Software Development

DC’s virtual reality scene is on the verge of something big

Where should we go next? Tom Milavec, a digital strategist at Gensler, riffs on the sci-fi concept of a “consensual hallucination.”

The work of London-based artist Keiichi Matsuda. (Photo by Flickr user Meet the Media Guru, used under a Creative Commons license)

A lot of people (like me) grew up with the idea that the brain-frying digital environment described in William Gibson’s Neuromancer was just around the corner. Neuromancer birthed the pop culture idea of plugging your consciousness into a digital world and watching the physical realm evaporate. Gibson called it a “consensual hallucination.” And even thought his vision is thirty years old, it’s as awesome now as it was back when it was hatched.
Sure, we’re still waiting for Gibson’s vision to come to life, but massive leaps in virtual reality (VR) technology are pushing us closer. And what’s on the horizon is pretty dope. It seems like we’re on the verge of something ginormous. We’re nearing a turning point that’ll reshape not just how we view digital space but how we see and interact with all space. For the D.C. tech community, this is a huge opportunity. It’s a chance to take our emerging VR scene to a new level by helping to shape the future of digital environments.
Our VR scene is totally blowing up. We’re seeing the emergence of amazing local companies — from APX Labs to VisiSonics — who are hashing out ways to make immersive digital environments a reality. Plus, there’s a network of local entrepreneurs, engineers and enthusiasts connecting via the DC VR Meetup and working to make our metro area a hotbed of VR development.
If you’re interested in these topics, come to the Ambassador Program, a series of free events we’re organizing on design, tech and policy. Our first event is on Sept. 27 at 5:30 p.m. at our office (2020 K St. NW). Panelists from JonesLangLaSalle, iStrategyLabs and Gensler will discuss the question: “Is app based location software changing the urban landscape of the District?”
But while we’re waiting for the immersive “consensual hallucination,” we’re also working on some other way cool possibilities for digital environments. Digital experience designers, like me and my colleagues at design firm Gensler, have been exploring the idea of digital as content baked into a physical environment, and we’re pretty stoked about the possibilities playing out across D.C. and other forward-leaning cities.
Why? Because the digital/physical crossroads is a super wide open frontier. We’re still figuring out the necessary frameworks, contact points, limitations and experiences that can result. We’re investigating how digital content can not only enhance a space but also define it. And we’re exploring different types of digital content — branding content, social content, news and informational content, abstract content — and looking at the ways each plays out in a physical environment.

We’re investigating how digital content can not only enhance a space but also define it.

We’re also jamming on a basic question: How do you use digital tools in a physical space to tell an authentic story? Using digital to create eye candy is one thing. Using it to deliver narratives and compelling experiences is another.
At Gensler, we’re exploring answers to that question in our projects. We’re finding those answers in everything from totems that display real-time social media content, which we created for the new Washington Post headquarters, to screens that show branded digital video, which we developed for the Brand USA headquarters on I Street.
But one of the biggest questions about digital space is: What happens when the screens go away? What happens when the boundaries between digital and physical vanish and you’re able to have a seamless digital experience?
That frontier is something that plenty of people across the globe are exploring already. For starters, check out the craziness going on with London-based Keiichi Matsuda at Matsuda is a trained architect who now creates speculative films about augmented reality (AR). His work wades into the deep end of the overlay of digital information and content onto the physical world.
Florida-based Magic Leap has a slightly different vision. They’re calling it mixed reality (MR) and they’re prototyping the hardware to make it happen. The people at Magic Leap are super secretive, but so far they’ve shared images of a thin photonics chip that looks a lot like a lens for a pair of glasses. The lens creates a digital light-field signal that get beamed onto your retina (I know that sounds way scary, but it’s actually really safe) and tricks the brain into seeing virtual objects mixed into and responsive to the physical world.
No doubt, there’s room for multiple centers for digital space innovation around the globe. The question for the D.C. tech community is: how do we leverage our promising start in VR/AR technology to become one of those centers?

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