If most of what you know about virtual reality was learned from a sci-fi flick in the '90s, you’re probably not alone. That decade saw a run on those films, a trend that shaped many people’s limited knowledge of the technology. Remember when Sandra Bullock and Sylvester Stallone did the deed using VR headsets in Demolition Man? Or when Keanu Reeves had VR hooked straight into his brain in The Matrix? The speed at which technology was moving has made it tricky to separate fact from fiction and left many in the dark.
For a glimpse of what real-life, non-Keanu-related VR actually looks like, you need not look further than your own backyard. Big things are happening in South Florida's small but growing VR community.
Pérez Art Museum Miami launched its first augmented-reality exhibition, "Felice Grodin: Invasive Species," in December. Picture Pokémon Go, only you see creatures and landscapes overlapping the museum’s architecture through the PAMM app. The new, 13,000-plus-square-foot VR Park in North Miami offers more than 50 virtual-reality games, including ones that simulate roller coasters and wing-suit base-jumping.
Then there’s Suffolk Construction, which recently opened the Smart Lab in its Miami office. It uses HTC Vive headsets and architectural blueprints to — get this — walk you through buildings before the shovel hits the dirt.
The inaugural Miami VR Expo will highlight these kinds of projects and others when it debuts at Magic City Studios Friday, June 8. The two-day convention is scheduled to present speakers such as Splinter Studios founder and Lord of the Rings visual effects supervisor Dean Lyon and Magic City Innovation District partner Tony Cho, in addition to speed networking and more than 50 exhibitors.
“Based on our research, we realized there was an opening in South Florida for VR, especially in comparison to L.A. and New York, where there is so much happening in those communities,” says Michelle McKoy, who with Adrian Allen cofounded the expo. “We’ll provide awareness and education to those who are not familiar and highlight the opportunities for those who want to get involved.
“People aren’t finding a lot of investments for startups in South Florida, in comparison to L.A. and New York. That might boil down to [VR] education," she continues. "The expo will allow startups to show what they do and create a space where venture-capitalist investors who want to be more involved can see the community from a wider perspective.”
One local tech company that isn’t having any problem attracting investors is Magic Leap. The Fort Lauderdale juggernaut — labeled “the world’s hottest startup” in 2016 by Wired — has brought in more than $2 billion in investments and is valued at $6 billion without having sold a single pair of augmented-reality glasses. (The notoriously secretive Magic Leap was accused of being a hostile workplace for women last year; the company declined to comment for this story.)
But Magic Leap is not alone in South Florida’s VR industry. McKoy believes Miami's VR market will benefit from the city's creative scene as well as its ability to draw and keep talent through its beaches and nightlife. Also, plenty of talent is already here, according to 360 Entertainment owner Cliff Gladstone.
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“When people think of VR and Miami, they tend to only think of Magic Leap because of all the hype, but the truth is there's a lot more talent out here than people might think,” says Gladstone, who is scheduled to speak at the Miami VR Expo and has produced 360 videos and VR experiences for SeaWorld and III Points Festival. “I think Miami has a lot of VR creators and the interest is definitely there, but I don't feel there is a real sense of community yet. This expo could be a great start to bring everyone together.”
And if you’re one of those people whose VR knowledge is based on Keanu movies, this expo could be what you need to get informed.
“VR is so early in Miami that people don't know what it is, how they can use it, or how to price it,” Gladstone says. “It’s tough to explain VR. It's one of those things you need to experience to understand. The applications are limitless.”
Miami VR Expo. Friday, June 8, and Saturday, June 9, at Magic City Studios, 6301 NE Fourth Ave., Miami; miamivrexpo.com. Tickets cost $25 to $60.