VR Evangelism from the floor of a Russian Tech Conference

At this moment of uncertainty, with tensions rising and accusations flying and an evil orange stooge puppet running for president, the people of Russia rather nobly invited VR Playhouse to come visit their country. They invited us to come talk about virtual reality at a tech conference but we like to think maybe also to broker a new kind of understanding between our country and theirs.

So we sent Dylan. He’s harmless and, if you squint, he could maybe look a little Russian. And Dylan, as he is want to do, spent a day chronicling his adventures:

9am: It’s morning in Moscow and I’m rolling out of the Marriott Novy Arbat with my fellow non-Russian invitees, on our way to the Open Innovations Forum. We’re an eclectic mix of “entrepreneurs” and “experts,” ferried to Russia to speak on the various stages and panels that the forum offers over the course of three days. It’s a forum aimed mainly at the country’s own growing number of tech investors. I can’t tell if it’s the jet lag but I sorta feel like chum.

10am: We arrive at the Skolkovo Technology Centre, one of several large and impressive-looking buildings dotting an otherwise barren landscape on the outskirts of Moscow. It is very grey and very cold out and all the buildings are equally grey and cold-looking and it all combines to create a vaguely dystopian vibe. The place is pretty cool though. It’s brand-new, like as in they had to rush to finish it in time for this forum, and it will eventually house hundreds of tech start-ups, each of which is subsidized by the government. There’s tons of office and lab space ringing a central area that resembles a really nice mall. I don’t know whether to be impressed or terrified.

10:30am: I’m looking for something distinctly Russian about this event; some bit of bleak poetry ripped from the pages of Tolstoy. The best I can find is a robot rolling around that kinda reminds me of the one from Rocky IV (and if you don’t believe that I was actively looking for Rocky IV parallels the entire time I was in Moscow, then you don’t know me very well). And also, they play this weird, calypso cover of “Gangster’s Paradise” like, 20 times over the course of the day that inspires a madness in me that is positively Dostoevskian.

11am: Though it seems Russia still lags behind in pop music and pop culture-inspired robotics, in most aspects, cultural globalization is in full view here. It’s all pretty familiar once the day gets rolling. Everybody sits in beanbag chairs, there’s talks on triathlons as event marketing spaces, the emerging markets in sleep science, and seasteading. In fact, the seasteading talk deserves is own entry…

12:30pm: The guy giving the talk on seasteading comes from the Seasteading Institute, which counts Peter Thiel as one of its founders. This inspires a decidedly awkward moment in the morning shuttle when this info comes out and the guy has to do what is by now probably a pretty well-rehearsed tiptoe around the subject of Thiel’s good buddy Donald Trump. His talk is like an elaborate sales pitch that is as much about the religion of start-ups as it is about seasteading itself. He talks about start-up countries and nano-nations and declares that “start-ups change the world.” Nevertheless, the libertarian vibe of the seasteading movement is maybe a little foreign to this Russian audience.

2pm: I make friends! Shout out to Olga and Vlad, who talk about VR with the same wild-eyed enthusiasm as we do. Vlad is trying to get an immersive musical about the life of Rasputin made on Broadway and so he made a VR teaser for it which is seriously epic and would definitely get me thinking if I were a Broadway producer. Olga and I babble in a familiar way about the infinite applications for VR/AR until we get to cybersecurity at which point we both simultaneously agree that perhaps that isn’t a subject we should dwell on in the here and now.

3pm: Shout-out also to Sila Sveta, a company that delivers the day’s strongest pang of competitive jealousy. These guys look to be applying VR in really cool ways, particularly when it comes to live events. They, along with Olga and Vlad, offer pretty good evidence that Russia is in the VR game. They’re certainly selling it here. On my way to the airport going home, I see one of those building-length video billboards playing a commercial for a Galaxy Note 7 (em, guys, might want to check the news about that) and Gear VR combo, an ad that is repeated before every movie I watch on my Aeroflot Russian airline flight back.

4:45pm: I have my panel. I am one of two non-Russian speakers on a panel on seven. I can understand everything through a headset feeding me a simultaneous translation, but not many of the Russians have such a headset. Meaning, unless they speak English, they have no idea what I’m saying. So, I can’t really say how effective I was. I can say that the conversation focused on the economics of VR and every proud capitalist’s favorite VR question du jour: how in the name of Yakov Smirnoff are we going to make money off it?

7pm: The day is done and I ride the shuttle back through impenetrable traffic in the Moscow night. The woman sitting next to me is imploring her friend to come with her to Hong Kong, and the barren landscape outside is now pitch black. Every so often we roll by a big towering bloc of a mall with the football field-sized video screen lighting it all up, playing ads for virtual reality machines. They look pretty cool. Terrifyingly impressive. Impressively terrifying.

Dylan Southard is the head of original content for VR Playhouse