For the first time in years, South by Southwest Interactive attendees are buzzing about nothing in particular.
Unlike in the past when a single service dominated conversation for that year — in 2015, it was livestreaming app Meerkat; in the past, Twitter and Foursquare blew up — the consensus seems to be that SXSW 2016 is without a must-have consumer product. Filling the gap: enthusiasm for virtual reality, or at least curiosity about it.
Adding to the frenzy was Sony’s late Tuesday announcement that it would launch a PlayStation VR headset in October for $399. While visitors to the PlayStation House at SXSW were able to test the device there, the launch news came from the game Developers Conference in San Francisco.
“What’s been remarkable to me about South By this year is that it’s what people are doing with the platforms,” said Matt Summy, vice president of external affairs for Comcast in Chicago. “VR is everywhere here this year.”
Later this week, SXSW attendees can participate in a new, three-day virtual reality and augmented reality track, overlapping slightly with SXSW Gaming.
The track includes sessions titled “Five Ways AR Will Change the World,” “VR Porn: Future is Upon Us, What’s Next?” and “Your Brain on Virtual Reality.”
During SXSW Interactive, which ended Tuesday, plenty of attendees sought out chances to experience VR, many for the first time.
In the Comcast lounge, attendees tested a Samsung Gear VR headset to get up close to a NASCAR race. Others tested a VR headset at NASA’s exhibition booth, where they could virtually explore the inside of a new spacecraft.
Across the street from the Austin Convention Center — the hive of SXSW — Samsung’s Gear VR Lounge was one of the most steadily popular exhibits. On Monday, some attendees waited more than an hour to take a minutes-long virtual ride on a roller coaster. They strapped into seats that mimicked the motions of drops, twists and turns. Passers-by and those waiting patiently often heard shrieks from inside the glass-walled house.
The motion is intended to add a sort of “fourth dimension” to the virtual reality experience, but the motorized chairs are expensive and bulky to install. One Samsung team is working on a companion headset for the Gear VR that would simulate motion without venues such as movie theaters or theme parks needing to install new equipment.
The Entrium4D headset at first appears to be a normal pair of over the ear headphones. But the device sends a small electrical current through the vestibular system through contact with skin behind the ears. The current is synchronized with a demo video to make a user feel as though he or she is taking the turns in a race car while standingly perfectly still.
“It’s really hard to explain because you’re so used to only moving when you’re moving, but this, it’s like a little bit of mind control,” said Luke Greenwood, a marketing specialist who works for Lyft in San Francisco.
Samsung said the device could be used for movies, 3D gaming or first-person-view drone racing.
Greenwood said he would consider buying the device, depending on the price. But the Entrium4D is only a prototype, with its future — and price tag — unknown at the moment.