Yet even I was able to catch on as Brian Chirls, the chief technology officer of Williamsburg-based VR studio Datavized, walked us through building a basic VR scene using a platform called A-Frame. The syntax for A-Frame looked a lot like … HTML.
Could creating a virtual-reality experience be as simple as making a rudimentary website? That’s the eventual goal of Datavized.
Its founders — Chirls, CEO Hugh McGrory and chief strategy officer Debra Anderson — are working on a platform that they call “WordPress for VR.” But in fact, they aim to make it simpler than that: imagine dragging and dropping your way to a gripping, immersive scene.
McGrory, Anderson and Chirls initially launched Datavized in 2015 as a typical production studio, focused on virtual reality and 360-degree video. McGrory and Anderson, who are married, previously ran a creative agency called Culture Shock, and Chirls had recently completed a digital technology fellowship at PBS’s POV, which features documentary films. But the company soon pivoted onto a different path.
“It sort of felt like we were making stuff for rich people who could afford thousands of dollars on headsets and super-fast computers,” McGrory said as I interviewed him and Anderson from their Williamsburg apartment, which doubles as Datavized’s headquarters.
Now Datavized aims to make virtual reality accessible to a wide audience, by producing experiences that offer something even for those without the requisite headsets. The Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment has taken interest. Datavized was chosen to present its technology at an event last month in which the office announced that the city would launch a virtual- and augmented-reality lab. The company is also participating in the FirstGrowthVC accelerator run by Manhattan-based law firm Lowenstein Sandler and raising a seed round to fund the development of its publishing platform, which the founders expect to make available through a freemium model.
— NYC Mayor's Office of Media & Entertainment (MOME) (@MadeinNY) December 14, 2016
Datavized specializes in data visualizations (hence its name): one of its web-based VR works, for instance, graphs every shot attempted by NBA players during the 2015-2016 season. Even without VR glasses, you can see the shots made (in blue) and missed (in red) by team or by player. With VR, you can experience the visualization as if you were standing on the court. On the HTC Vive, which I tested at Datavized’s headquarters, I was even able to “teleport” to different spots throughout the court using the system’s controllers.
"When you're designing for everyone, it's good for everyone."
Granted, the graphics in Datavized’s visualizations are a far cry from the slick visuals produced by gaming engines, which are often used to create virtual-reality experiences. But as the company’s founders note, not everyone has the necessary equipment or internet connection to access those high-end productions. One of Datavized’s design principles is assuming such scarcity of resources: that even the best WiFi connection or hardware might fail every once in a while, but the company’s work will still be accessible. That means fast-loading pages that can be saved for offline use and work with all types of devices.
“When you’re designing for everyone, it’s good for everyone,” Anderson said.
Indeed, Datavized’s founders are betting on virtual reality becoming ubiquitous — extending way past its current gaming base into applications such as education, medicine and business. Datavized has created custom VR experiences for corporate, educational and nonprofit clients, several of which have licensed the company’s technology. The company, for instance, has designed a VR tool to view medical specimens in 3D, and in one particularly unexpected application, even developed a VR white paper for Ernst & Young. (It’s not quite as hokey as it sounds, though during the workshop at Made in NY Media Center, Chirls admitted it wasn’t the company’s most exciting commission. More exciting to see in action was Datavized’s virtual drum kit, which the class got to test out as seen in the below video.)
In the future, McGrory said he envisions that the average person will have the opportunity to create VR scenes as easily as they capture short videos for Snapchat and Instagram. He alluded to the advent of smartphones with 3D cameras, which several companies are in the process of developing. Ultimately, he said, he hopes that Datavized’s platform would enable even a child borrowing a laptop from the public library to experiment with virtual reality.
“How could we not just make VR and get it to that person, but how could we build tools that would allow that kid to create his own VR?” he asked.
Using the web as a primary platform for VR may have benefits beyond accessibility. Right now, each of the VR headsets on the market has its own store for accessing content, and many VR experiences are designed to work with a particular headset. So if you’ve ponied up for an HTC Vive, you may not be able to view content designed specifically for, say, Oculus. The siloing of content has raised concerns about the specter of “walled gardens” in VR that echo previous complaints about mobile app stores. For instance, there have been high-profile instances of apps not being allowed into Apple’s App Store. McGrory and Anderson pointed to Ferguson Firsthand, a VR app that recreates the scene of Michael Brown’s shooting in August 2014 as described by eight eyewitnesses. The app was rejected by Apple despite not including any graphic violence.
As people continue to experiment with new applications for VR, the possibility of censorship is a growing concern, according to McGrory. If the distribution of VR apps is dependent upon proprietary stores, then a handful of companies have the ability to restrict content based upon their sensibilities. That may mean that VR experiences that explore contentious topics, such as the Ferguson shooting, won’t make it in. But there aren’t such restrictions on the web, which is why Datavized is such a proponent of WebVR, McGrory said.
“We’re big believers in the openness of the web,” he said.