Stuff Innovators 2014: Watch, Listen, Play

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Throughout history, entertainment and technology have gone hand in hand.

From the introduction of the printing press to the invention of the film camera, technological leaps have redefined existing entertainment media, and created whole new forms of entertainment. And if you thought that the pace of change was slowing down, think again: these visionaries are reinventing the way we play video games, watch movies and listen to music.

innovators-watch_0LEADING THE VR REVOLUTION

Palmer Luckey, Oculus

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When most teenagers lock themselves away in their parents’ garage, they’re normally guzzling illicit booze and smokes, not working on the prototype of a device that’ll eventually convince Mark Zuckerberg to part with $2 billion. But Palmer Luckey wasn’t like most teenagers, experimenting with Tesla coils and lasers in his spare time. Now 22, he’s founder of Oculus and inventor of the Rift, making him almost single-handedly responsible for the resurgence of virtual reality.

Since the Rift was unveiled in 2012 we’ve seen headsets from PlayStation, Samsung, LG and a whole raft of start-ups, but Luckey welcomes the competition: “It lets people know that VR isn’t just this thing that one crazy company believes in,” he told Stuff at this year’s E3 gaming show. “It’s something that a lot of companies, even really big ones, believe in.”

That includes Facebook, Oculus’ new owner. And while some of the company’s early backers felt betrayed by this ‘selling out’ it’s only thanks to the deal that Oculus will be able to sell the Rift at cost price when it eventually goes on general sale. It’ll also be smaller and lighter than the DK2, with a wider field of view, higher frame rate and more pixels crammed into the display.

This is only the beginning. Luckey sees a future beyond gaming for virtual reality: “I think that VR has the capability to replace almost all the screens we use on a daily basis. Let’s go way into the future and imagine it’s built into something that just looks like a normal pair of glasses. Why would you have a phone instead of that?” Why indeed, Mr Luckey.

CREATING A GAME THE SIZE OF THE UNIVERSE

Sean Murray, Hello Games

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One minute Sean Murray’s Hello Games was the tiny studio that created cartoon stuntman Joe Danger; the next it was showing off a space exploration game with an infinitely expanding collection of procedurally generated planets (with dinosaurs).

That means every planet you land on in No Man’s Sky is unique, experiencing its own Big Bang that dictates what everything from the weather to the wildlife will be like for people who land there. Whatever you do on that planet will affect the experience of it for other players, although the universe is so massive you’re unlikely to ever encounter another human explorer. Instead No Man’s Sky is about being a bona-fide adventurer and discovering worlds never seen before. With game development, Sean Murray’s doing exactly the same.

BRINGING TECHNOLOGY TO LIVE PERFORMANCE

Imogen Heap, Mi.Mu Gloves

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London’s Imogen Heap rose to prominence in 2005 as the sort of popstress you’d hear as the credits rolled on a TV teen drama, later scoring an international smash with croony torch song What You Say. Another Dido, the music press chimed at once, dismissively. Not so, thanks to Heap’s cutting-edge development of music ware.

In 2011, she debuted a pair of gloves that use in-built MIDI controllers remotely linked up to keyboards and synths to allow her to create soundscapes dictated by her hand gestures. It’s the sort of thing seen in experimental electronica communities – Bristol sound artist Shitmat was known for taping Nintendo Wii controllers to his hands for a similar use before retiring in 2012 – but Heap is dragging this technology thrillingly into the mainstream.

Words: Al Horner, NME

BRINGING VIRTUAL REALITY TO THE MULTIPLEX

Tom Annau, Jaunt

jauntIf you think virtual reality is just about gaming, stick your head inside an Oculus Rift and let Jaunt show you otherwise. Tom Annau is just one of three founders of the cinematic VR company but it was his trip to Zion National Park in Utah that inspired the idea of headset escapism.

Filmed with special camera arrays that provide a dome of footage around your head, Jaunt’s more-than-360º movies aren’t just for virtual tourism: movie directors are already investigating ways to use VR to put you right inside their story. Allowing the viewer to look around inside a scene means fundamental changes to the way films are made, and with people from Dolby, Sky, IMAX and 20th Century Fox on the board at Jaunt it won’t be long before you’re picking up a VR headset at the movies to go with your popcorn, pick ’n’ mix and large Coke.

BREATHING HUMANITY INTO CGI

Andy Serkis, The Imaginarium

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For a man who’s had lead roles in films as big as The Lord Of The Rings, King Kong and the recent Planet Of The Apes reboot, the real Andy Serkis spends very little time on screen. Whenever he appears it’s as a computer-generated primate or jewellery-obsessed goblin with a combover. Serkis is an actor who doesn’t just inhabit other characters but becomes entirely different species, and, thanks to his world-leading motion capture studio The Imaginarium, he’s pushing it to places cinema has never been before.

With each performance, Serkis adds another level of something that’s been missing from CGI-heavy films for so long: humanity. It’s got to the point that he’s being tipped for an Oscar for his portrayal of chief ape Caesar. He’ll also have a not-yet-named role in JJ Abrams’ Star Wars movie.

