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George Clooney Was Definitely Not at the ‘Oscars’ of Virtual Reality

Image: A man using a virtual reality gaming system

A gamer tests out Playstation VR (Virtual Reality) on the Sony PS4 on Sept. 24, 2015 in Birmingham, England. M Bowles / Getty Images

The Proto Awards, the self-proclaimed “Oscars of the VR industry," was not a black tie affair.

Not that some guests weren’t wearing black ties. It’s just that the dress code Tuesday night in Los Angeles was a little more loose than at the real Oscars, ranging from formal to business casual -- to Zuckerberg casual.

The host, actor and comedian Jonah Ray, joked about being forced to buy a suit at Target for the show before quipping, “It’s still nicer than some of the cargo shorts I’ve seen tonight.”

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Virtual reality could be a massive industry in coming years. In 2014, Facebook bought Oculus VR, maker of a virtual reality headset, for $2 billion. Earlier this week, Disney was one of the lead investors in a $66 million round of funding for JauntVR, which does everything from build camera equipment to distribute content.

The industry even scored an Emmy Award on Sunday for “Best User Experience and Visual Design,” given to Fox for an experience created for the supernatural TV drama “Sleepy Hollow.”

And yet, for all the money, media hype and the slick awards show (complete with bronze statues and dramatic “And the nominees are …” montages), creating virtual reality experiences is still very much a passion project for most developers.

The winner of “Best Overall Experience” was a game called “I Expect You to Die.” As of the Proto Awards, it had only been downloaded around 17,000 times. To put that in context, "Grand Theft Auto V" has sold more than 54 million copies

“I promise we’re going to live up to this,” said Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games, as he held up the award. He was referring both to expectations for the company and the industry as a whole.

Schell started the company in 2002, when virtual reality was still known mostly as a science fiction trope in movies like “The Lawnmower Man.” Back then, real-life incarnations of the technology were hard come by. Even if you did get your hands on a virtual reality headset, chances are it would cause very non-virtual nausea.

That might explain why the technology found an early home in academic institutions, such as Carnegie Mellon University, where Schell has taught the “Building Virtual Worlds” class since 2006.

Thing changed when the Oculus Rift developer’s kit was released in 2012. Now, virtual reality is moving toward the mainstream. VICE News and Cirque du Soleil both had virtual reality experiences that were nominated for Proto Awards. Filmmakers can now buy expensive virtual reality cameras, like the recently unveiled $15,000 “Odyssey” from GoPro, to create truly 3-D movies.

But it’s clear that virtual reality is still an emerging technology — something driven home by the number of times presenters drew parallels between recent years and the 15th century, when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press.

Crowded around tables in Hollywood’s Avalon nightclub, nominees and their guests washed down churros and brownies with free booze from the open bar. Several winners didn’t show up, instead choosing to watch from a live-stream, resulting in awkward pauses as Ray waited for someone to accept the award on the recipient's behalf. (“Uh, I haven’t played the game, but it looks really cool,” said one impromptu award recipient).

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It definitely wasn’t TV-ready stuff — and maybe an awards show with a “Best GUI” category never will be.

Still, people seemed happy to be there. Some had been involved in the industry for decades, others looked barely old enough to drink. Everyone gave a standing ovation when 77-year-old Ivan Sutherland walked on stage to accept his lifetime achievement award.

Sutherland built the first virtual reality headset at Harvard in 1968, back when most people had never even used a computer. He called it the Sword of Damocles. It was a bulky helmet with protruding eyepieces that looked like some kind of cyberpunk torture device.

It was similar to a rig the U.S. military had built to give pilots a way to look around with a camera attached to the bottom of an airplane. Sutherland’s idea was simple in theory — replace the live feed from the camera with a computer simulation — but nearly impossible in practice, considering the computing power available at the time.

The Sword of Damocles created the outline of a cube that Sutherland described as “rather ethereal” floating in front of the user.

The device was tremendously bulky and limited, but it was a start, and Sutherland stressed at the Proto Awards that he isn’t done experimenting with what virtual reality has to offer.

The younger programmers in attendance from firms like Wevr and Iris VR have a chance to profit big if virtual reality takes off. Sutherland seemed glad enough that he helped it get that far.

“I’m proud of what you’re doing,” he told the crowd. “Well done, folks. Thank you.”