When Seeing is Feeling

A group of pioneers who want to use Virtual Reality to change the way we relate to the world around us

In the virtual reality series theBlu, you might find yourself floating in azure waters above a brilliantly colored coral reef or surrounded by hundreds of luminous jellies or looking into the enormous eye of a passing blue whale. Depending on how you feel about the ocean, the experience can be either discomfiting (all those jellies; that massive, unblinking eye) or magical. For many, it’s a bit of both.

TheBlu is one of the most popular creations from Wevr, a VR studio in Silicon Beach. VR has been in the works for years at local companies, from smaller houses like Wevr, Specular Theory, and Emblematic Group to major operations like Fox and Warner Bros. as well as veteran video game giants such as Electronic Arts and Activision.

Different companies have different goals, but they’d all been waiting for the technology to catch up with their vision—namely, a high-quality consumer headset that didn’t cost tens of thousands of dollars a pop. Then came the Oculus Rift. Released last March at less than $1,000, it was followed the next month by the Vive. Within the year Google and Sony came onto the market with their own models. Forecasters estimate VR will be a $30 billion industry by 2020, with the majority of the content in gaming and entertainment, and game makers are eagerly chasing the industry’s next Minecraft-size hit.

But VR companies like Wevr aren’t working on games; instead they’re creating VR “sims” (Wevr’s preferred nomenclature for what others call, variously, “projects” or “experiences”) that are more about making you a better, happier person, not racking up points or kills. One doesn’t “win” in Wevr’s sims. You learn to relax, experience nature in new ways, step into other people’s worlds. You meditate (and levitate) in front of a huge Buddha (Finding Your True Self ), you ring bells and present gifts to a goblin in an enchanted forest (Gnomes & Goblins), you watch helplessly as a trigger-happy cop shoots your pal in a South L.A. minimarket (Hard World for Small Things).

Wevr co-founders Neville Spiteri and Anthony Batt at the company’s offices.

Joy, wonder, horror—they’re that much more immediate when there are 360 degrees of visual information around you. “There’s more of yourself that’s involved, so you can impact people more strongly,” says company cofounder Neville Spiteri. That’s why theBlu has garnered support from organizations like WildAid and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Located on a residential street in Venice, Wevr’s headquarters are up the way from Google and a half mile from Snapchat. Dennis Hopper used to live here; the actor’s former house now holds 30 Wevr employees, give or take. There’s an oblong pool in the backyard, and a bocce court, and a friendly dog. Spiteri and fellow cofounder Anthony Batt are in an upstairs office, showing me their wares. Spiteri, who grew up in Malta, has the kind eyes and cool, measured tone of a beloved teacher. Batt, who’s sporting a black wool cap and the thick beard of a survivalist, is the more excitable one. Batt thinks that it’s only a matter of time before VR will “hit holodeck,” invoking the futuristic rec room where Star Trek crew members went to hone their Klingon-fighting skills and immerse themselves in Sherlock Holmes mysteries. “It’s gonna be bananas,” he says.

Spiteri learned his craft at the Playa Vista visual effects house Digital Domain (Titanic, Terminator 2 3-D) and the offices of nearby video game maker Electronic Arts (Medal of Honor, The Sims, Madden NFL). Batt was the cofounder and CEO of Buzznet and president of digital at Ashton Kutcher’s former production company, Katalyst Media. Spiteri and Batt’s industry backgrounds are reflected in their current projects, which include partnerships with Jon Favreau, Deepak Chopra, and Reggie Watts. Their company’s slogan, “Make Brave VR,” is emblazoned on buttons and stickers.

Both cofounders say they seek out projects that can “empower and improve individuals,” and science suggests the technology can do just that. It’s being used increasingly in therapy, helping people reduce stress levels, deal with phobias and addictions, and cope with PTSD. But as with Wevr’s South L.A. project, it’s also being used to raise awareness of pressing social issues. Immersing people in ways that no other medium can, VR has been called “the ultimate empathy machine.” Empathy narratives about child refugees, police violence, and the Ebola epidemic have been screened at film festivals from Toronto to Cannes. At last year’s Sundance, about half of the festival’s 30 VR entries were empathy pieces; 6 of those 30 were produced by Wevr and one other Silicon Beach studio, Nonny de la Peña’s Emblematic Group.

By documentary film standards, De la Peña’s VR creations are short—about ten minutes, tops. But that can feel like more than enough time when you’re in, say, a Syrian refugee camp or solitary confinement (two Emblematic projects). De la Peña wants to help people walk the proverbial mile in someone else’s shoes, gaining a better understanding of the world along the way. “I’ve had so many people cry,” she says. When a bomb goes off, viewers jump. “I once had a woman drop to her knees,” she says.

