, to Art Gallery and Emerging Technologies — those four programs are being grouped together into the Experience Hall. What that means for the VR Village area is that although it does have its own section — Studio and Art Gallery and Emerging Tech are all close in size this year — bleeds into Studio and Emerging Technologies a little bit, which is a nice reflection of the submissions that were accepted this year. They do integrate a little bit of Emerging Technology and Studio into VR.”
Post: The VR Village is all about experience, and less about technology?
Quesnel: “No commercial material will be on the floor. That was a decision that was as tricky as it was straightforward. This is a long-time SIGGRAPH thing. We want to make sure the exhibit hall stays dedicated to exhibitors, who have a very specific focus when they come to SIGGRAPH. And the Experience Hall stays just for those who are in the early stages — prototyping, or content creators, maybe they create art installations, maybe it’s healthcare — none the less, it is going to look so different from an exhibit floor. It’s going to be an artistic/technical space. Even the way that we are setting it up — there are not going to be any stand-up banners. No marketing material laying about. It’s 100 percent focused on the attendee experience, which really aligns with SIGGRAPH’s vision.”
Post: How does the technology appear?
Quesnel: “The manufacturers work with the contributors who are bringing the material to SIGGRAPH and figure out a way to get them to work together and share equipment, resources or advice. It’s been a really relaxed and genuine environment.
“With the exception of a couple of major sponsors, we are taking care of the expenses and the equipment needs of the area. It’s more focused on coming into the experience, feeling relaxed, open, trying to keep lines down to a minimum, and keeping the hardware and product focus away helps a little bit in focusing on the content and what you are trying to use the hardware for.”
Post: Are most of the VR submissions headset-based?
Quesnel: “Almost all do use a headset, although some use a headset in a very unusual way. I can give you the example of an installation called Parallel Eyes. It’s from a few folks over in Japan - Sony CSL, the University of Tokyo and a group called the YCAM InterLab. Parallel Eye explores human behaviors when you add parallel, first-person view sharing within a head-mounted display…I’ve never seen anything like that done. I’m excited to have people try it. It’s really going to open up people’s eyes and minds as to what is capable through VR and AR.”
Post: Did you see an increase in this year’s submissions?
Quesnel: “[We were] inundated. It was such an incredible experience. This is the first year of the VR Village being adjudicated, meaning all of the submissions came through the general submission process. We had record-breaking submissions. It’s only our second year in, but it eclipsed the submissions that Emerging Technologies and Studio [received] by 40. I think we had 120-130 and each submission takes 10 minutes to watch and review, so that was a time-consuming process. We had a great jury and they knew what to look for and what to be weary of. Out of [those] we were allocated to review, we accepted 12 installations and 10 short films. It was difficult. When the jury scored the submission, they could rank it from ‘1,’ being low, to ‘5,’ being extraordinary. These top 22 submissions have 4s and 5s across the board. Some were solid 5s.
“There was a lot of taking a chance too, because when they were submitted in February, they were ‘in-progress’ still. They were intending on creating things for SIGGRAPH and asked to please keep in consideration — they we’re going to do so much more. So the experience jury had to see the potential of these submissions and see that the benefit would far outweigh the risk.”
Post: SIGGRAPH, it seems, has always had an eye on VR?
Quesnel: “Last year was really reaction to what was going on. VR has always been so rooted in SIGGRAPH, since like ’92 and ‘93, in that it eventually became ‘Emerging Technologies.’ It’s always come up and down, and had a large academic focus. And as years went on and studios started paying more attention to SIGGRAPH as a major venue for them, we started seeing it bleed together a bit. It goes silent outside of the academic space, only to blast off again four years ago.”
Post: How has the VR Village evolved?
Quesnel: “I wasn’t meant to be onboard until 2016, and I came on a year early because it was just happening so quick. We realized — all of us chairs and those on the SIGGRAP committee — we have to plan now to have a pretty good stake. Last year it was as beautiful as it was chaotic. We had 78 total submissions that would swap out every day, so you never really saw the same thing twice. That was the chaos. But for most people, that was their first time touching VR and AR, and they sure got a lot of different experiences in one go.
“This year is a lot more focused. Now we know what attendees are starting to like, and what they like are installations that allow them to do things that they can’t do at home or work right now. Whether that means they utilize the space in a different way, or technology, or maybe it’s an unlicensed technology that’s currently in development, or content that you just can’t set up — this is the place to experience that. And each of these projects has a discrete goal. Maybe it’s to further human embodiment, or maybe it’s a test of the artificial intelligence within their computer system. Maybe it’s a documentary film that utilizes brand new concepts of human/computer interaction? Each one has a clear goal that they were trying to achieve. It wasn’t just, ‘We created this 360 film and look at how pretty it is.’ It’s far more genuine than that.
“Originally, [VR Village] was supposed to be just a temporary concept, but it was such a runaway success that the SIGGRAPH committee kept voting to bring it back.”
Post: How do you feel the VR business is evolving?
Quesnel: “It’s such an exciting time right now that just watching how things go isn’t an option anymore. If you’ve got an idea for a project, the best idea is to jump right in and start making errors and iterating like crazy. The nice thing right now is everybody is on this even playing ground. Some players are starting to emerge and it’s very exciting, but for the most part, anyone can crack open Unity or Unreal, and create right on the spot. You don’t even need to build your own assets. You can load them straight in from the library and just start exploring. It’s very minimum risk. And what we are seeing with a lot of the submissions is that they’ve moved past that phase. That was them, maybe two or three years ago, just exploring, and now they are really starting to nail down what they want to achieve.”
Post: You are already looking to the 2017 show?
Quesnel: “We are working on a special project, and this is something that’s still in development. You are the first person I am actually speaking to about [it]. It’s a special project to adapt the Computer Animation Festival in 2017 to also include virtual reality experiences. They are testing out this little 10 grouping of this ‘VR short film row’ at SIGGRAPH this year to see how we manage the lines, to see what attendees like, how is the experience of demoing for five days? Maybe it’s too exhausting and we need to do three? So we are using them as a guinea pig, going off of what we know from last year and what we inherently know about what people like.
“What it means is the call for submissions for the Computer Animation Festival next year will also include immersive filmmaking. And we’ll have a venue and way to show multiple films under the auspice of that program. That’s our joint special project. I don’t think the Computer Animation Festival has gone through as drastic a change in many, many years.”