Virtual Reality Advances on Display at Silicon Valley Expo

The third annual Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Expo, April 27-29, is the biggest one yet, although much of what’s being shown are works in progress.

VR Expo 2

SAN JOSE—Virtual stores, virtual worlds, immersive environments, 360-degree cameras, developer tools and more were on display here at one of the biggest events focused on virtual reality.

With almost 150 exhibitors, the third annual Silicon Valley Virtual Reality conference and expo, running April 27-29 has come a long way since 2014.

"We had 34 exhibitors that first year and that was pretty much everyone in the industry," Karl Krantz, CEO and creator of the SVVR event, told eWEEK.

These are heady times for VR, entering what can be considered its second or third act depending on how you rank earlier generations of the technology. "Virtual reality became a dirty word in the ‘90s because it didn’t meet its promise. When consumers tried the products they were disappointed," said Krantz.

So even though the VR industry has been around for decades, a new generation of products powered by advanced hardware and software is just coming to market or will shortly. Even Krantz admits most of the products being shown here are works in progress. "There are only a few finished, polished products," he said.

One example is AltspaceVR, a new mobile app that lets you make a virtual reality phone call to others using a Samsung Galaxy phone compatible with the company’s Gear VR headset. Others can join the call using Samsung Gear VR, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive or desktop computers with the AltspaceVR app installed. When you make a "VR Call" using the app, you can join friends and others in a virtual space where you appear as your favorite avatar.

The company already offers or plans a variety of virtual meeting spaces designed as taverns floating offices, living rooms, deserts and space stations. It’s also partnered with performers like Sarah Silverman on an improv comedy event all in VR.

Visual Intellect has a more serious mission. The company, which has customers in the oil and gas industry, was showing how its 3D visualization system could be used for designing complex structures such as a power plant or factory.

"Before you had to build the plant; now you can build a virtual simulation you can walk inside of, spot design problems and change things before they break or fail in the real world," Mukesh Patel, Director at Visual Intellect, told eWEEK.

Besides designing the virtual environments, Patel said the company's 3D visualization system can be used for training purposes and it can even simulate an explosion at an industrial plant to see if workers can understand what they need to do in such an emergency.

Two of the more ambitious VR ventures are from Noitom and High Fidelity.

Noitom (the name comes from the word ‘motion’ spelled backwards) has been offering an interactive VR solution in China that works in large spaces—something along the lines of the virtual reality Holodeck made famous by the television series "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

The system, called Project Alice, is being developed in association with several partners and includes hardware from Lenovo and graphics processors from Nvidia. Content is being developed in association with Chinese media giant Alpha Animation, Swiss VR house Kenzan Studios and mobile phone technology company Smartisan.

The company says the Project Alice experience will be available in the United States. later this year for about $100,000. "Most of VR has focused on single player experience like Oculus. We’re focused on multiplayer interaction, up to five users, in a large space," said Noitom's director of marketing Roch Nakajim, during a press briefing on Project Alice.

High Fidelity was created by a VR pioneer, Philip Rosedale, who over a decade earlier created the pioneering Second Life virtual reality platform. High Fidelity takes advantage of the latest hardware to support not just VR headgear, but controllers that create virtual hands you can use to pick up, throw and manipulate things in a virtual world much as you would your own hands in the physical world.

"Being able to use my hands changes everything," Krantz says. "I find I can’t go back to just sitting down with headgear, I’m used to that full body movement. I’ve actually lost weight the past month using these systems."

As for what’s coming next Krantz is a big believer that VR can enhance the social media experience. He admits there’s a certain irony in the fact that the more "real" the VR experience, the more compelling it is. "Some of the most amazing places in VR are recreations of nature," he said.

David Needle

David Needle

Based in Silicon Valley, veteran technology reporter David Needle covers mobile, bi g data, and social media among other topics. He was formerly News Editor at Infoworld, Editor of Computer Currents...