Dressed in a cheery red-and-white-striped shirt as we sit in Emblematic Group’s second-floor conference room, De la Peña shifts between tech talk—she took a basic programming class during her first year at Harvard—and the earnestness of a lifelong activist. Outside is a stretch of Pico Boulevard dotted with auto repair shops and shabby motels, but once I slip on the headset to watch her project Kiya, I’m transported to a mobile home park in South Carolina. Inside the trailer there’s a man with a gun. Two women are pleading with him not to hurt his ex-girlfriend. I am trapped, the walls closing in around me. “If you feel like you’re there, then you feel like it could happen to you, too,” De la Peña says later.

As with some of Wevr’s sims, the characters are animated, brought to life by actors wearing motion-capture suits. But where Wevr’s graphics rival or exceed video game standards, Emblematic’s can seem comparatively low budget. Focused on humans as it is, Emblematic’s animation can have an “uncanny valley” feel—human, but not quite—and when the murder happens, you’re outside. Yet the scene itself is somehow 360 degrees of real. The mobile home is a digital re-creation based on crime scene photos, while the audio incorporates eyewitness accounts and 911 calls. “With Kiya,” De la Peña tells me, “you have to be superclear with people before they put on the headset” because it’s so visceral and because, once the thing starts, you’re in it for the duration. This is part of the power of the medium and the message she’s aiming for. “Three women do die from domestic violence every day, and if we don’t make it visible, it’s never going to change, right? That’s ultimately why we’re doing this. That’s why we’re telling these stories.”

Eyes on the ball: a virtual reality camera

Photo by Spencer Lowell

De la Peña began her career as a journalist in the 1980s. She was drawn to stories about human misery. (One of her pieces in Time was about lightning bolts hitting utility poles and killing people as they talked on their phones.) She turned to film as a way to more deeply connect audiences with her subjects. One of her early documentaries was about a gay dad falsely accused of raping his son (The Jaundiced Eye). Others focused on doctors who covered up their mistakes by blaming the patients’ mothers (MAMA/M.A.M.A.) and on workers killed at unsafe work sites (Death on the Job). “My films tended to be about human rights issues and the underdog,” says De la Peña.

She started experimenting in VR as a senior research fellow in “immersive journalism” at USC in 2009. There was a lone $50,000 pair of goggles at the lab she worked at, but nobody got to take those out. Five years later she made her own with the help of her brother and a 3-D printer in her mom’s garage. Some of the early models, which transported people to places from the U.S.-Mexico border to Gitmo, line a shelf in the Emblematic offices.

An intern of hers, Palmer Luckey, was also trying to develop a model in his parents’ garage. “He’d show up at Sundance with these duct-taped goggles,” De la Peña remembers. In 2012, Luckey took to Kickstarter to raise funds for his project, the Oculus Rift (Wevr’s Spiteri put in $300); two years later he sold his Irvine-based company to Facebook for $2 billion. Just as important as the high quality and relatively low price of the Oculus Rift was its ease of setup, with games accessed at both the Oculus Store and the popular game platform Steam, which is also where De la Peña released Project Syria. That her projects are not always received as she would hope is to be expected, but it’s still disappointing. “We’ve had some of the most vitriolic, racist, horrible comments,” De la Peña says.

Vision Quest: Embelmatic’s Nonny De La Pena with VR technical director Jonathan Yomayuza.

Photo by Spencer Lowell

Emblematic’s projects are commissioned, though, so she doesn’t have to focus on generating revenue with them the way Wevr and other companies do. She is currently working on a series of projects commissioned by the PBS documentary series Frontline. For a filmmaker operating so far afield from what Hollywood traffics in, De la Peña has become something of an indie film festival darling, drawing fans like Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin) and Adrian Grenier (Entourage).

In many ways the pieces by Emblematic and Wevr are better suited to VR than feature films. Full-length movies are necessarily too linear to allow viewers to look anywhere they’d like, as they do in VR; miss a moment, or even just a telling glance, and an entire plot turn can slip by. Perhaps that’s one reason why we haven’t seen a major motion picture in the medium yet. Another may be the sheer complexity of creating an immersive set with immersive action. (The same could be said of porn, which has been uncharacteristically slow to latch on.) Emblematic projects can take anywhere from a week to three or four months to produce. The AI/simulation software used for Wevr’s theBlu series, which is more interactive, took two years to build.

After raising $25 million in funding, Wevr recently launched a subscription service that grants access to its most popular sims for $20 a year. It’s at work on the next season of theBlu, which may or may not include giant squids and a ride-along with a pod of dolphins. It’s also continuing to work on the interactive Gnomes & Goblins with Favreau. Gnomes has none of the big-budget explosions and mayhem of Favreau’s Iron Man or Avengers, but it’s not as if the guys at Wevr wouldn’t entertain the idea of, say, an Iron Man sim. “We’re huge fans of comic books,” says Spiteri. “And there are plenty of opportunities based on that.”