Ken Perlin from New York University talks about his new visual language for VR: Chalktalk

While the jury’s still out on whether there were more or fewer VR games at this year’s Develop, that side of the industry undoubtedly still has a huge presence.

Ken Perlin, who delivered a fascinating keynote at the end of the first day, seemed very confident about the future of virtual and mixed reality: “If I’m wrong in 50 years I’ll buy you a drink.” And with his background, it’s easy to see why. His first gig was on Tron (the good one) but he became increasingly interested in attempting to recreate the organic textures of the natural world, rather than the clean, industrial lines of cyberspace, and his early experiments in developing procedural shaders and noise based textures were pioneering and still well used in the film industry.

“If I’m wrong in 50 years I’ll buy you a drink.”

Perlin has gained something of a reputation as a tech utopian, someone who believes in the potential for technology to not only contribute to society but to lift it to a higher plane and cure many of the ills in the world. This is why, for the last few years, Perlin has been leading a group of students in experimenting with what he calls ‘extreme mixed reality’ at the Media Research Lab of New York University.

Perlin, like so many technorati, believes technology becomes most successful when we cease to think about it as technology at all; when it slips into the background noise, becoming effortlessly natural or what he calls “socially invisible.” It’s clear that for Perlin, VR is well on its way to realising this ambition, and he fully expects a small form factor tetherless VR solution to appear within the next year (bad news for those who shelled out on a full Vive set up).

For Perlin the ultimate goal is to create immersive, co-located experiences, in which multiple people interact. His belief is that on a fundamental level we are social creatures, and people will always take any tech you make and try to find a way to socialise using it. This has led to several experiments with his students, including a rather wonderful one called Flock in which a large group of people become birds, flying around an environment.

According to Perlin, VR provides the opportunity to create a new visual language, which has led to the development of a piece of software called Chalktalk, which he proceeded to demonstrate. Made from simple customisable piece of Java Script, the software, which will be released open source in the coming year, allows participants to draw shapes directly into 3D space, much like Google Tiltbrush. However, the system recognises what you’ve sketched, transforming it into a recognisable object with programmable, scripted properties. As he explains this, he casually renders a simple stick dinosaur, that charismatically stalks around a landscape based on a path he draws for it, dynamically avoiding obstacles.

Chalktalk uses a large but intuitive library of hieroglyphic-like pictograms that are customisable (changing the length of the dinosaur’s legs, changes its gait and behaviour, for instance). Perlin, idealistically perhaps, hopes that this will provide a platform to share and communicate away from the platforms owned by massive corporations like Facebook, where people aren’t the customer but the product. Although, it’s unclear what’s to stop them moving into this sphere as well.

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