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VRTO 2019 - Virtual and Augmented Reality World Conference - photo by Christian Bobak

VRTO 2019 – Roundup and Highlights

The 4th annual VRTO – Virtual & Augmented Reality World Conference & Expo wrapped up in early June in Toronto. The event brought together provocateurs, digital media harbingers, inventors, developers, and best-selling authors to examine the future of culture, society, humanity, and how we can collectively work together and leverage immersive technologies for the betterment of ourselves and the world we live in.

VRTO 2019 Graphical Banner

VRTO is a juncture where startups and local content creators, established distributors, investors, and international media are introduced. Networking opportunities for our exhibitors like our VIP lounge and reception enabled a number of fruitful connections, and several companies in attendance were previously inspired and met at a VRTO event before getting where they are today. The success of these relationships and partnerships are made possible by way of the community’s support and the support of our sponsors, exhibitors and media partners. And a big thank you to TMAC -Toronto Media Arts Centre, Dames Making Games, and Gamma Space for providing us with a new home.

Leaders from Intel Studios, Ubisoft, Entertainment One, The Venture Reality Fund, CTRL-Labs, Globacore, Pimax, Cream 360, Dark Slope Studios and many more descended upon the city to explore the current state of the industry and discuss where we go from here.

The event garnered 30+ pieces of coverage which included an article in Forbes and the Canadian debut of Douglas Rushkoff’s Team Human podcast. The event received over 2.5 million coverage views from a readership of 1.13 million and earned over 550,000 social media impressions.

An early highlight of VRTO 2019 was Indie VR Dev – The Game Show, hosted by Dustin Freeman (Escape Character) featuring Blair Renaud (IRIS VR), Martin Bradstreet (Martov Co.) and Andre Elijah (OPIATS) – photo by Christian Bobak Copyright 2019

Founder and Executive Director, Keram Malicki-Sanchez explains how he approached this year’s show, “It’s about pausing for a moment, like one of those volumetric John Gaeta bullet-time sequences, and taking stock in all that has come before, and how to communicate that to as many people as possible in a way they can understand.”

By focusing on the human element and the recalibration of the industry there were a couple of themes that came to light during the 3-day symposium.

Human Connection & Community

Often mistaken as a solitary and isolating endeavor, VR is a tool that has the ability to draw a community together. Virtual Reality provides users a sandbox or playground that is completely unique to the medium. With over three million downloads and 3.2k Twitch viewers, VRChat has become one of the most successful Virtual Reality apps.

Syrmor Shiraz–who calls Toronto home– is an embedded journalist in VRChat and unearths intimate, personal stories from users across the globe. His engaging videos have earned him a following of over half a million subscribers on YouTube. “A lot of your physical identity is stripped away and a purer version of yourself comes forward,” Shiraz says. He discussed how a boy who was unable to go outside because of a debilitating disease found solace in this virtual community.

Shiraz was joined at VRTO by DJ Soto, a Christian pastor, who recently performed a baptism in VRChat before making international headlines. Looking to reach those who are excluded from real-world congregations, Soto’s virtual outreach has lead him to members of the community who have been forgotten or physically unable to attend a service.

Watch “Syrmor’s Gonzo Journalism in SocialVR” at VRTO

Spatialized media is redefining how we are able to communicate and connect with one another. Voices of VR host, Kent Bye and Keram Malicki-Sanchez explored how companies are developing immersive experiences that will excite and engage attendees. “Disney Imagineers have been collaborating with immersive theatre creators and world-leading live action role players for their new Galaxy’s Edge experience,” says Bye. “Experiential designers are blending the principles of game design, immersive theatre, role play, and architecture in order to create immersive entertainment at the highest levels of mass culture,” the podcast host continued.

Kent Bye at VRTO 2019
Kent Bye discusses the future of Virtual Reality at VRTO 2019

In addition to developing platforms that aid in the creation of communities, Virtual Reality provides a complementary layer of interaction that was previously unavailable to those who were already established. The proliferation of the eSports industry has produced a dedicated community of players and spectators. This year’s VRTO featured a panel discussion that explored how VR will become a gladiator in the eSports arena.

“Rhythm Games should not be underestimated. We’re seeing lots of YouTube influencers and personalities who play Beat Saber on Twitch” says Jakyo Manor, an eSports consultant and tournament organizer.

“Spectatorship is important in eSports. Virtual Reality would allow fans to experience and interact with the players on a whole new level, this is where the opportunity truly lies for VR in the industry,” Manor added.

Jakyo Manor discusses Virtual Reality's relationship with eSports at VRTO 2019
Jakyo Manor discusses Virtual Reality’s relationship with eSports at VRTO 2019 – photo by Captive Camera copyright 2019

While the VR ecosystem is plagued by fractured platforms, the future of the industry’s success will rest on the shoulders of the companies who are able to meet the needs of the consumer.

Blake J. Harris, the author of The History of the Future, spoke about how Facebook believes they have conquered the gaming industry, “but they have not successfully planted the flag that they think they have.” Harris went on to discuss how in the early days of Facebook the platform solidified a strong user-base with the campus community before going mainstream, but the gamers and developers have been overlooked on the current journey. He echoed sentiments from former Oculus VR engineer Alexandra Howland who said, “Facebook doesn’t understand the market they bought into.”

