Toronto’s Future Festival Stops in at CFC Media Lab

By Eric Weiss ● September 28, 2018 11:30

For much of the general public, augmented and virtual reality (AR/ and VR) are entertainment platforms that offer mere escape or diversion. Movies like Ready Player One or games like Pokemon GO only further that association.

Yet entertainment is only a fraction of the VR marketplace. The technology that powers gaming headsets may have more lucrative applications in other industries, which might not be apparent at first glance.

These other possibilities were on display on Tuesday, September 18, when the Canadian Film Centre’s Media Lab (CFC Media Lab) became a “trend safari” stop for attendees of the Toronto Future Festival. This event brought companies like IKEA, FedEx and Coca-Cola to the CFC to preview some of the latest AR/ VR tech from CFC Media Lab’s IDEABOOST-Network Connect startups.

One man wearing a VR headset. A man stands next to him holding a wire connected to the headset.

Elli Raynai demos his VR production Made This Way: Redefining Masculinity.

“Virtual reality and augmented reality are big. As innovators, it’s important to know what’s going on to get a better grasp of where the future might be,” says Crocs Innovation Manager David Nicholson. From VR narratives like Irem Harnak and Elli Raynai’s Made This Way: Redefining Masculinity, to on-the-go AR gaming platforms like Albedo Informatics’ LARGE, the gathering not only showcased many different aspects of VR and AR as innovative. It also connected corporations directly with startups.

Finding common ground can still be a challenge, especially given the recreational focus of much VR development. Public events are typically geared towards casual and creative audiences, who are often more interested in VR’s novelty, not its functionality.

“The signifiers are different,” says James Meier, CTO of IDEABOOST Accelerator Cohort 6 company, Synervoz. Synervoz developed Switchboard, a hands-free audio networking tool that lets people on opposite sides of the globe feel like they’re sharing the same office. He explains that while artists usually want to know how VR will benefit their next project, businesspeople want to know how well technology will scale. “Here, it’s about overarching ideas, things that will be more than one piece of content, one app, or one movie.”

That multiplicity can make it difficult for a pharmaceutical company like Roche to see the utility of VR as something more than a fancy entertainment toy.

A woman wears a VR headset while another woman stands next to her and holds a wire connected to the headset. On the left is a projection displaying a 3D rendering of a gothic bead.

Exploring a 16th Century goth prayer bead in high fidelity with the HTCVive Pro.

“To be honest, I didn’t know if there was a link,” says Marnie Gawronski, Roche’s Corporate Planning and Innovation Manager, when asked why she attended. “I wanted to learn about VR and understand if we can extend it into our own operations.”

Gawronski was particularly impressed with Small Wonders, a CFC-produced VR experience that allows users to explore a digital scan of an ancient prayer bead in astonishing detail they otherwise could not have.

“It’s not reality, but it kind of felt like it,” she said. “It opens up a whole new thinking pattern. We just need to look at how we can apply it.”

For the IDEABOOST startups onsite , the goal was to help executives like Gawronski make those links. The biggest obstacle is communication, because VR’s ‘wow’ factor isn’t enough when real money is on the line.

“It’s number driven,” says Travis Wu, Lumière VR’s cofounder, who was there demoing Magic Leap, the advanced AR headset that only recently made its way to Canada. “Have you done the tests to see whether or not people have more purchasing desire after using this product? IKEA has been using VR and AR to do a lot of sales and previews. [They] want to see whether or not we have numbers to show them.”

“Business audiences have pinpoint challenges they’re trying to address,” adds Srinivas Krishna, the CEO of Geogram, which allows users to create and share their own AR videos. “A technology company like ours has to do engagement, marketing, customer satisfaction and communication. If they’re looking for ways of improving those experiences, we have a solution for them, and we’re able to propose it.”

We had a lot of companies, like Coke, that come with physical products, and they don’t really know how AR or VR would work for them. The great pleasure for us is to show them. Not just tell them, but show them, and it literally blows minds.

-Srinivas Krishna

Those solutions can take many different forms. For instance, Arfront’s Sensei is a remote assistance app that allows workers to stream directly from a job site and collaborate with someone across the country. The app also creates a record of every interaction, increasing transparency and reducing liability when employees are in the field.

“We train nurses to administer some of our drugs. Maybe we could do something in VR,” says Roche’s Gawronski.

The possibilities are also exciting for companies that sell directly to the public. In the Magic Leap demo, a holographic R2-D2 projected a holographic image of CFC CDO Ana Serrano in a scene that recalls Princess Leia’s iconic message to Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars. Those images can have a powerful pull, or as Wu adds, “We can make products into holograms: sci-fi movies are no longer sci-fi.”

AR engines like Geogram and LARGE can populate the world with digital Easter eggs that consumers unlock with their phones. It can be thrilling to find them embedded in the real world, which blurs the line between marketing and content, creating unobtrusive opt-in advertisements that people will want to consume.

“We had a lot of companies, like Coke, that come with physical products, and they don’t really know how AR or VR would work for them. The great pleasure for us is to show them. Not just tell them, but show them, and it literally blows minds,” says Geogram’s Krishna.

A group of men stand in a circle. One man in the middle is holding up a tablet.

Srinivas Krishna gives the rundown on Geogram.

That’s what makes VR so intriguing. The technology is transforming how we interact with the world, fostering more immersive and compelling forms of communication. Those resources can be useful to corporations conveying important information to employees, partners or consumers.

“Now, every relationship is one on one. Here’s what we recommend for you,” says Tracy Camarata, the Director of Enrollment and Communication Strategy for The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America. “Five years ago, it was ‘people like you.’ This type of technology allows the individual to personalize an experience in a way that gives them what they need to make a decision.”

A financial services company might seem like an odd candidate for a VR makeover, but Camarata’s enthusiasm exemplifies its potential. Many people struggle with financial planning because saving for education or retirement makes them anxious. If VR proves to be an effective communication tool, it could make it easier for Guardian to open and facilitate those conversations.

“How can we use this technology to engage with people in new and meaningful ways, and bring relevance to something that is sometimes scary and difficult to deal with?” asks Camarata. “You can educate them using things like gamification to tailor that path.”

Events like the Future Festival’s trend safari stop at CFC Media Lab began to bridge the knowledge gap between startups and corporations, demonstrating how VR and AR can move past sci-fi to generate a tangible impact on people’s lives.

“I’m selling a promise, taking something inherently distant and confusing and making it more experiential,” concludes Camarata. “There’s a lot of untapped potential, and trying to think about how this technology can help people is the next frontier.” 

A person holds up a phone. The screen shows the room in front of them and a 3D emoji in the space.

Trying out augmented reality markers on LARGE.

Photos by Sue Holland.