Visionary VR's Mindshow Steals Show at L.A. Virtual Reality Conference

Mindshow - H - 2016
Visionary VR

"We're creating a world where anyone can be their own movie studio," said Visionary VR co-founder Gil Baron.

If trade conventions are just competitions with better manners, Virtual Reality Los Angeles may have a contender for its most impressive showing. 

At the close of day one, all the buzz at VRLA centered on brand-new startup Visionary VR and its interactive platform MindShow, which debuted to the public Friday morning.

As one VRLA attendee put it, "It's the first time I've seen VR used in this way. From the perspective of the [user experience], it's much, much different."

As such, the platform almost defies description, especially for VR's uninitiated masses, for whom high-quality headsets remain too pricey to take home. At the very least, it requires some as-yet uninvented terminology.

"Think of it this way," Visionary VR co-founder Gil Baron told The Hollywood Reporter during the show. "We're making animated movies that you can walk around inside of. We're creating a world where anyone can be their own movie studio."

If that sounds like a familiar line, it's because it's been a marketing trope for everything from the camcorder to the original version of iMovie. But instead of prefab wipes and dissolves, MindShow gives users an animated setting populated with 3D characters. Then it allows you to physically embody them and act out scenes.

What makes the experience both uncanny and genuinely persuasive is the handsets, two little plastic bars that turn your hands into those of the character you're playing, kind of like wearing a pair of gloves. The quality of the image and the tactility of the animation, however, immediately give users phantom feelings, as if they regained a limb they never knew they'd lost.

But the goal for Baron, who came up in visual effects, and co-founder Jonnie Ross, whose background is in directing commercials, is to get users embodying characters not just physically, but emotionally, as well.

"Storytelling in VR is incredibly difficult," Ross said during an interview next to MindShow's demonstration area. "But people are coming out of this with something activated in their imaginations. And that's really what we wanted to see."

Admittedly, MindShow's debut demo is relatively modest in scope. First, you turn into a big green alien and try to scare the pants off a cowardly space traveler. Then, you become the space traveler and are prompted to cower in fear. Then, you inhabit the alien again and throw some boxes at the space traveler. Then, you become the space traveler again and try to block the boxes from smacking you in the face.

It's not Shakespeare. But the feeling of moving in and out of bodies to communicate, interact and tell a story in real time is brimming with creative possibilities. This is as much a challenge for Visionary VR as it is a source of excitement.

"Our biggest problem is figuring out what to do in what order," Baron said, talking about next steps. "It's like we're designing the race car, driving the race car and fixing the race car all at the same time."

Like the field of consumer VR itself, Baron and Ross seem a little daunted by their own potential. But they know what they want to shy away from: creating passive, one-way experiences for users in the vein of traditional movies, TV shows and video games.

"There are medical applications here, live education applications, everything from bite size to longform," Baron said. "But for us, narrative is communication, it's a back and forth."

Visionary VR is still only in its Series A round, backed by lead investor Draper Fisher Jurvetson, one of Silicon Valley's blue chip venture capital funds. While the company's future is uncertain, their origins are practically cliche: They started in 2014 in Baron's garage with only their own cash for seed money.

If Visionary VR does indeed emerge as the major discovery of the VRLA 2016 trade show — which only two years ago fancied itself a mere meet-up — it won't come as a shock to its founders. In 2014, Ross, his associates and one of his angel investors founded the VRLA conference, as well.