As you tell more and more people that you’re going to Sweden, you get used to a familiar set of responses. These include “it’s expensive over there” and “make sure you try the meatballs”. Somebody will probably mention Volvos or, if you have blonde hair, the fact that you’ll fit right in.
Walking through Stockholm, you wonder why people don’t talk about how clean everywhere is or, more importantly, why they didn’t warn you about cyclists’ relaxed attitudes to pedestrian crossings. It’s also reasonable to ask why people don’t talk about the prolific tech culture.
The birthplace of Skype and Spotify, Stockholm has more billion dollar startups than any other city in Europe. Technology is big here and breaking new ground is the norm. One of the latest opportunities to present itself is Virtual Reality, and Sweden has seized it with both hands.
On the 25th of August, 2016, across the water from the old town and cobbled alleys of Gamla Stan, around 150 people gathered at the refurbished 4A Tegelbacken to get to grips with VR. One week ahead of its official re-opening, enthusiasts and newcomers alike arrived to hear from industry experts and experience the technology for themselves.
Having stocked the bar, booted up the demos and collected a few uncertain groups gathering outside the entrance, the room began to fill. Eurostaff’s first meetup in Stockholm was underway and there wasn’t a meatball in sight.
Introducing VR to the mainstream
The talks were kicked off by Johan Hägerström and Joel Ring of vrsverige.se, Sweden’s biggest VR news hub. After Johan introduced himself and the purpose of vrsverige (check vrsquare for the English version), he dashed out of the brand new auditorium, promising to transport the rest of us out of there too.
And for a moment, he did. Through the eyes of an assistant and his digital avatar, we could see and hear a projection of a sky-high virtual office. From our first floor setting, we were now looking down on tower blocks and distant traffic. Connecting with Joel, we were relocated to new fantastical surroundings, with towering marble arches as far as the eye could see.
Turning to the right, Joel’s digital self was revealed, complete with flip flops and an unapologetic hairstyle. His appearance was striking in this environment, but nothing seemed more natural than when his avatar looked towards us and suggested we move back to the boardroom. Here, we were joined by Johan, in striking camouflage trousers, before the facility’s fledgling technology caused a few connectivity issues.
Back in the room, they discussed their mission of building VR communities and growing awareness by “getting as many headsets on heads as possible”. Prior to the talk, Johan told me how he’s committed to “exploring avenues other than gaming”, but his enjoyment of the tech is plain to see as he says “it’s a special feeling to see a first time user”.
As they wrap up, you can tell they’re disappointed by the network trouble, but they’ve delivered their message loud and clear. If VR is truly going to catch on, people like Joel and Johan—patient, driven early adopters—are going to be crucial.
“Traditionally, Sweden is a tech hub, so for us leading VR is natural.” - Joel Ring
Making gender equality a reality
After witnessing some of VR’s potential in the business environment, it was time to hear from Veronica Chiaravalli, founder of Emerging Technologies. She fell for the technology after experiencing Surge, a real-time VR music video created by Arjan van Meerten. As she recalls the moment, she gets the same expression of wide-eyed joy as Johan did when he described seeing a first time user.
She talks about being locked in to the experience via a headset and wearable tech that pulsed with vibrations along with the effects in the video. This gave every beat and flash of light a physical presence as well as an audio-visual one, making the whole experience more involved and personal.
Since feeling the potential of the technology, Veronica has been set on making a difference to its future, chiefly by targeting the gender gap within technology and looking to change this within VR. She’s true to her mission statement of solving the problems and challenges of today and tomorrow.
“We’re entering a new era, but have the old mind-set. It’s time we changed it.” – Veronica Chiaravalli
Andrea Bergland, a developer at HiQ Stockholm and the third speaker at the event, has similar concerns on her mind. After introducing herself, she begins to deliver a guide to how organisations can form more inclusive working environments.
With a background in the cultural space, specifically feminism and performance art, Andrea knows how to create safe creative environments and tackle difficult subjects head on. She believes her experience in these fields can be applied to creating equality in the tech industry and doesn’t hesitate to say why.
Her talk detailed Master Suppression Techniques and explored the behaviours that are crucial to creating an open work place for women in tech in particular. Championing inclusive language and transparency, she believes encouraging and paying staff to become mentors is a vital step.
“Collaborate and take chances. That’s how we get more women into tech.” – Andrea Bergland
Speaking to her afterwards, watching a first time user wade their way through a game of SVRVIVE, Andrea’s clearly relieved to be out of the spotlight, but her positivity and enthusiasm are infectious. Every workplace could do with an Andrea.
The next generation of immersive gaming
A planned break in the talks gave everybody a chance to refuel. For some, this meant securing a sandwich or a drink from the bar. For others, this was a chance to meet people and build contacts. For most, this was their chance to experience VR for themselves.
