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Virtual reality's future is being charted this week in San Francisco

Virtual reality's future is being charted this week in San Francisco

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The Game Developers Conference doesn’t have the marketing of flashy video game conferences like E3, Gamescom, or Tokyo Game Show, but it’s no less important. For 27 years, the event has been a place for people and the games industry and the press to meet, mingle, and learn from one another. As it’s grown, GDC has also become a popular place for large game creators to show the cutting edge and avant garde creations of the medium.

This year, the event is practically buried beneath the upcoming launch of consumer virtual reality, with Oculus Rift and HTC Vive shipping in the weeks after the event. The news you can expect to come from the event will largely hinge on the countless questions, creative dreams, and theoretical business models currently circling VR.

Here are five things to look for in the coming week.

Virtual reality gets real with Oculus and Vive

GDC could not have better timing: it’s taking place two weeks before the Oculus Rift starts shipping, and three weeks until the HTC Vive. This means that every developer with a virtual reality PC project in the works wants to show off for press and investors at the conference, before they’re actually competing in the uncertain VR market. Unlike Sony, Oculus and Valve don’t have big keynotes at the show, but they’ve both an extensive library of demos, from familiar games like EVE Valkyrie to unseen titles. And there’s a whole separate track for VR talks and events, called VRDC.

VR is no longer just a tech demo

GDC does stand for the Game Developers Conference, so we expect VR-related announcements from the companies behind engines, hardware, and all the other tools developers use to make games. Things like VR-based game editors, which will appear at the show, could help cement virtual reality as a mainstream creative tool instead of just an entertainment system.

Though the average game lover has little interest in these companies that create game development tools, they will play a crucial role in making VR development more approachable and affordable. In theory, the more developers work in VR, the more VR games we’ll see down the line.

Sony can’t compete with Oculus and Vive hardware, so it leverages VR software

Oculus and Vive represent the first wave of modern consumer VR (no offense, Google Cardboard), but another major player is expected to join later this year: Sony. PlayStation VR (née Project Morpheus) was first unveiled at GDC two years ago, and this week, the company is holding a major keynote and hands-on showcase — which would be a very good time to announce that final price and release date. (The current assumption is "later this year" for a few hundred dollars.)

Regardless of what Sony announces, expect the company to highlight its library of unique game experiences, including Rez Infinite, a new Psychonauts, a Gran Turismo spin-off, and a modified Tekken. And who knows, perhaps Sony will finally admit that No Man's Sky is perfect for VR.

Lectures on how VR could change everything from journalism to public art

Storytelling, development standards, filmmaking, audio design, user harassment, design theory, journalism, public art: the breadth of topics covered by virtual reality panels and lectures is striking. A large chunk of the games industry believe virtual reality will play an important role in the future, and educators, game makers, tool creators, marketers, directors, musicians, and philosophers are piecing together what that future might look like.

Attending GDC 2016 will be like gazing into a crystal ball at the future of VR. Some of the predictions may become reality, others will be forgotten. With the format taking its first steps form the primordial ooze, it will be interesting to watch these panels in ten or twenty years.

VR further merges the film and games industry

Given all of the hype around the current generation of VR hardware, it’s easy to forget that the medium isn’t just about games. There are lots of other areas that will be changed by virtual reality, entertainment being chief among them. The VR portion of GDC is actually divided into two sections: games and entertainment. Both sides are grappling with the many of the same problems, as films learn how to become more interactive, while games play with cinematic structure and design.

VR reaches far beyond the games industry

At GDC, some of the biggest names in either industry will be sharing the lessons they’ve learned in these early days of VR. That includes the likes of Industrial Light & Magic, Skywalker Sound, HBO, Oculus Story Studio, and Legendary Entertainment. There’s already a lot of crossover between the two medium — blockbuster games often utilize Hollywood talent, while new visual effects can make movies look like games — and that’s only going to become more true as more creators start utilizing the same technology, like the Unreal Engine, which was showcased last year as a solution for everything from game development to film production to architectural design.

Attendees wonder if VR is just another bubble

No matter what happens in the real world, it’s safe to predict virtual reality’s GDC bubble will pop in the next couple years. Trends are the fuel on which the conference runs. After indie game Braid made its creator Jonathan Blow a millionaire in 2008, countless panels explained how AAA game designers could set sail in the open waters of downloadable games and make a comfy profit. After Portal and BioShock inspired a trillion think pieces on video game storytelling, a flurry of narrative and cinematic descended upon the following years’ events. When the iOS app store launched, dozens of panels offered solutions for making a living by developing for mobile, and when free-to-play became the dominant model, consultancy groups and economist filled lecture halls with their formulas for enticing non-gamers onto digital farms and battlegrounds.

If VR finds success outside of GDC, it will play a substantial role at the conference in the future. GDC has already created a separate two-day summit, VRDC, which will likely become an annual event. But VR’s role in the main lecture halls will diminish from trend to tract as nascent next big things reveal even newer best practices to survive in an industry where popularity comes and goes.