At its busiest times, Tokyo’s iconic Shibuya crossing can see over 1,000 shoppers, business people and tourists scramble over the road. The lights go green and the tarmac morphs into a frenzy of hurried walkers and starry-eyed marvellers. From afar, it’s one of the city’s most captivating sights.
Inside Styly, though, it becomes the world’s biggest rave.
By scanning a nearby QR code on Styly’s free new mobile AR app, you can project an almost painful strobe lighting show on the scramble. Set against the backdrop of this bustling sea of people it projects a little extra fun on a location already so well-known to millions of people.
It’s just one in a dizzying array of experiences I’m shown made through the Styly platform across two days in Tokyo. Creator Psychic VR Lab is one of those companies that is incredibly bullish about the future of VR and AR. CEO Masahiro Yamaguchi at one point tells me he thinks everyone will be wearing a headset all day in the near future, and there’s little sign of bluffing. Psychic VR is prepared to try a lot of different things in an attempt to hold a stake in that hopeful horizon.
But what exactly is Psychic VR Lab? A month ago I hadn’t heard of them, and I’d bet you hadn’t either. Do a little digging and you’ll discover an outfit very reminiscent of a Silicon Valley startup; a seemingly generous amount of investment from a renowned Japanese investor keeps the lights on at an eccentric Shinjuku-based office, smothered in a leafy overgrown texture quite polarizing to anything else on the street. A video shown by the group conveyed an eclectic 2017 opening party including, among other things, intimate theatrical acts and demon-dressed DJs that, altogether, seemed not unlike a New Year’s Eve house party in Portland.
As if it didn’t already sound crazy enough, Yamaguchi also showed me a clothing line of futurist-styled coats and cloaks he envisioned people wearing to make their HoloLens and Magic Leaps look like fashion accessories. In fact, he wore one of them over the course of the entire two days and then handed me one at the end, too. Perhaps if we changed the way we look everyday, he suggested, we might not be so embarrassed about these clunky headsets intended for everyday use.
Suffice to say Psychic VR is on the wilder side of VR/AR believers. Everything they are doing starts with Styly, a web-based creation platform for VR and AR headsets (AR distribution is coming soon). Right now with a free account you can launch Styly Studio and very quickly create a primitive virtual scene to view either in a browser or a VR headset. A library of user and developer-created assets and the ability to add in YouTube videos and images makes it simple to make a VR experience, however janky, in a few moments. For example, I made this trippy Pokemon zoo in about 10 minutes. It is woeful but, you know, I made it (sometimes these things take a while to load, so bear with it).
With a more deft understanding of the platform, Styly’s developers created some simple interaction-based scenes like this rudimentary baseball game.
Like many other immersive tech companies with dreams for the future, though, Styly is also making its move into AR. Early implementations can already be seen across Shibuya, from the crossing all the way up to a brash new shopping center, opened mere weeks ago. Outside this towering building, you can explore a photogrammetric capture of an old Akira art exhibit that used to surround the site during construction. Inside, an intriguing hybrid VR/AR experience, shown through a Daydream Mirage Solo headset, offers a virtual gallery between the center’s escalators.
Later on, I’m dazzled by an office display in which Psychic pulls more AR/VR wizardry, including one incredible experience in which I explore a diorama-sized real-world location before it is scaled up to place me right inside of it. More traditional AR exhibits on a HoloLens include virtual information panels appearing next to products on a shelf. Granted these are developer-made instances of the types of experiences long-envisioned by others, but the promise of handing these tools off for anyone to create is a potent one.
The question is when, or more importantly if, all of this gains any traction. Styly’s SteamVR app has been available for over two years and hasn’t garnered much attention. The company touts that it had over 10,000 uploads to its platform, but with no curation on publishing many of these could be simply abandoned drafts. You’ll have to dig to find any diamonds in its rough online library (though the recommendations page is a good place to start).
But there are some creators making a case for the platform. The company’s New View Awards selected the best Styly-made experiences over the past year with the 25 finalists covering the spectrum from bewilderingly messy to genuinely impactful VR experiences. One excellent manga VR piece teased the potential future of VR comics, for example, while another used photogrammetry to immortalize memories of traveling. Of particular note was this year’s grand prize winner, Takkun Museum, in which a father brought the vibrant, endearingly scribbled creations of his son to life in a spectacular theatrical performance.
There is enough here for me to envision a path to validity for Styly. These are, of course, all different strands of VR and AR experiences that we’ve seen before. While a long way from something like Unity, their aim is to appeal to a new generation of creators with an accessible toolset. It’s an ambitious goal, and this isn’t the only horse in that race. At present it’s tough to call if the wide net Psychic VR is casting will spread Styly too thin to catch any one specific developer audience, or if its jack of all trades approach will find traction while it slowly catches up to mastering each one (Styly Studio is still very much an expanding platform).
The company’s long-term plans eventually include taking a share of sold experiences, among other strategies. We’ll keep an eye on it in the future to see if it gains any traction.
Disclosure: UploadVR was a media partner for the New View Awards and Psychic VR covered accommodation and food for the two-day visit.