10 Virtual Reality Leaders You Should Follow in 2016

Dejan Gajsek
Mar 30, 2016 · 10 min read

Individuals who are changing the world with the use of Virtual Reality Technologies.

Update! If you like this article, you might be interested in this one as well: Women of VR — 35 Ladies who are Killing it in Virtual Reality

VR is a scorching hot trending topic in 2016. If you’re not living under a rock, you have probably heard about VR by now, even though you might not experience it yet. If you pay attention to tech news, you might notice that every big company is investing loads of money into Virtual Reality.

Mark Zuckerberg already obtained Oculus Rift two years ago. HTC developed the most advanced VR headset called Vive. All 15,000 pre-orders of Vive were sold out in 10 minutes. That’s impressive if you think it’s a novelty device that cost around $800 in the U.S.

At the moment of writing, Sony Playstation VR just opened up for pre-orders… and sold-out. Then there’s Samsung with Gear VR, Microsoft with HoloLens ($3k!), Google with their 5 million+ cardboards already in the market, LG with less successful LG 360 VR, etc. etc… Virtually (pun intended) every major tech company is investing money into VR. Even Amazon has started displaying VR jobs on Glassdoor. And Apple? Don’t worry, they will come to the market soon.

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It’s undeniable that VR has made a huge statement. It is here to stay. It’s already being used in more than 20 different application. Being in a VR startup myself, it feels like everyone is racing to the top of the VR tech summit and check out the scenery.

With VR producers, developers, engineers, investors, marketers and everyone in between, I came up with a list of 10 Pioneers you should keep close attention to. They’re the ones that are pushing the envelope and making things happen. Once the VR hits mainstream their names will be remembered.

1) Palmer Luckey | Founder of Oculus VR


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The VR person. The guy with strong enough vision that kept the VR in the news for the last 4 years. Luckey is gamer and tinkerer who asked $300 for a prototype headset on Kickstarter. The campaign raised $250,000 in less than two hours and $2.4 million within a month. Oculus Rift was under way, and in 2014 obtained by Facebook for a whopping $2bns. At the moment, the first Oculus Rift just shipped.

The company made sure there is enough content for the buyers when they plug in. Arguably there’s a lot to be done about the quality of the content, but we can expect it to follow soon.

2) John Carmack | ex-ID Software, CTO at Oculus VR


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There’s no doubt that John Carmack is a technological wizard. When he was in the game industry, Carmack made some evolutionary breakthroughs in computer graphics. There’s too many to count all of them here. One of his hobbies also includes rocketry. If you thought about Elon Musk at this point, let me just mention that Elon wanted to hire Carmack to work with him on SpaceX.

When he left ID Software in 2013 and signed up as CTO at Oculus, a lot of VR enthusiasts started wetting their knickers. With this amount of brainpower in the lead technical seat, the VR will advance with lightening speed.

3) Chris Milk | Filmmaker and founder of Vrse.inc


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Legendary music video director, Chris Milk doesn’t take no for an answer. If the tools aren’t available for his vision to create the right experience, he will create them. His persistence in creative storytelling lead him to big clients. He has filmed for Nike, Arcade Fire, U2, Kanye West and Nintendo, to just name a few. From music videos, Milk jumped to Immersive Installations that were featured in Coachella 2011 Music Festival.

Virtual Reality was the logical next stage. He founded VRSE — a virtual reality company which focuses on innovative human stories in VR. If you have a smartphone and a VR headset (simple Google Cardboard would do), VRSE is the first app you should download. Be on a lookout for Chris’ work since he never seizes to amaze you with his stories.

“For a long time, I believed that a great piece of music on its own could do more to stir the soul than any other single art form, but in virtual reality, we’re placing the viewer inside a moment or a story … made possible by sound and visual technology that’s actually tricking the brain into believing it’s somewhere else.”

4) Ken Birdwell | Valve VR Engineer

[too busy for twitter]

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Ken hated VR. He thought it was a was a waste of time — a passing fluke. Valve famous working philosophy doesn’t have requirements on what exactly you should be working on. So when a VR headset came around to his desk, he put it on. He wasn’t impressed about what he saw, so he forgot about it. But VR development went forward despite. Eventually, he was pulled in and today it is his fault that HTC Vive is a leading VR headset. He came up with innovative technology he calls ‘room scale’. Room scale gives you the ability to walk around in the virtual space using a complex system that adds a physical sense of being there, hooks into your proprioception. Rather than observing, you’re moving around. You use subtle head movements, you reach out and grab things.

In short words — you can move your feet and walk in the VR space instead of just turning your head around. Being one of the creators of Portal and Half-Life series (the most well-known computer games), he’s the one to be trusted constructing virtual worlds in VR.

5) Jens Christensen | Founder and CEO of Jaunt


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Jauntineer, as he calls himself on LinkedIN, Jens and his co-founders Tom and Arthur weren’t impressed by mediocre photos from Zion National Park. That small, bleak and flat images on the phone just didn’t capture the overwhelming beauty of the place. So they asked himself how to project the beauty of the place in a better way while being truly immersed in it.

But they didn’t stop there. “How can we create similar experiences for everyone? Can you watch an NBA game from prime seats, attend the opera or go skydiving from the living room?” The idea intrigued them. The trio started out building prototypes and came up with Jaunt — a high-tech, high-quality camera system for recording the scene. Jaunt cameras are not for sale yet, but when they do, expect them to cost top dollar.

6) Alex Kipman | Microsoft HoloLens


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Guilty for having a bad haircut, Alex is also guilty of Microsoft weird AR headset HoloLens — a headset that displays 3-D “holograms” in real life. HoloLens will bring the futuristic Minority Report panels closer and according to the first reviews, the critics seem to have a positive opinion about it. If you waited for conjuring up digital images in front of your eyes, now it’s time to try. Too bad, you have to wear the helmet. Alex has been the visionary behind Kinect, before HoloLens and for sure he will be improving HoloLens to break through digital borders.

7) Tony Parisi | Software Programmer and Author


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Looking to learn on how to build VR worlds? If you went perused Amazon, you’ve already noticed there isn’t much to choose from. VR is still a relatively new concept and the development is happening on real world experiences. Tony Parisi name usually pops up among O’Reilly educational books. Parisi is old school and on of the early pioneers in Virtual Reality. He’s the promoter of WebGL — a standardized way of rendering 2D in 3D graphics within a browser — something our startup is using as well. Whether you’re a VR enthusiast or a hardcore developer, definitely read his books if you want a proper primer on what drives VR.

8) Kent Bye | Host of Voices of VR podcast


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When VR industry and technology is moving on in a rapid speed like today, it’s easy to lose pace and miss out on the latest news. Kent is here to fix that problem. Voices of VR is a daily podcast that covers latest breakthroughs, advances and musings in VR. If you’re looking to get a taste, just try out his “Hall of Fame” episodes and see if it suits you.

9) Clay Bavor | VP of Virtual Reality team at Google


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Google has a invested in AR and put nearly $800 million into Magic Leap, an augmented reality company based in Florida. Well, $800 is not that much for Google however, the company has and always will have the spotlight for any kind of tech stuff. In February 2016, rumors started to spread out about a new smartphone VR headset. This time not a cardboard one. Part of the Google’s VR team is also Patrick Hackett (@playmorevgames) who is working on Tilt Brush — a tool that lets you paint in 3D space with virtual reality.

10) Alex Schwartz | Owlchemy Labs


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Game developer and Virtual Reality Specialist at Owlchemy Labs has a VR obsession. His studio’s mobile game Caaaaardboard! is one of top-selling mobile VR titles on Google Play. By being one of the first game developers in VR he has a substantial lead in the VR game industry. Having a distinct style is just another ace up their sleeve. If you own one of the “big three” VR headsets definitely try Job Simulator.

When asked how he feels about Virtual Reality, he answered:

“A long road of romantic optimism.”

Honorable Mentions:

Saschka Unseld (@saschkaunseld) — Creative Director of Oculus Story Studio Saschka Unseld is dedicated Storyteller and a master of cinematography. He’s well aware of benefits of Virtual Reality. The one thing he is focusing on is the emotional connection of the audience to the viewer. VR is allowing him just that because the 4th wall (between the screen characters and you as viewer) doesn’t exist. Saschka is going to teach Hollywood a new storytelling language. To start, check out Henry.

Karl Krantz (@karlkrantz) — an organizer of SVVR and VR LaunchPad, Karl has almost single-handedly built a VR community in Silicon Valley. He made a strategic move to California, just to spread his passion about VR. His first VR conference (SVVRCon) in 2013 had 400 people attending. SVVRCon 2016 is projecting more than 3000. He’s also a big supporter to VR startups so you’ll definitely hear his name thrown around if you’re in one.

Alan Smithson (@ShokKreative) — Ever since Alan successfully launched Emulator Elite — a DJ digital dashboard, he’s been on the run of creating technological breakthroughs. In 2016, he went all in with Virtual Reality with his new found company ShokKreative. He aims to deliver stories and experiences like no other.

Aaron Hilton (@otri) — Aaron is a spearhead of Vancouver VR community and a Co-Founder of Conquer Mobile. Conquer Mobile might be a Startup but the team consists of the smartest individuals that came from different blue-chip companies such as EA, SAP, RBC and Nokia. Aaron is currently focusing on some seriously cool medical technology that brings together VR, 3D scanning and gamification.

Cosmo Scharf (@cosmoscharf) — Cosmo is a founder of VR Los Angeles (@vrlosangeles) — world’s largest VR & AR expo Stretched between NY and LA, he’s always well informed of the next big thing. He’s obsessed with technology which leads him to a startup Visionary, which received $6 Million funding capital in the first round.

Jernej Mirt (@viarbox) — A shameless plug incoming. Jernej is the CEO of a small central European Startup with big goals to alleviate VR storytellers. The platform in the works has a big potential to become the next Wordpress for VR content.

Dan Pacheco (@pachecod) — Chair & Professor of Journalism Innovation at S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University is dedicating his 20+ something years of digital publishing and media experience to VR journalism. Who better to learn from about VR storytelling than him. Take a class.

Taylor Freeman (@taylorpfreeman) — CEO of UploadVR, a news portal that each and every one of you already have it bookmarked. UploadVR firmly believes that Virtual Reality is the future. They share exciting new ideas and supporting the game-changers in the VR industry.

Have you find a major sticking point in the article? It’s glaringly obvious. Where are the women? There are many super smart women who are represented in the VR industry. To give them full attention I’ve decided t write an additional article dedicated to them. For now, go ahead and follow each one of the VR influencers.

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