I recently came back from a very exciting trip to the US, sorry. Well I say recently, it’s been a good few days but the jet lag seems to be winning so this has taken me a while to write.

I had the incredible opportunity to spend two weeks exploring SXSW with my other job and GDC with Cooperative Innovations, seeing the latest in immersive media and tech as well as making some excellent new friends along the way. In order to report back on what was useful and in an attempt not to make you too sick with envy I’ve tried to keep the post brief and just limited to my top three take aways from each event.

Top Three Things from SXSW

1. Some Really Solid Advice

This was my first time at SXSW and while I saw a lot of what I was expecting in the shape of lots of new tech, and robots, and branded hype, I also saw some brilliant art work and some really useful talks. From all the talks I saw the one slide that has stuck with me is this one:

“It is not enough to immerse people in another world, we also need to give them a mission and a set of tools”

This was from a discussion about the future of museums, and the place of immersive media within that context. The panel talked through their manifesto for making engaging, future content in museums but actually a lot of the advice carries for all content makers regardless of the content.

2. A Future Without Screens

For me, at this point, I don’t think ‘a future without screens’ is an earth shattering statement, but it does still feel like a looooong way off. However things like Bose Frames and Vrai’s new spatial audio platform ‘Traverse‘ give me a sense of what that future could be like.

The glasses offer open ear sound, and considering there is nothing on or in your ear the sound fidelity is frankly amazing – there is some audio leak to other users but it’s not huge. The glasses have a mic so you can take calls but most interestingly they also have an accelerometer, a gyroscope, and a compass. This is where the Traverse app steps in, as it enables content makers to share spatial audio pieces designed with these features in mind. The piece I got to demo allowed me to walk around a recording of Elvis with his band playing ‘Suspicious Minds’ and get clearer sound from each artist in the group as I walked around “the band” – it’s a brilliant experience, and genuinely quite thrilling to stand right next to Elvis while he was singing.

3. High Quality VR

The range, depth and quality of the work on show in the Virtual Cinema at SXSW was just excellent. Stand out pieces for me were the BBC’s ‘Nothing To Be Written‘ (which I had to sit down after watching so I could have a good cry) is a stunning piece of work that shows a maturity in VR as an art form that I don’t think I’d really seen before. Also I could go on and on about how much I loved ‘Four Feet/Blind Date‘, a 360 exploration of a wheelchair user’s experience of online dating and life from her perspective. The other unexpected highlight for me was what felt like a very short demo of ‘Eleven Eleven‘ from SyFy, it feels like a slick AAA game, but it’s a story that you can explore from beginning to end from the perspective of each of the characters at your own pace. I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did and actually I would love to get more time with it – 15mins wasn’t long enough for me even though usually 15/20mins is my maximum capacity for having a headset on.

Please also see, the food, the people, the art, the food and the music – oh my – what an amazing festival, what a brilliant city, please can I go back next year?

Top Three Things From GDC

1. The Games

This is me having a demo play of ‘Trover Saves the Universe‘ from Squanch Games, a studio set up by Justin Roiland, co creator of Rick and Morty. The game isn’t associated with the brand but it is very much in the same tone, and frankly it was everything I expected it to be. I’m really really looking forward to it getting released.

So, this is awkward, because Cooperative Innovations is an immersive studio, but this is where I need to out myself as a mobile phone gamer: they’re the games I play the most and the games I’ve the most experience of producing. I’d read about Consume Me before going to GDC and actually getting to play it exceeded my expectations of it – it’s such a great game, I really love its POV, sense of humour, and pace. After mobile games, multiplayer games are always the games I choose to play, and I also loved ‘Sloppy Forgeries‘ – it’s a simple race against the clock to see who can ‘paint’ the closest forgery of a classic work of art. What’s not to love?

2. The Tech

To a certain extent we’ve got two of the five senses covered with VR headsets – sight and sound – but we’ve still the three other senses we could take advantage of to immerse people in. Taste and smell I think are a way off: I’ve seen some tech demos of smell but nothing convincing just yet. With touch, however, we’re getting better – during my trip I’ve seen a number of haptic suits and gloves that offer a kind of ‘touch’ experience, but still putting on overly warm gloves along with your overly warm and heavy headset isn’t a great ‘experience’. So the concept of ‘mid air haptics’ really caught my attention. Having now experienced a demo from Ultrahaptics I can say, actually, it’s really very surprisingly effective and I’m excited to see where that goes next and what devs can do with it.

3. The Market

So from a Business Development point of view, what I can tell you about the market for immersive games is… it’s still on the edge of something exciting. We’re not quite there yet but we’re right on the edge. From seeing the content at both GDC and SXSW, we’ve a maturing content and development skills scene. I saw a full breadth of VR games from bedroom development all the way up to AAA standard which show to me there is a depth to this community. The hardware is constantly updating and we’ve a number of opportunities ahead of us. We’re definitely most excited by what Oculus Quest could do to potentially change the home market.

Did I mention the food though?