The social media juggernaut–who has invested more into VR than anyone else–will have to reconcile with the gamers and indie developers in order to re-create their earlier successes.


Check out “VR and the Road to Now…and Then” featuring Blake J. Harris, Keram Malicki-Sanchez, and Blair Renaud at VRTO.

Creating For Consumers

While Virtual Reality has demonstrated its success in the enterprise market with impressive results–Walmart, Fidelity, UPS, DHL & more are training millions in VR–the industry has been waiting for consumers to become converts of the medium. With 4.2 million PSVR units sold and 4 million high-end PC VR headsets in the hands of users, Virtual Reality is no longer just flirting with consumers.

Tipatat Chennavasin, co-founder of The Venture Reality Fund, sees the launch of Facebook’s latest headset, Oculus Quest as an inflection point for the increase of the at-home user. Games like the indie-darling Beat Saber– which made $20 million in a year–proves that consumers are hungry for VR.

As arcades continue to expand across the globe and provide distribution channels for the media, the question is how do you get customers to return once the “gimmick” of VR has worn off?

On Monday June 3rd, Chennavasin led a panel with three entrepreneurs who have managed to navigate the unforgiving tides of the immersive industry, and have found client work and managed to successfully evolve with the industry. Joined by Srinivas Krishna of Awe Company, Mary Sorrenti of VRGen and Game Pill, and Jonathan Gagné of Masterpiece VR.

Tiptat Chennavasin, Srinivas Krishna, Mary Sorrenti, Jonathan Gagne

Laura Mingail, Senior Director, Strategy & Business Development at Secret Location – an Entertainment One company states, “The most successful experiences are ones that are developed with the range of location-based entertainment consumers in mind. Consumers will not pay to play a game simply because it’s VR. They will pay for an experience if it has an IP or story with mass appeal that they want to step into. But story alone won’t make a hit. It needs to be virtually intuitive to play, and it needs to have a reason for people to want to play it over and over again.”

Laura Mingail discusses location-based gaming at VRTO 2019
Laura Mingail discusses location-based gaming at VRTO 2019 – photo by Captive Camera

Nintendo, Star Wars, Terminator have all found success as VR content pieces. And Jurassic World VR became Dave & Buster’s biggest launch in the company’s history!

Chicagoan Keisha Howard, founder of Sugar Gamers, spoke about how to increase adoption by respecting that new audiences do not understand the jargon or have the facility to assemble complex rigs often required by VR. They may not understand the UIs that are so familiar to gamers, let alone the buttons on the controllers. She spoke about understanding the Midwest and her experiences in creating inclusivity for gamers of all ages, types and backgrounds.

Keisha Howard, founder of Sugar Gamers - photo by Captive Camera copyright 2019
Keisha Howard, founder of Sugar Gamers – photo by Captive Camera copyright 2019

Where Content Drives

Many prolific and notable Canadian VR developers and companies were also on hand to share their war stories, insights and successes. Signal Space Lab talked about the interactive 360 video pipeline they developed for Mel’s Wake and Afterlife. Occupied VR shared the winding story of their R&D and growth into one of the world’s most notable VR content developers, including their latest Holy City. Emma Rye is a production by Dr. Hillel Maresky and Shachar Weis–founders of VRAL–that uses Virtual Reality to prepare children and adults undergoing MRI’s without anesthesia, which can cut the waiting time from 8 months to only a few weeks. Tribe of Pan discussed the challenges and complexities of shooting personal, intimate interviews with women about the right to choose…in volumetric capture settings(!), where the length of a take is unknown at the time of capture. These companies and many more – including those supported by the Canadian Film Centre and ideaboost that include Tribe of Pan, Masterpiece VR, or York University’s Friend Generator VR art installation After Dan Graham – were demoed in the activations hall.

Sarah Vick showcases what Intel Studios is working on at VRTO 2019
Sarah Vick showcases what Intel Studios is working on at VRTO 2019 – photo by Captive Camera

Speaking of volumetric capture – Sarah Vick, head of Intel Capture Studios, Los Angeles, was on hand to demonstrate their eye-popping volumetric video results. Photorealistic, and seamless captures of dancers, with frills and twirling skirts, and nary a broken seam. Sarah’s approachable style helped to better understand Intel’s Studio’s objective and target audience and expressed how everyone is still learning.

The final day closed with a panel featuring CSA award winner Andrew MacDonald (Cream Digital), David Dexter (SIRT), Imran Mouna (InStage) and Dan Mills (Geogram) moderated by Keram Malicki-Sanchez that explored real world, contemporary commercial applications and adoptions of volumetric capture at all levels of budget and technical implementation – from mobile devices to film production, education to political campaigns.

This round-up is far from comprehensive and we invite you to subscribe to our YouTube channel, Instagram and Twitter channels to get a fuller picture of the many powerful talks, interactions and experiences that took place.

VRTO’s logo is “Let’s. Get. Real.” And Toronto’s “little-conference-that-could” continues to win international audiences with its hard-hitting approach for the betterment of this emerging and powerful new medium.

Learn more about VRTO 2019 and 2020 at the official conference site.

Report prepared by Stephanie Greenall
with additional reporting by K Malicki Sanchez

Special thanks to our premier sponsors:
Pandor Productions, CFC Media Lab, Cleanbox, OCAD University, Ontario Tech University, Charles Street Video, and Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre