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From left: XXX of XXX (moderator); Steffen of Alienware, James Knight of AMD, and Curtis Hickman of The Void. Nat Levy / GeekWire Photo
From left: Gaming industry consultant Becky Taylor (moderator); Chris Sutphen of Alienware, James Knight of AMD, and Curtis Hickman of The Void at a PAX West virtual reality panel. Nat Levy / GeekWire Photo

Virtual reality games and experiences were everywhere at PAX West this year, but we’ve only scratched the surface of what the medium can do, a panel of VR experts said at the video game expo last weekend in Seattle.

Chris Sutphen, director of product marketing for Alienware, said developing virtual reality will be a marathon, and so far we’ve just come out of the starting blocks. While several headsets are available for purchase, and some public consumption of VR is possible, the eventual goal is to make it convenient and affordable for everyone. Sutphen and his fellow panelists envision a near future with virtual reality consoles many homes, displays at malls and uses in important fields like medicine, education and national defense.

In a couple years, Sutphen sees a world where most homes have virtual reality gaming consoles. That is starting to happen already. Gaming computers with virtual reality capability are here, with more desktops and laptops on the way. PlayStation is getting to release its virtual reality experience in October, and the newest Xbox console will be VR-ready.

“I fundamentally think 2017 is going to be the year of what I call snack-able VR, the ability to go and consume VR for a very low price point,” Sutphen said.

The Void is pretty much the opposite of snack-able VR. The company builds out intricate sets and layers virtual reality over the physical environment. Curtis Hickman, chief creative officer for The Void, said at the panel that virtual reality is all about democratizing storytelling. It gives people more control over the experience.

“Instead of trying to force a story upon you, we try and give you this huge playground through which you will create stories that you will then share through this medium,” Hickman said.

Curtis Hickman of The Void.
Curtis Hickman of The Void.

Hollywood has been a big player in the push for more virtual reality uses in entertainment. James Knight is the virtual production director for AMD, and he works with studios and visual effects companies to incorporate virtual reality into the entertainment industry. He pointed to two major movies in the last year — The Martian and Ghostbusters — that used virtual reality as a promotional tool as a possible sign of things to come.

Right now, there are only a couple million headsets out in the world. But as more and more people get access to virtual reality and buy these consoles and headsets, the price will come down. When that happens, it’s important for the industry to continue to push for quality, the panelists said.

“If you can’t hit that 90 frames per second, it’s not like in a video game where you get some lag and it drops the frame rate,” Sutphen said. “Poor VR takes you straight to puke town, and nobody wants that.”

Panelists saw many uses for the medium beyond gaming and entertainment. Virtual reality could open up a whole new form of learning. While some people can pick up everything from a lecture or reading, others are more visual learners. Virtual reality could allow students to put on headsets and be transported to another time and witness an important battle or historical moment first hand.

“It’s one thing for you to be lectured to and be cognizant of what’s happening in history, but to experience it, that’s a different part of the brain, and you are going to remember that,” Knight said.

James Knight of AMD
James Knight of AMD.

Some military organizations use virtual reality. VR could allow soldiers to practice a mission multiple times before going up against the real thing. Sutphen spoke of VR being used early in soldiers’ careers to prepare for what they might see and experience on the battlefield, with a goal of possibly reducing post traumatic stress disorder among veterans.

Panelists also saw virtual reality as an important innovation in the medical world. They talked about using the medium to rehabilitate paralyzed patients and to help people deal with the psychological effects of losing limbs.

“Certainly education, certainly medical,” Sutphen said of industries that will benefit from VR. “Entertainment will always be fun and cool, but I think that VR as a canvass and a technology will unlock some really cool things.”

Chris Steffen of Alienware
Chris Sutphen of Alienware.
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