Taking in Some Terrifically Trippy VR at Google's Venice HQ

By Sophia Stuart Features PCmag

In 2014, L.A.-based design agency Kluge Interactive started Evenings at the Loft, a call to creatives to emerge from under the headphones, move away from their computer monitors, and mingle at Kluge's loft headquarters (hence the name).

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The event was so successful that it's now on tour around town, landing at a different venue each time. Most recently, it was at Google's Venice HQ and the theme was (what else?) virtual reality. Google moved into the Frank Gehry-designed Binoculars Building in Venice in 2011, and it's now a sprawling but secure campus with a black box-style theater attached. For the VR event, the office's theater and cafe were packed—standing room only.

PCMag went along and caught up with founder and CEO Arturo Perez to find out why his agency is playing party host to design folks.

"I'm originally from Venezuela, and the South American culture is very friendly, so I wanted to bring that spirit to Southern California," Perez told PCMag. "We call Kluge Interactive the 'rock and roll agency'; that's our vibe, so we saw an opportunity to bring that ethos to events. Decentralization in L.A. is a big problem, but there's a huge creative community here and we saw a role for ourselves as a unifier—which is why we started 'Evenings at the Loft'—it's grown from there."

After a lot of mingling by the bar, everyone flowed into the theater, or crowded around the doorways, to listen to a few industry experts do 10-minute "lightning round" advice sessions, including director and producer Jess Kantor, whose VR film Ashes premiered at Tribeca Film Festival and played in the Edinburgh Digital Festival.

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Kantor had some experience to share, including linking spatial audio to in-view objects. "It's not like film, where you can manipulate a passive audience," Kantor told the assembled crowd. "If there's music, make sure there's a source, like a turntable, the participant can see or they'll wonder where the music is coming from."

She also said you have to "decide the laws of your VR 'world' before you shoot," and "guides work well" to help users navigate the space. Otherwise all you'll get is "What do I do now?" from the bewildered person under the VR headset.

Then it was time for the big reveal: a crowd-participation interactive performance to launch the immersive art app Atmosferas.co, created by Kluge Interactive Creative Director Abraham Aguero, as part of the new Kluge Labs.

After a short video introduction by the artist Evelyn Benzecri (who happens to be Aguero's mom), everyone popped their smartphones into Unofficial Cardboard-branded devices for an up-close look at 3D models of Benzecri's artwork, surrounded by crazy audio and whirling trippy flights of fantasy visuals.

"When we take off the goggles we'll get to see the live paintings," Perez told the crowd, pointing at the artwork hung on the Google cafe walls.

"This truly is 'blended reality,'" Perez told PCMag afterwards. "We invite the viewer to discover what that means to them."

Kluge Interactive VR projects include a mobile VR fly-through of Silicon Beach last year. Perez likes to take a thoughtful, philosophical view of the technology and its potential: "What I like most about VR is its ability to make you believe you exist in two places concurrently."

For Kluge Interactive, it's clear that VR is more about the experience than the gear that enables this flight out of reality and into somewhere entirely new. This is deliberate. As Perez pointed out, new gadgets come out all the time, but if there's nothing to do once you're inside, people aren't going to take up VR in the numbers required for it to become an industry.

"We completely de-emphasize the hardware," confirmed Perez. "We want you to have a cool experience, like the Atmosferas.co here this evening, regardless of how you got there."

The next Evening at the Loft is "still very much under wraps," said Perez. "But we're cooking up a retro wave night—something of the aesthetic '80s vibe, going back to the basis of gaming. That's all I can say."

We'll be there. Especially if there's an Atari console around, virtual or IRL.

This article originally appeared on PCMag.com.