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How artists add humanity to virtual reality

Sandy Cioffi at

Seattle filmmaker Sandy Cioffi has a laugh over an experimental virtual-reality project that brought participants together. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Virtual reality may have gotten its start with shoot-’em-up video games and porn, but now artists are making VR that puts the emphasis on reality as well as humanity.

And Seattle filmmaker Sandy Cioffi argues that the Pacific Northwest could well blaze the trail on the multimedia frontier.

“If anything is this powerful, you have to do something more with it than design it to make money,” said Cioffi, the founder and executive director of fearless360º, a new media and VR production company. “And Seattle is the place to do it.”

Why Seattle? During her TEDxSeattle talk on Saturday, Cioffi cited the region’s “embarrassment of riches” on the tech front, its cultural diversity and its natural beauty — as well as its growing pains.

“Whether we like it or not, we are a laboratory,” she said. “What kind of laboratory do we want to be? I say, let’s be the Silicon Rainforest, where we develop VR for human good.”

Using media as a force for good is a goal that Cioffi has been pursuing for years, not only with  fearless360º, but also with more traditional projects such as “Sweet Crude,” a 2009 film that looks at how the effects of stepped-up oil production provoked an outcry in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria.

If today’s VR tools had been as widely available back then, Cioffi said she might well have made the film as a virtual reality project. Going forward, she plans to use VR as a tool to immerse an audience in dramatic but totally reality-based environments — starting with Seattle.

“We’re going to do some community stories, and we’re going to do the body swap and hear those oral histories,” she said. “We’re going to ask ourselves, ‘What difference might it make to cities developing so quickly and so significantly as Seattle if we hear one another’s stories while we feel as though we’re walking in each other’s skin?’ ”

What’s that experience like? Cioffi listed a range of virtual-reality productions with the human touch. Watch for them at a theater, museum or VR headset near you:

  • Project Syria (2013): Immersive experience about Syria’s civil war. When the production was released on Steam a year ago, it sparked a strong negative response, tinged with racist tirades.
  • Munduruku (2017): Experience life in one of the Amazon’s best-known and most threatened indigenous communities.
  • Perspective (2015-2016): First-person perspectives that challenge the audience’s perception of social issues, ranging from campus sexual assault to street crime.
  • Treehugger Wawona (2016):This fantastical VR experience takes you into the world of a giant sequoia tree, using lidar, CT scans and other visualized biological data.
  • In the Eyes of the Animal (2015): See a forest landscape through the eyes of a mosquito, a dragonfly, a frog or an owl.

How artists add humanity to virtual reality
Virtual reality may have gotten its start with shoot-’em-up video games and porn, but now artists are making VR that puts the emphasis on reality — and humanity.

We still get beans, cod, and chips 😟

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Facebook-owned Oculus makes big hiring push in Seattle region amid rumors of real estate expansion

Inside Oculus’ Seattle office. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

A month ago, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called his shot: He wants to get 1 billion people into the virtual reality universe. To make that goal a reality, Facebook-owned Oculus is now looking to significantly expand both its headcount and its real estate footprint in the Seattle area, GeekWire has learned.

Oculus, the virtual reality company that Facebook snapped up in 2014 for $2.3 billion, has more than 100 open positions in Microsoft’s backyard of Redmond, Wash. That’s nearly as many open positions as in all other Oculus offices around the globe combined, including the company’s Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters.

Oculus will need somewhere to put all those people, and the real estate and virtual reality communities are buzzing about a massive expansion for Oculus in the Seattle area. Real estate sources tell GeekWire that Oculus is looking around for 200,000 square feet of research and development space in Redmond. Additionally, the company is rumored to be in the market for a big chunk of office space — possibly as much as 500,000 to 1 million square feet — in the Seattle area, according to three real estate sources not involved in Oculus’ search.

An Oculus spokesperson declined to discuss the company’s future plans or real estate needs in the Seattle area, but did provide the following statement: “We recently shared our vision to get 1 billion people into VR, and we’re growing the Oculus team in Seattle to help make that happen. We’re excited about the talent and growth in Seattle, and welcome engineering, product, and hardware experts who want to join us!”

The Oculus Rift headset. (Oculus Photo)

Oculus’ job site lists 239 open positions worldwide, and Redmond, where its long-term research efforts as well as hardware and other operations are focused, accounts for 117 of those openings. In Seattle, Oculus has another six openings. Menlo Park, where Oculus is headquartered, has the second most job postings at 71.

Seattle’s reputation as a tech hub is no secret, but beyond the giants of Amazon and Microsoft, and the title of cloud capital, the Seattle area is becoming a hot bed for virtual, augmented, mixed — and every other kind of tech-enhanced reality. Microsoft has the high-end HoloLens headset, which recently expanded to 29 new countries. Valve, which works with HTC on the Vive headset, is based in Redmond’s neighbor of Bellevue, Wash. HTC’s Creative Labs offices are in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood. Earlier this year GeekWire reported that Amazon Web Service is building a team focused on mixed reality.

Seattle is also home to a strong community of VR startups raising money and making moves. Just today, Pixvana, which helps virtual reality filmmakers edit, process, and deliver video, announced a $14 million funding round led by Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital. HaptX, previously known as AxonVR, today unveiled its first product, a set of VR gloves. A startup that moved to the Seattle area last year called the region the “center of everything gaming and everything VR.”

Oculus Chief Scientist Michael Abrash. (Oculus Photo)

Oculus has in the last few months poached a number of hardware managers and engineers from both Valve and Microsoft. The job postings give insight into what is happening out in Oculus’ research and development hive in Redmond.

  • A posting for a hardware engineer is focused on “hardening of various computer vision algorithms for SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping) implementation on our next-generation AR/VR consumer product platforms.”
  • A posting for a postdoctoral research scientist in “lifelong machine learning” says the role will focus “on the intersection of Deep Learning and Machine Perception, exploring the limits of ‘Always On’ Machine Learning techniques within the context of consumer electronic devices for new uses of Artificial Intelligence within newly conceptualized cognitive AR devices.”
  • Oculus is looking for researchers to work as optical scientists focused on “next generation consumer electronics, including near to eye display and imaging systems, at our research location in Redmond WA. Primary responsibility is developing optical systems, including visual optics, sensors, image processing algorithms, and related technologies building blocks to enable next generation architectures.”

Oculus first disclosed plans to open an office in Seattle in 2014. Former Valve engineer Atman Binstock, Oculus’ chief architect led the team. Around the same time, Oculus brought in Michael Abrash, also from Valve, to be Oculus’ chief scientist.

Less than a year after announcing its Seattle office, Oculus established a permanent presence by inking a lease for 51,000 square feet at the Stadium Innovation Center in Seattle’s Sodo neighborhood in 2015. A year later, Oculus reportedly expanded in the neighborhood, picking up another floor in a neighboring building. Last year, Oculus leased approximately 100,000 square feet of office and warehouse space in Redmond, reportedly for R&D efforts.


The Oculus Go headset is designed to be comfier than a smartphone holder for virtual reality. (Oculus Photo)

In addition to expanding its headcount and real estate footprint, Oculus has beefed up its product offerings in recent years. For the first years of its existence, Oculus had produced two headsets: the flagship Oculus Rift and the Gear VR, in partnership with Samsung. But just last month, Oculus announced a brand new headset and gave an update on another.

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Check out GeekWire's list of Seattle-Area Engineering Centers established by out-of-town companies.

Oculus Go is the company’s first standalone headset, which means that it neither requires a phone to snap in, nor is it wired to a computer. The $200 headset is set to ship early next year. Then, there is Project Santa Cruz, which aims to bring the quality of a PC-powered headset, while liberating users from being tethered to a computer.

Facebook-owned Oculus makes big hiring push in Seattle region amid rumors of real estate expansion
A month ago, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called his shot: He wants to get 1 billion people into the virtual reality universe. To make that goal a reality, Facebook-owned Oculus is now looking to…

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<p>Zbigniew Brzezinski: El principal desafío de nuestro tiempo no lo plantea el terrorismo global, sino más bien la intensificación de las turbulencias causadas por el fenómeno del despertar político global. Ese despertar es socialmente masivo y políticamente radicalizante.</p>