This episode features Kevin Williams of KWP Consulting. Interview transcript appears below the media player. This episode was recorded on Dec 30, 2015
Kevin and I discuss using virtual reality technology for digital out of the home entertainment such as theme parks. Can consumer HMDs be used for commercial uses? Are there special requirements? Are there existing installations of public VR and much more.
English born Kevin Williams has spent most of his career in the electronic entertainment industry, first as a fascinated player of the fledgling video amusement, then as an amateur computer devotee. At present he is a leading member of the emerging Digital Out-of-Home (DOOH) Leisure entertainment industry, both as consultant, observer and founding chairman of the sector association.
Yuval (VRguy): Hello Kevin, this is Yuval. How are you doing today?
Kevin Williams: I’m very well, thank you.
VRguy: Excellent. Welcome to the program, Kevin. Just for disclosure, you’ve been advising Sensics for quite some time, but for everyone else, who are you and what do you do?
Kevin Williams: Thank you very much for having us along. KWP, the consultancy I run, specializes in the digital out-of-home interactive network association business. That means we go from covering clients and developers in the market who are wanting to bring immersive entertainment systems into the public space, the home sector. We also run a trade association and not for profit association, DNA. We also have newsletters and activities. I run a personal scurrilous news service called the Stinger Report. Fundamentally consultancy, and association, and some media services.
VRguy: Perfect. I thought the Stinger Report covers a lot of arcade business, that doesn’t have to do specifically with VR. It looks like in recent years you’ve been focused more and more on VR. Tell me a little bit, where do you see VR in the digital out of home entertainment space?
Kevin Williams: It’s a difficult one for us. We don’t focus on one specific technology. We look at all applications. It’s best to say the out of home sector is interested in immersion. It’s very interested in activity and innovative. The digital native is our client, so we have to work on experience that is a phrase that we like to use, “unachievable at home”. Recently, we’ve published a book that covers the digital frontier, looking at interactive entertainment. We charted key immersive technologies that are plowing into our sector as being the CAVE, the computer automated virtual environment, the projected environment. The 3D projected immersive sector. Those two are separate. One is an environment you walk into. The other one is the overlaying of projection in an augmented reality kind of experience. Then there is immersive personal displays which we know as head mounted displays. We charted as goggles and helmets over the years. There is the direct systems such as the cockpit simulators where the person is actually themed in an experience that includes digital representation.
VRguy: Okay. Let’s talk about goggles in arcade or in out of home entertainment setting. I would envision that one thing you’d worry about is durability. If I have a goggle at home, I’m probably going to take care of it better than a 15 year old at an arcade. I might worry about sanitation. How comfortable am I wearing the goggle that the guest before me wore? What else do you see as sort of different in the requirements between home use and out of home use?
Kevin Williams: Regarding all applications, whether it be a joystick, a display, or a head mounted unit, used in an environment where there is a high foot traffic, we have to be aware of three core aspects. The first is reliability. The item should be reliable, it should be easy to service. When you’re talking about servicing, you’re also talking about cleanliness. Hygiene is the next thing for us. It’s very important, comforts in hygiene. The theme park and the entertainment sector puts safety of the guest at the top. We need to be aware that the systems are not just rugged but easy to clean. For that cleaning medium, the product itself isn’t a bacterial transfer. The third thing is, beyond just comfort: ease of use. You’re dealing with an audience ranging from in many facilities between three and “three hundred”. The older generation wants something that is simple to use and easy to understand. Younger individuals need an ergonomic and anthropometric fit that ensures that the system is comfortable. A lot of people have talked about hygiene.
One of the things that we’ve been talking about, is discussing commercial applications of virtual reality technology, are some of the dos and the don’ts, some of the things to be aware of. Again, when I’m talking about comfort, the third item, we also have to be susceptible to simulation sickness, to motion sickness, and also to dysphasia. We need to be aware of those, and need to make allowances for those in the head interface.
VRguy: You brought up simulator sickness. I think that’s an interesting point. If a guest doesn’t feel well after wearing the goggle, who is liable? Is it the headset manufacturer? Is it the company that made the experience? Is that the theme park? How do you get around these issues?
Kevin Williams: I was lucky enough to be a Walt Disney Imagineer that worked with the team on virtual reality application in the late 90’s. One of the things we came across on a regular basis was not that people suffered directly from motion sickness or simulation sickness but they had a slight dysphasia, slight uncomfortableness after the experience, where they needed to cool down for a couple of minutes and get their bearings. Very similar to the kind of situation we see with some of the more intense roller coasters. To your main question, who is liable, that’s always the three million dollar question. Number one, you need to have correct signage on the attraction, on the experience, on the tickets, notifying individuals that if they suffer from certain maladies and ailments that they are aware this is an extreme immersive experience. Number two, you have to show you have taken the correct precautions, both before, during, and after the experience to deal with any problems. Fundamentally, it is the facility who is operating or in charge of the experience that are liable, and then if it is a serious liability call, then a whole load of lawyers and a whole load of different experts are going to be called in. At this moment in time, there is a slew of landmark cases that regard the use of head mounted displays in public experiences causing problems, and to be honest, they are still up in the air who is liable for the issue.
