PennImmersive @ Exploring Future Reality 2017

by Isabella Tang, Wharton MBA '18

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On November 30, a few of us took a day trip to NYC to attend the Future of Reality 2017, NYC Media Lab's annual VR/AR innovation event. We listened to a series of industry panels, checked out some cool demos from startups, and attended hands-on workshops. Below, notes and reflections on two of our favorite sessions:

“Empathy is wholly insufficient”

The Future of Cities panel featured representatives from the Brownsville Community Justice Center, Columbia University School of Social Work, NYU Future Reality Lab, and NYCx. I was particularly drawn to the work and commentary shared by John Bryant and Jasmine Bowie from the Justice Center.

From what I gathered, the Justice Center serves Brownsville, a 2-square mile space in Brooklyn. The lives of Brownsville residents are severely impacted by the presence of highly territorial gangs, to the point that even traversing across certain adjacent neighborhood blocks is near impossible. In the pursuit of safety and violence reduction, the Center has developed several VR and AR enabled solutions:

  1. Fireflies. This VR game pairs up residents living across gang lines and housing projects and enables them to learn about one another’s life narratives. Fireflies uses GIS data to replicate the neighborhood and uses 3D scans of some 300 actual residents to put faces to names as their stories are told. By allowing residents to virtually cross gang lines and by facilitating relationships that were previously impossible, Fireflies hopes to improve understanding and reduce violence.
  2. A virtual store app. Many of Brownsville’s artists and small business owners cannot afford rent for a physical storefront. This AR app bypasses the problem by enabling them to set up virtual stores at real physical sites. Prospective buyers simply walk up to a predetermined location (e.g., an abandoned or unleased venue). Using their mobile app, they can then browse for products by the owner of that store. The app acts as a market place for buyers and sellers, offers step-by-step business guidance, and even enables buyers and sellers to meet face-to-face.

As one panelist remarked, “Empathy is wholly insufficient.” Yet, empathy can be a starting point for tangible impact. It is incredible to glimpse how the Brownsville Community Justice Center has used immersive technologies to build empathy and improve economic well being for the local community. I would love to see how these technologies can be replicated and scaled in other geographies.

“AR and VR are like paint brushes”

The “AR/VR with Unity” workshop was led by Lex Dreitser, CEO of VRVU, a full-service VR agency. The audience contained a mix of technical and non-technical folks, some of us with zero Unity experience, but Lex guided us all with enthusiasm and clarity. While the workshop objective was to create a simple mobile VR app with Unity, we also learned how AR and VR build on preceding technologies and offer additional advantages.

For instance, Lex reminded us of how Renaissance artists used breakthrough techniques to capture realistic perspective, lighting, and colors – effectively translating their 3D world into 2D representations that seem 3D after all. In the same way, VR designers can apply perspective, textures, shadows, and so on to make the virtual environment come alive.

 Lex Dreitser presents his workshop, "AV/VR with Unity."

Lex Dreitser presents his workshop, "AV/VR with Unity."

Lex also recalled how writers, directors, and producers are tasked with recreating physical worlds on stage and in film; yet, they are often constrained by budgets. In this regard, VR designers have a leg up. Development platforms like Unity enable all the technical aspects of storytelling such as lighting and camera direction, and allow for experimentation and iteration – at a far reduced cost.

These familiar analogies provided me a helpful historic lens by which to view AR and VR. Technological progress exists on a spectrum; everything we take for granted today was revolutionary at one point in history – even the paint brush. Moreover, AR and VR are like paint brushes, in the sense that they are technologies which enable creation of some work, such as paintings. But AR and VR are not the work itself. If we choose to use this technology over another more “rudimentary” technology, we must do so purposefully. “Doing AV/VR” without a logical rationale comes across as a gimmick and ultimately adds no meaningful value.


 Hi! I'm Isabella.

Hi! I'm Isabella.

Hi! I'm currently a student in the Wharton MBA program and formerly a management consultant at McKinsey & Company with experience in strategy, startup operations, product marketing, and organization design. I am also a performing singer-songwriter who has released an original album and music videos.

I am driven by my passion and interest in art, design, business, and immersive experiences. My goal is to tell stories that My goal is to help tell stories that propel imagination, learning, and justice.

Want to get in touch? Visit my websiteemail me, or find me on LinkedIn.