Transforming virtual reality from science fiction into a part of everyday consumer life is easier said than done—many have tried, and most have yet to succeed. Now, as the VR industry is poised to reach over $2 billion by the end of this year, the technology so loved by pop culture may actually stick around this time thanks to passionate VR evangelists. Here are just a few of the leaders, influencers and evangelists working to catapult VR into ubiquity.
Nonny de la Peña
Nicknamed the “Godmother of VR,” Nonny de la Peña is a journalist, filmmaker and founder of Emblematic Group. Having used a number of traditional storytelling mediums, de la Peña set out to immerse users into a news story—especially sociopolitical situations that they might never experience on their own. In 2012, Emblematic released the first ever VR documentary, Hunger in Los Angeles, in which users witness the true story of a diabetic’s collapse outside a food bank. The documentary, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival, is credited as pioneering “walk-around” VR—that is, allowing a user to move around inside a virtual environment. The prototype VR headset was provided by her intern, Palmer Luckey, who would go on to invent the Oculus Rift.
This year at SXSW, de la Peña exhibited two VR films—After Solitary, a partnership with Frontline that takes users into a solitary confinement cell in a Maine prison, and We Who Remain, exploring the front lines of the war in Sudan.
Today, her company creates VR, AR and mixed reality experiences for journalism, event recreation, fantasy environments and data visualizations.
“I think that these are places that are inaccessible for most people, and so how do we get them to understand these important issues? VR seems to be the best medium that I’ve ever worked in to do that,” de la Peña told Forbes. “If you feel like you are there, then you feel like it can happen to you too.”
While developing in VR, Chennavasin accidentally cured himself of a fear of heights. Since then, he has supported the growth of VR through development and funding. As co-founder of The Venture Reality Fund, Chennavasin has helped support companies like Owlchemy Labs, Spaces and VR advertising company Immersv.
He also was the co-founder and CEO of mobile game startup Big Head Mode, Inc. which he sold to PlayFirst to focus on VR. Chennavasin speaks around the world, is an advisor for many VR companies and a mentor for VR incubators and accelerators, including Tokyo VR Startups.
Chennavasin will be a keynote speaker at the Houston Immersive Technology Conference(ITC) on November 6.
During her time at NextVR, Situ helped nurture an active community around VR. Her team was the first to livestream the NBA using VR cameras and she has said that the VR revolution will be televised. Situ has traveled the world, giving business leaders their first VR experiences and helped NextVR grow from a “handful of people in a nearly empty office” to a popular way to view sports and other live events.
Situ makes this list for her consistent passion for VR. Since leaving NextVR earlier this year, Situ has concentrated on her site, Virtual Reality Pop and is working on something new, but definitely VR-related.
Named one of Forbes‘ 30 Under 30, Taylor Freeman is the co-founder and CEO of Upload—a news site that “exists to accelerate the success of the VR/AR industry.” Inspired by the Oculus Rift acquisition and all the possibilities in the VR space, Freeman sold his design agency to back the industry in any way he could.
“That really manifested into [Upload] doing events,” Freeman told Tech.Co. “We’d try to go bigger and show more people VR. We started traveling to Sundance and SXSW and these shows with awesome companies, but no one was writing about it.”
Taylor has focused on education within the space to help further the advancement of VR. Upload has partnered with large corporations and General Assembly to teach people development and design skills needed to build VR and AR technology. In addition to spreading awareness about the VR industry through Upload, Freeman speaks at engagements across the world to help move VR forward through its developers.
Cosmo Scharf co-founded The Virtual Reality Foundation while still a student at UCLA. The non-profit produces VRLA, the world’s largest virtual reality expo and the Proto Awards, the first award show for VR. A passionate believer in the future of VR, Scharf made headlines last year for giving back a $100,000 Thiel Partnership Grant—citing that Peter Thiel’s political views clashed with his own ideas of what VR should stand for.
This year, Scharf co-founded Mindshow, a start-up building software for creating stories in VR.
“The potential for VR is not just to escape reality, but to improve the reality we live in,” Scharf said. “VR experiences help you rethink the nature of reality, consciousness and how your brain perceives life and the world. You start to look at the world in a different way and more profoundly question how the world works and why things are the way they are. The physical world may be more flexible and fluid then we have been led to think.”