VRguy: Got it. You mentioned ease of use. I would imagine ease of use also ties into throughput, right? If it takes two minutes to adjust a goggle and get the best image, that means for two minutes, the train in the example would be stopping, as opposed to having guests in and out very quickly. Do you see that as a potential problem?
Kevin Williams: It’s a major problem. What the roller coaster and theme park attraction developers all address, and operational issues, load, unload, as well as clean, are all issues that need to be taken into consideration, because they are perpetual throughput. The number of bums that you can run through the facility. A good example to take from is the cinema industry. They have developed 3D glasses that you use at the cinema. Not only are they pretty rugged, but they’ve also been developed as being incredibly easy to clean. They have special dishwasher style systems that all of these glasses are rotated through after a set period of operations. With reality attractions that are operational, going back again to Disney Quest, a project we have dealings with, they made a special liner for the innovative virtual reality system that could be easily slipped onto the people in the queue line before they actually connected the visor components to their head. Or we have the examples currently in operation, such as Samsung. The systems in Germany, where they’re using a slightly modified version of the Samsung GearVR to a simple load on, load off, while the individuals are sitting in the coaster.
VRguy: You mentioned these modifications. I realize we’re in the early stages of out of home virtual reality use, at least as it relates to goggles, but do you expect long term that the goggles used in let’s say a theme park, would really look like the goggles that people use at home?
Kevin Williams: I think the closest we have at the moment in a stopgap position is the system that you use on the VRCoaster, the GearVR innovation edition unit, looks incredibly similar to the system that has already been made available to the developers and the modified version that is going to be made available to the customers. The consumer system, I get the feeling, is going to be considerably different in many aspects to the commercial system. Not only the ruggedization and the simplicity of operation, but there are also going to be certain aspects, better audio, better visuals, better lenses, because the fact we have to consider here, is we’re not worrying about trying to hit the magic $399 target price point with our manufactured goods for the HMD. We want to build whatever we can to the best ability, but of course, a lot of the technology that you see developed for out of home usage will hopefully trickle down after usage and over time, and be applied in the consumer state. A lot of people are looking at the prototype head mounted display that our friends with The Void are looking at with Curved OLEDs, and it’s Fresnel lens construction, as a helmet system and thinking about that as a possible. Some of the Phase 4 and Phase 5 helmets we are going to be seen launched in a couple of months’ time.
VRguy: By the way, you mentioned Phase 4. What were Phases 1, 2, and 3?
Kevin Williams: Well, this goes back to the history of virtual reality. Evans and Sutherland and also the work that Morton did with the sensorama, we treat as Phase 1 in the 60’s. Phase 2 is the period of VPL and Jaron Lanier, Phase 3 could be seen with Virtuality in the first arcade machines and Johnathan Walden, and all the systems that came there. Phase 4 was started very closely with the impetuous that Palmer Luckey and Oculus generated. We mustn’t forget the work that our friends at Sony did with the head mounted early HMZ systems, the T1s, 2s, and 3s, as well as some of the stuff that you guys have done for the military and business sector.
VRguy: It sounds like customization might be required for a couple of reasons. One, is you want to get a performance that’s beyond what you can get at home. Two, you may have a little bit more budget for customization, because as you said, you’re not necessarily trying to hit a $350 price point. There may be the sanitation and other concerns that would cause you to customize. It sounds like there may be even opportunities to embed VR goggles or pieces of them in existing packages, like racing helmets or something like that. It doesn’t sound like long term, you’re going to be able to take an existing consumer goggle and say, “Let’s just use it in the park.”
Kevin Williams: It’s the same for all the commercial or enterprise approach. We’re not dealing with consumer products. It’s uneconomic and quite laborious for us to use consumer systems in commercial application. I’ll give you a perfect example. A very large soft drink brand to talk to develop a pop up marketing promotion based on their brand using virtual reality. The only HMDs they had available to them were DK2s, so literally, they had to buy 40 DK2s to run 10 stations at their pop up experience. It was dropped into a number of shopping malls in North America. At the end of the experience, the week of running this pop up experience with 10 stations, they only had 3 remaining workable, serviceable DK2s at the end of it, not because the system is unreliable, far from it. The DK2 is a brilliant system for developments. The problem was that dropping it into a public space environment just beat the hell out of it. People dropping them, extreme usage from children, having constantly cleaning them, electrical problems. It’s a hard job.
