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February 01, 2018

The Future is Virtual

SubVRsive executives Johannes Larcher and Ty Root discuss the future of VR and how it will shape storytelling in the coming years.

Connor Keaney
  • ACL
  • ACL

For Johannes Larcher and Ty Root, VR isn't just about creating new worlds, it's about redefining our own.

Their company, SubVRsive, is striding into the future of virtual and augmented reality with the aim of not only reconstructing the way stories are consumed, but the way that they're told.

A daunting task, certainly, especially when you consider that their work with seminal touchstones such as Austin City Limits is challenging long-standing narrative traditions. But with the virtual reality treasure trove still largely untapped, Larcher and Root find themselves on the precipice of a mass media revolution.

When Larcher, formerly of Hulu Japan, joined SubVRsive in 2016, he set his sights on the medium when he found what he saw as an opportunity to realize the potential of the platform.

"I think the real power of VR as a medium is its ability to create a sense of immersion," Larcher said, "When I first started using VR in 2015, it was clear that this would open up new opportunities and perspectives in storytelling."

Ty Root, formerly of Gamespot and IGN, who also came to SubVRsive in 2016, had a similar vision.

"I spent over a decade in video games, and so, naturally, I gravitated towards immersive, fun, and engaging technology. It's something I've always been passionate about," Root said, "After spending 10 years in games, I wanted to see what the next step and what the next evolution in immersive entertainment is."

Root saw VR as the key to surpassing the limitations of previous storytelling and entertainment mediums and as a way to allow audiences in to new worlds with a sort of detail and realism they hadn't experienced previously.

"For a long time I was looking for something more. I was looking for more extensive and broader applications to see how we could use VR, not just to tell stories, but also to immerse people into places that are often inaccessible," Root said, "So, naturally, when I met up with Austin Mace, our co-founder, and Johannes, they explained to me what they were trying to do with SubVRsive.

When they asked me to come on board to help lead production, I jumped at the chance."

With the common goal of creating a platform based on the narrative and entertainment advantages of immersion, Larcher and Root began to formulate what would become the foundation for SubVRsive's next endeavors, including charting the course of VRs status as a consumer platform.

"VR has been very, very hot for a very, very long time. There's been tremendous interest in the evolution of VR," Larcher said, "I think it's fair to say that what we're looking at in terms of VR hardware and distribution is really the very first step in a long history that will unfold into the future."

"So what we are seeing today are hardware platforms for the consumption of VR content that are still only at a fraction of their potential in the long term."

While interest in the medium may be at an all time high, Larcher admits that accessibility is still a major hurdle.

"We're talking about price-points that are still consumer-prohibitive. To a certain extent, you need PC hardware that can power those experiences, which is pretty pricey."

But once those barriers are overcome, Larcher says that the impact of VR technology will fundamentally change the way we interface, not only with narrative, but with our surroundings.

"We're moving towards a world where you are untethered, you are not tied to the computer with cables," Larcher said, "It's all moving in the right direction."

Root warns, however, that the fact that VR is on the rise doesn't mean that established platforms are headed for a fall.

"I don't think this is going to be the end of anything," said Root, "People still tell stories around a campfire, people still watch TV. People still watch videos on their phone, in the movie theater, on their television sets. I think VR is going to be just another experience that we'll get to enjoy, and whatever the evolution of that is, whatever that becomes, that will just be another way to enjoy and tell stories."

Larcher, as well, insists that while VR is here to stay, that doesn't mean that visual storytelling, as we know it, is headed for extinction any time soon.

"This is not going to be the end of anything. It's not going to be the end of television. It's not going to be the end of the movie theater, or the streaming experience, or the game playing experience," Larcher explains, "This is an incremental addition to the tools that story makers have at their disposal to create the most compelling story for the right situation. It is not replacing anything."

While SubVRsive may not be looking to totally obliterate the establishment with its tech, it is using these innovations to revamp a classic: Austin City Limits. Using VR, SubVRsive is not only able to bring the ACL stage to life in a way that's never been seen before; they're able to take the viewer out of the audience, and into the action back stage.

Root touched on the inspiration for taking on the project, touching on closely held memories from his childhood:

"My father was a tour manager for the likes of Wayne Newton and Chicago. I remember going back stage with him and seeing the roadies come in on freight elevators, load equipment, set up the stage, hours and hours of rehearsals, and these are all things we get to show in ACL: Backstage, and these are things that people normally do not get to see."

The show doesn't entirely take place behind the scenes, however. SubVRsive ensures that the spirit of Austin City Limits is still alive and well.

"What we aimed to do with this particular series was not just to place people backstage, but have them experience this concert venue hallowed ground," Root said, "Where all these musicians and bands and acts, and some people who aren't even with us any more, have traveled through as stepping stone in their careers.

"For 43 years the men and women behind ACL have put together this amazing television show, which now is the longest-running music TV program in the world."

As the technology progresses, so does ACL, and the subjects of the January 25th episode of ACL: Backstage, hip-hop duo Run the Jewels, certainly fit the mold.

Run the Jewels, comprised of tenured MC Killer Mike and legendary producer El-P, is among the most lyrically adept, socially incisive, and theatrically explosive acts working in music today. Their ACL: Backstage profile highlights their message, their motivation, and the driving force behind their performance.

"I think they bring a really unique level of energy that I have never seen before at an ACL taping," says Root, "What Killer Mike and El-P bring is this unique amount of energy, and just kind of radiance that just gets the crowd involved."

"With [Run the Jewels] in particular, they took a very deep interest, and had a very positive attitude towards the 360 component of their appearance at ACL Live," Larcher said, "From Run the Jewels, what we got was tremendous access and willingness to work with us to spread that message further."

"They're really about bringing people together and standing up for everyone who is disenfranchised or marginalized," Root said.

SubVRsive's mission to bring immersive content to a broad range of people all over the world certainly makes leaps and bounds with ACL: Backstage, but it doesn't end there. For Root and Larcher, there are entire universes of potential still left untapped.

"Things like ACL: Backstage are just the tip of the iceberg. I think we are on the cutting edge of something special," Root said, "And I think with VR you have a lot of entertainment applications and ways of telling stories, but I'm also really excited about other real-world applications.

"I'm excited to see where that takes us, in terms of being able to transport people to exotic places, transport people to the front lines of war, transport people to all types of different cultures and scenarios, to where they can actually see what is happening around the world."

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