Meet one of the early (pre-JavaScript) VR pioneers

We speak to VR pioneer Tony Parisi about the future of the industry

“It’s 2025…” says Tony Parisi repeating a future gazing story he told in a Medium post. “My son hops into an Uber headed for university. A car that was designed completely in virtual reality; that was manufactured in a factory designed in virtual reality, and assembled using processes visualised in VR, by workers trained in VR simulations. A car that lives in a network of millions of self-driving vehicles, monitored by operators using augmented reality dashboards.”

Parisi is global head of AR and VR at development platform, Unity — and was co-creator of Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) way back in 1994 before JavaScript even existed. The VR revolution is one that has been tipped to hit for some time and Parisi concedes that his 2025 prediction may still be a little premature. Yet all this is definitely coming and all the building blocks are already in place today. 

I’m meeting him at London ExCel (where we’re both attending Microsoft Future Decoded) to talk about where immersive experiences are heading. “Now is an echo from the 1990s,” he says. Except back then the hardware was not available, there was a lack of available people to create content and, of course, a total lack of consumer readiness. 

Back in 1994 he tells me he teamed up with Mark Pesce, founder of Ono-Sendai a first-generation virtual reality startup which looked to create inexpensive, home-based networked VR systems. A “refugee form the last attempt to do consumer VR”, Pesce was inspired by the Metaverse in Neal Stephenson’s sci-fi novel Snow Crash, which showed a collective virtual shared space.

“There was a lot of buzz,” says Parisi, but nothing was ready. Now 20 years later, although the hardware is still quite expensive, there are millions of 3D content creators and a couple of generations of consumers. Most important of all, though, there is a trajectory and amongst the industry players — “nobody is daunted”.


What are the latest immersive breakthroughs?

The concept of immersive experiences is a big sprawling one. These encompass the full spectrum of augmented reality (from something as simple as Pokémon Go upwards), through the complete immersion of virtual reality, to some kind of blend of the two with mixed reality. Tony succinctly describes some of these wider shifts in a recent blog post.

This October, Microsoft announced its first mixed reality capture studio which uses 106 surround cameras to capture individuals as a 360 degree hologram. This consumes a lot of data and requires extremely expensive equipment to view in full 3D.

Microsoft is aiming these studios at producers, musicians, athletes and dancers — and they present the latest example of the augmented reality wars between Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Facebook. It is very early days but in future the benefits of a studio like this could extend well beyond the arts and training and offer an entirely new way of doing teleconferencing.

Outside of these wider advances there have been huge shifts in more ordinary forms of augmented reality on a smartphone. This year both Apple and Google developed the capabilities to project a 3D image – which looks exactly like something in the real world – onto a mobile screen.

“There is a difference in scale in AR,” says Parisi. “It will reach half a billion people by 2018” because it is available to anyone with a fairly new phone. “This [3D AR] will be arguably the first [truly] immersive experience,” he says.


So, where are we at with VR?

Over the last few years, VR has been constantly tipped for ‘arrival’ but has never really arrived. Back at the start of 2016 many people were describing it as the “year of VR” but Henry Stuart, CEO and co-founder of agency Visualise told us at the time that the actual “year of VR” would be 2018. Parisi sees 2016 as “year zero” and although everything is gradually coming together, headsets are still big and expensive for consumers.

“It is the eternal adoption curve and we’re still in the front end of the hockey stick – the ‘trough of dissolution’ or as my CEO of Unity, John Riccitiello calls it, the ‘gap of disappointment’,” he says. “We have been through a few waves of technology adoption and each is getting closer to the promise.”  

Parisi sees the new self-tracking VR headsets as a “game changer” because there is nothing else to set up, there are fewer wires and these are much more user friendly. “That is a big innovation right there,” he says however, it is impossible to truly know what is happening next and what the breakthrough device of the future will look like.


Will B2B or B2C push VR mass adoption?

“It’s not clear,” whether mass adoption of immersive experiences will comes from consumers or businesses, says Parisi. “I wish I knew.” If you look at the internet or mobile, it is not clear which was first, he adds.

He does believe however, if you break immersive experiences down into AR and VR, the adoption of augmented reality is likely to come from the consumer space while VR is likely to come from businesses.

“In AR it will probably be consumer through phones,” like the initial Pokémon Go phenomenon, but with more advanced 3D options, he suggests. “VR it will probably be business,” because the business benefits  – in terms of cost savings, productivity and potential safety gains – will outweigh the compute power and expensive equipment necessary to make it work.

Naturally a lot of use cases will be design applications and training, he says. Unity is already seeing all kinds of interest especially in automotive, film, architecture, constructions and brand creative.

In the design space, the car industry currently makes clay model of new cars, he explains. These physical models are currently augmented – for cosmetic features along with logistical details, like how to assemble safely – but the long term aim is to do away with these clay models entirely. Audi has also already rolled out a VR showroom across core markets.

When it comes to training, VR can cover a wide range of areas. This can span something as prosaic as KFC teaching its staff how to fry chicken to more important work in the energy industry, where difficult geographies – like oil rigs – and high end equipment, means simulations can make a huge difference.   

In the end, it is impossible to know how all this will all converge over the next eight years. But immersive experiences have come a long way since the dim and distant pre-JavaScript work Parisi and other early pioneering colleagues put in two decades ago, and it is impossible to deny they are gradually emerging both inside and outside the workplace.  


This article was originally published on 27 November 2017