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Despite its reputation as an extremely futuristic technology, virtual reality (VR) has been a long time coming, with inventors seeking to simulate reality as far back as the 1960s. While many of the first VR games were introduced in the 1990s, many of these games and technologies never even made it past the prototype stage. It wasn’t until 2010 that VR truly began to take off, with the creation of the Oculus Rift VR headset, which paved the way for the extreme popularity of VR gaming today.
As the capital of the entertainment industry, Los Angeles has played a major role in spurring the fantastic growth of VR in recent years. In this article, we’ll review the history of VR in Los Angeles to help us understand how we got where we are today, and where VR might be headed next.
The Seeds: VR Blows Up
While VR technology has been in production for many years, it wasn’t until March 2016 that it truly took off. Why? The Oculus Rift, the first modern day VR headset released on the mainstream market, was released. It’s no coincidence that this is also when VR took off in Los Angeles. Not only is Oculus VR based in Irvine, California, but the introduction of the Oculus VR headset created a lot of buzz for many in the entertainment world.
Soon, VR startups sprouted up all across LA, spurring the creation of a Los Angeles tech scene that some call “Silicon Beach.” From Vrideo, a 360-degree streaming service, to AppliedVR, a startup that builds VR therapy programs, VR startups began infiltrating a huge variety of sectors in Los Angeles. Investors also saw the promise of VR in Los Angeles. In 2016 alone, investors put $253 million into virtual reality and augmented reality start-ups in LA and Orange counties.
But it wasn’t just small startups who saw VR as the future of entertainment; even large production studios like 20th Century Fox and NBC began showcasing VR experiences at trade shows and other industry events. Major tech companies like HTC, GoPro and Nokia also got involved in the VR scene in Los Angeles, participating in the 2016 Virtual Reality Los Angeles (VRLA) expo event (an event that grew from 100 people in 2014 to over 6000 by 2016!). The entertainment world was primed for VR to take off.
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The Drought: Los Angeles VR Slows Down
While VR startups continued to spring up through 2016 and 2017, by 2018, funding for VR companies was slowing down. In fact, investment in seven Los Angeles and Orange County-based VR startups dropped by 81% in 2018 compared to 2017.
So, why the sharp slowdown of virtual reality startups in Los Angeles? Despite the extreme interest in VR from the tech community, VR had not yet become popular with the everyday consumer. In 2018 and 2019, VR headsets were still very expensive and a bit clunky. As a result, many people preferred to continue playing their games on traditional monitors, or simply couldn’t afford to drop their hard-earned money on an expensive headset.
In response, many Los Angeles VR startups shuttered their doors permanently. For example, Future Lighthouse, a VR studio based in LA and Spain, closed due to financial difficulties in January 2018, citing “overly conservative” investors as the reason for their shutdown. Other startups shifted the focus of their companies away from consumer gaming, recognizing that the future of VR gaming was a little less certain.
The Bloom: VR Makes a Triumphant Return
We all know what happened next: the COVID-19 pandemic. While this spelled the beginning of financial hardship for many companies, it had the opposite effect on many in the VR industry. As more people sought out at-home entertainment experiences, they often turned to the immersive wonders of VR.
Many VR startups in LA capitalized on the sudden spike in interest in at-home VR, and began creating much more VR content. Additionally, the price of VR gaming headsets reduced, making VR a much more accessible experience. Some VR companies even tailored their services to the pandemic. For example, Redpill VR Inc., a VR company based in the Hollywood Hills, livestreams musical performances in VR, so audiences can watch from home. In a time when people could not safely leave their homes, VR helped bring joy and entertainment home.
By 2022, VR is continuing to grow in Los Angeles. From virtual reality arcades to UCLA research on the use of VR in the medical field, you can see virtual reality sneaking in nearly everywhere you look. Let’s dive into some of the new applications of VR in Los Angeles today.
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Where Can I Find VR in LA Today?
Hundreds, if not thousands, of businesses in Los Angeles have begun incorporating virtual reality. Many of these offer VR gaming experiences to the public, such as VR gaming arcades or VR gaming studios. For example, downtown LA escape room mogul 60OUT has begun offering virtual reality games in addition to their traditional escape room experiences.
While VR is most popular and well-known in LA’s entertainment and gaming sector, VR technology is becoming much more prevalent in a variety of applications, from fitness to business to medicine. For example, LA-based VR studio Within Unlimited offers a VR fitness app called Supernatural, while Tailspin, a company also based in LA, creates VR training modules to help companies train their employees.
As VR headsets get cheaper and the applications of VR continue to expand, VR may become a larger part of our social lives. Samson Egilman, host of the VR podcast Let’s Talk Oculus explains, “I am most excited for all the ways VR can connect people from all over in new and exciting ways…When one is able to put on a VR HMD [head mounted display] in the kitchen and cook with a friend in a completely different location while watching a YouTube recipe together, that will be life changing.” VR has the potential to transform how we interact and bring us together in totally new ways. And you can be sure that much of this innovation will find its start in Los Angeles.
One thing is certain: we can expect to see VR in our daily lives much more frequently. As Egilman predicts, “As the current generation plays more VR [games], it will feel normal for them to use VR for other tasks like work and meetings. It’ll grow exponentially.”