MAKING VINYL ESSENTIAL FOR MUSIC LOVERS (AGAIN)

Jack White, Lazaretto Ultra LP

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There are probably tribesmen in the Amazon more au fait with modern tech than Jack White, who swears by analogue recording techniques, has performed to a backdrop of ’50s tellies and once decried anything with a computer chip in it to be a “destroyer of emotion and truth”. Presumably he goes on tour in a horse-drawn cart.

Anyways, all this is not to say the former White Stripe isn’t still breaking new ground. This year’s Lazaretto became the biggest-selling vinyl in 20 years thanks to wax savants who turned the ‘Ultra’ version of the record into a sort of grouchy blues Rubik’s Cube of discovery. Play the record at different RPMs and you’ll unearth hidden songs. Strip back the LP’s centre labels and you’ll find further surprises too.

Words: Al Horner, NME

LEADING THE NETFLIX REVOLUTION

Kevin Spacey, House of Cards

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Kevin Spacey’s political drama isn’t just approved by Barack Obama; it’s been instrumental in changing the way we watch TV. The first A-lister to throw his weight behind internet-only TV, Spacey proved with his House Of Cards remake that the most exciting new shows weren’t necessarily on primetime TV.

With Netflix also showcasing 4K, it looks as if Frank’s success was just the beginning.

TEACHING TECH TO GO ALONG TO A NEW TUNE

Roland Lamb, Roli

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The musical keyboard hasn’t changed for centuries, even though the tech has evolved spectacularly since the time of felt-covered hammers hitting strings.

Then Roland Lamb created a spongy, pressure-sensitive keyboard that responds to gestures, letting you alter pitch and timbre with your fingers. It’s at the front of a movement turning once-dumb boxes into extensions of the body.

Words: Marcus Fairs, Dezeen

BRINGING BACK IMAGINATIVE MOBILE GAMES

Simon Flesser & Magnus ‘Gordon’ Gardebäck, Simogo

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Mobile games don’t need to be mindless money-makers with a lifespan shorter than a suicidal mayfly. Simogo’s CV includes Year Walk and Device 6 – two games that are about as far removed from Flappy Bird as you get – with the latter in particular using the movement of your iThing to tell the story.

Expect similarly smart narrative tricks from the team’s next game, The Sailor’s Dream.

TRANSFORMING THE FIRST-PERSON GAMING EXPERIENCE

Alistair Hope, The Creative Assembly

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The thing about first-person shooters is you normally spend all your time shooting stuff.

But Alien Isolation isn’t like most first-person shooters. The game’s creative lead Alistair Hope, er, hopes to breathe new life into the largely stale genre by shifting the focus to xenomorph-fuelled tension, rather than carefree fragging. The alien’s clever, too. It adapts its strategies after each encounter…

TELLING A COMPELLING STORY WITHIN A GAME

Neil Druckmann, Naughty Dog

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If anyone tells you games can’t tell proper stories, sit them down in front of a PS4 and fire up The Last Of Us Remastered. Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann wrote it, and in a world where the zombie apocalypse has become something of a cliché, his story of two survivors – one of whom may hold the key to a cure – is as fresh as a new bite wound.

It’s more 28 Days Later than Resident Evil: Extinction, with the relationship between Joel and Ellie just as important as the body count, plus there are secondary narratives hidden throughout if you take the time to look for them and piece the bits together. With Druckmann now turning his pen to next-gen debut Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (due 2015), Naughty Dog’s future – and that of gaming in general – looks anything but apocalyptic.

BUILDING A HUMAN-SIZED JOYSTICK

James Iliff, Survios

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What does the joystick of the future look like? Well, a bit like you.

As a graduate of the same school as Palmer Luckey, Survios founder James Iliff has created an as-yet-unfinished wearable controller that allows you to navigate a VR game simply by walking around within the system’s magnetic field, with specific actions such as gun-toting and zombie-hacking dealt with by Wii-style controllers.

CREATING THE YOUTUBE OF NEW MUSIC

Alex Ljung & Eric Wahlforss, Soundcloud

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It’s obvious when you think about it, but only Alex Ljung and Eric Wahlforss did anything about it: a website, app and social network for musicians to upload their tunes to without a shady record label exec in sight.

Nowadays it’s used by the whole industry to give sneak previews, by young hopefuls to showcase what they can do, and by the rest of us to listen to music for free.

GIVING US VR EVERYWHERE AND ANYWHERE

Ed Mason, GameFace Labs

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What people often forget about virtual reality is that you need to tether your chosen headset to a fairly rip-snorting PC.

Ed Mason’s GameFace crams everything into one face-mounted unit, including a 2.5K display, Android OS and Tegra K1 graphics processor that you wouldn’t even find in the latest phones.

MAKING BLOCKBUSTERS GREAT AGAIN

Gareth Edwards, Godzilla

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With Michael Bay doing his best to lobotomise the blockbuster once and for all, Gareth Edwards has shown that action movies don’t need to be idiotic.

After making Monsters on a shoestring, his Godzilla reboot was a superbly pitched rescue mission of the legendary beast’s reputation, earning him the opportunity to make a sequel. Perhaps the new Star Wars won’t be so bad.

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