SVRVIVE (pronounced survive) is a mystery game, made by Virtual Reality games studio SVRVIVE AB, that puts players into the shoes of an abducted, trapped human. While the pre-alpha demo we got to see is clearly inspired by escape rooms, it is only a small part of the game’s projected scale, which will include a wider mystery to solve and a new dimension to explore.
The studio has big ambitions and serious backing. They raised 15 million SEK (around £1.3m) through seed investment and have an experienced advisory board, with members that have Spotify and HTC already on their resumes. This calibre shows and the game is an excellent taste of what VR technology is capable of.
Here, the players stood in the centre of a circle of chairs, which formed a barrier resembling a satanic summoning, but also provided excellent seats. The latest user’s movements were initially tentative, as he settled in to the tech and the eerie environment. He reached out in short, uncertain stages and stepped forwards slowly, like he was re-learning how to walk. Just as he was getting more confident, the virtual lights went out. His squeal punctuated every conversation in the room.
When I caught up with Faviana Vangelius, the studio’s CEO, she told me how she enjoys nothing more than seeing people’s wild reactions to the game. The SVRVIVE board’s 50/50 male/female ratio is another source of pride and a smile creeps onto her face as she talks about her team. Everything is set for them to make something special.
Also being showcased just metres away was Toran, a puzzle game based on manipulating light beams. In it, the player is stranded on a suspended platform with no sign of a safe landing below. Using two mirrors to reflect lasers, they must work towards their only available goal, opening a portal in a vast alien tomb. The atmosphere is suitably tense.
Like SVRVIVE, the game is played using the HTC Vive, but it’s a different spectacle to watch. With movement restricted due to the setting, the people I saw playing it took to it very quickly and were soon reaching out with smooth precision. While watching another player tackle the puzzles, I spoke to Björn Albihn and Jonatan Crafoord, two of Toran’s creators.
Jonatan, gave me more background on the game, telling me it was originally created at the Castle Game Jam in 2016 in four days by four people. Bjorn, the artist behind the visuals, was quick to whip out his phone and give me a preview of other artwork and more of the ominous monster.
It wasn’t until reading up afterwards that I saw the team had backgrounds of working on games such as Angry Birds 2 and development projects with Microsoft. Their pedigree is clear to see and they’re just getting started. They’re aiming to have a complete ‘interdimensional odyssey’ together by full release, hopefully in 2017.
Changing healthcare and storytelling forever
Stomachs satisfied and imaginations whirring, it was time to file back into the auditorium for the key speaker. William Hamilton, a psychologist and CEO of VR therapy provider Mimerse, stepped up to share how he believes Virtual Reality is going to overhaul mental health treatment.
William tells us how he’s been fixated on VR’s potential since he first heard of the Oculus Rift as a student. Now, he works on gamified exposure therapy delivered via VR. This enables people to experience real emotions in Virtual Reality and, better still, allows psychologists to provide a standardised environment anywhere at any time. For William, the possibilities are limitless.
“Constructing experiences via technology is magical, really.” – William Hamilton
Getting mental health treatment can be tough, so many people turn to search engines for answers and advice. William wants to create the equivalent of a mental health pharmacy, where a range of psychological treatments are made directly available to the people who’re suffering, not middle men or companies.
One example of these tools is ITSY, an aptly named game for the Samsung Gear VR designed to treat arachnophobia. You can find out more about this and hear from William in Samsung’s ‘Face Your Fear’ campaign, released earlier this year. Even if you don’t speak Swedish, it’s easy to follow and captures one example of how VR can change healthcare forever.
Viktor Peterson, founder of CLVR Works & Viktor Productions, wrapped up the evening with a discussion of 360 video and an account of his experience while filming at this year’s Sweden Rock Festival.
Rather than being managed through a video by a director, 360 video allows users to look around as if in the moment themselves. Viktor believes the format is more experiential than standard video and it’s hard to argue with him, especially if viewed through VR equipment.
His work with Ralf Gyllenhammar and Team BAUHAUS at the country’s biggest rock festival showcases the technology’s capacity for bringing the festival experience closer to viewers, whether on stage or behind the scenes. It also captures what Viktor believes to be the defining difference between amateur and professional filmmakers: the story.
“It’s easy to mount a camera, but hard to nail a story.” – Viktor Peterson
Talking with Viktor as the event winds down around us, he tells me how he’s excited to see how VR and 360 video continue to integrate and develop. The joy he takes in capturing real-life experiences and bringing them to people at home is clear from any angle.
As attendees filtered out into the Norrmalm district, a recurring theme hit home. Everyone I spoke to was looking forward. Everybody I overheard was talking about what’s next.
Nobody was patting themselves on the back and there was no self-indulgence, just accomplished, excited people pushing for the next step—revolutionising, expanding and publicising.
Well over 100 people left Tegelbacken 4A with their eyes wide open. If the future is forged by those who see it, Stockholm is set to blaze a trail.