Going back to your point, we say unachievable at home. If you can do what we’re doing in the out of home entertainment sector on a consumer system, why the hell are you doing on an out of home, 1 million, 2 million, 3 million dollar system? We always aim to try to go for better metrics. The only reason we’re using certain HMDs, is because we have such a need for systems now that we have to grab at whatever we can. Even that isn’t good enough. It’s one of the reasons why The Void fielded, the early prototype systems with DK2, with the understanding that they’re going to be moving onto a much better HMD system when they get around to collecting the data and building the unit. A lot of the clients I’m dealing with are using stopgap solutions until they have a commercial entertainment system in their hands. I’d like to get away from the word sanitation if you don’t mind, Yuval. That is a particular profession that has gone a different direction. We care about the comfort and the hygiene, those aspects we really need to focus on. We need to have it better than home, as you said.
VRguy: Point taken. How much of this is really pie in the sky? Meaning, are there areas of digital out of home entertainment where VR is making inroads today? You mentioned EuropaPark with VRCoaster. I’ve tried it. It’s a very nice experience. Where else are we seeing in roads happening today?
Kevin Williams: Well, I was lucky enough to pen an article for RoadToVR, going back to our attendance in November at the largest theme park and amusement trade convention. At that event, we compiled a video showing over twelve different companies working on virtual reality theme park systems, or working on attractions. Likewise, I just finished an article for meant to be seen in 3D, who just wanted to know, not about the pie in the sky applications, but actual systems that you can go and touch.
I listed just off the top of our heads there, six or seven systems that you can walk out the door and go into China, into India, into North America and play, just to pull some examples out of the hat. We have two utilizations of the VRCoaster system, the one at EuropaPark, but there is another one that is operational and tested at CedarFair Park at the moment, both running different game experiences. Another example is Smaaaaash, the Indian family entertainment central operation. They have six different virtual reality attractions ranging from finger coaster to hang glider, to machine gunner, using head mounted displays. In China, we have ten chains of the Emax entertainment facility that use their own Emax HMD. Again, using multiple experiences. There are Russian systems, such as the 3D HeadShot system that is an arcade shooting game, using head mounted displays. There are a lot of machines in operation using the technology. Some of them are sailing close to the law by using DK2s, but a number of them are also using some of the new shiny and some of the new North American head mounted displays in out of home application.
VRguy: It sounds like a lot of customization is required. Is there any place for standards in this market? Do standards play a role? Should they play a role?
Kevin Williams: The out of home network association, the DNA, is making inroads as much as possible to try and get the immersive entertainment of applications in their digital sector, the public space together. We run conferences when we can. We just rolled a conference with Digital Hollywood, where we brought together leaders in the sector to speak about it. You are quite right, standards are needed. I am surprised that the call for standards in the consumer sector have not been answered yet. I know the ITA is looking at trying to lead the way on that. I wish them the best of luck. I’m sure that the DNA will try and do as much as we can do, try and mirror some of the standards and the best practices that are going to be needed in this sector. We’re at that awful period, where the systems that we’ve found in public space are prototypes or very early iterations. The main systems are not going to be coming until the mid-2016 period, and at that point, a lot more lessons will be learned. The data and information that we have collected over the years, for both the Stinger Report and KWP, that we use to help direct people and help to develop immersive entertainment, has come from proper usage information. I think that’s the only way we’re going to gather the information that we need to create these standards. Standards are needed, desperately needed.
I’m unhappy that at this moment in time, a matter of weeks away from the launch and the sale of head mounted displays, there still isn’t some basics in place. Even if you look at the SDKs from all of the leading consumer head mounted display systems that are available for general perusal, they skirt a lot of the issues. It seems that simulation sickness has become a kind of taboo phrase. You look at the SDK for the DK2 and it doesn’t go into as much detail as really is needed to talk about the details of how to avoid. I know they talk about better practice. I know they try to do their best. There seems to be a lot of work that needs to be done, and hopefully the out of home entertainment sector, along with the consumer sector, will drive that creation. Standards are needed and they’re going to happen, no matter how much people try and avoid creating them.
VRguy: Excellent. Of course, OSVR – Open Source Virtual Reality – is also working with hundreds of organizations on trying to standardize some of the technical interfaces and perhaps that expands into other areas as well. Where could people go to see or hear more of your writing, get additional information from you?
Kevin Williams: The DNA-association.com website is the best place to go for general up to date news about immersive entertainment. If anyone has any specific questions, they can also find my email details there, and they can contact me direct. If they’d also like to be put onto the subscription list of the Stinger Report, which I’ll iterate, it is a very specific trade-focused news service that covers the general trends in our sector. They can email me and I’ll put you onto the subscription list. Sadly, being a very lazy man at the moment, and traveling around too much, I haven’t updated the Stinger Report website. Also, if there’s any specific questions about the sector, or specific questions about utilizations of systems, they can contact me directly. http://www.mtbs3d.com/articles/editorial/14839-professional-vr-entertainment-applications is the link to the “Meant to be seen in 3D” that we did on professional out of home entertainment applications, so people can peruse some of the videos of some of the entertainment systems that are out in the market at this moment.
VRguy: Excellent. Kevin, I can personally attest that you are not lazy, far from it. Thank you very much for coming onto the program. I look forward to catching up soon.
Kevin Williams: Thank you very much. I wish everybody the best for the new year.