We met Benjamin de Wit in de Hallen to escape the cold snap that had rendered the canals outside skateable. He immediately started telling us about the building we were standing in. Apparently the very trendy social hub in the Oude West was not always so. Like most cool neighbourhoods, it had a stretch of being a pretty ‘dodgy’ part of town. He smiled as he recalled taking his wedding pictures in the run-down tram repair hall that now boasts a cinema and a range of delicious restaurants. It only seemed fitting that he was the subject of another photoshoot in the same space some years later.
Benjamin is the the co-founder of VRDays Europe and he was only too eager to share stories about the history of the festival and the challenges-turned-opportunities presented by the pandemic. A previous life in the performing arts was perhaps slightly detectable as he shared his enthusiasm for the possibilities of immersive technology. The applications he describes are so fanciful and imaginative that they could only exist in a virtual world. Well, luckily, it’s a world he knows plenty about. Enjoy reading our chat below.
Tell us about VRDays Europe.
VRDays Europe is a place where an eclectic mix of people meet from all over the world. People that are excited about what immersive technologies can bring, and are convinced that it can bring a lot of positive things to the world. These people are researchers in all kinds of fields; artists, researchers, business. They have seen something profound and promising in immersive technologies. Something was triggered inside of them, and now they are eager to develop it.
We live to inspire, to educate, and to unite forward-thinking professionals. We have educational conferences on business, science, and arts topics. For instance, in art about storytelling; in science, how you use VR as a tool to research, but also how it's being applied in healthcare, physical healthcare and mental health. Training is a big thing as well. We have between 20 and 30 conferences about all kinds of topics.
The second major thing is the trade show where companies present their services, products and their innovation. And the third big thing is the IFM, this is the Immersive Funding Market, which brings together on the one hand - startups, content creators, and researchers. And on the other hand - investors, funds, VCs, and entrepreneurs. Matching the talent and the smart money for business, science, and art.
Then we have a public facing part, which is the Church of VR, where you can see a lot of cool new VR artworks, or AR for that matter. So these are the main things. And underneath them, we have a Creator's Lab where people workshop on new content. We also try to mix the artists who work on artistic things, which is the most important, but we also try to put a researcher who is researching something like movement or visuals. We're trying to incorporate hardware and software makers who want to test out their products. And that way new connections are being made. Then we have a Philosopher Salon, which is a yurt. This is a Mongolian tent. And this is the only place where no tech is allowed. So you take off your shoes and go in. And that's where you just talk about new realities. What does it mean? Stuff like that.
As VR Days is a live event, how have you adjusted during Covid?
Last year was a year of experimentation. And we experimented a lot. We published a print magazine, created a three day tv-show with live guests and recorded videos, had a VR world with experiences as well as a Sims-like virtual environment with a trade show and roundtables, a Zoom investor event, and satellite events all over the world.
Because of COVID we thought, "okay, no one can travel to us, how can we facilitate the community?", because we had visitors from 60 different countries in 2019. We called out to our communities and asked them, "Hey, do you want to organise during VR Days your own satellite event?" We gave them content. We marketed their event for them. And that way they don't have to travel to us, are still able to meet locally and be connected on a global scale. And, during the three-day television show,we just called them in, like in the Eurovision Song festival "Hey Mexico, how are you?" Brazil, Munich, Mexico, Romania, Italy, France were all there. We had about 20 countries involved.
This year we want to develop that further. Because the immersive technology will bring you together. We'll shorten the distance. If they don't need to travel, it brings down the footprint. And it really is a global community. So we also say VRDays is not only in Amsterdam anymore, but from Amsterdam, and then we have satellite events all over the world.
What else can we expect in future versions of VRDays?
More inspiration, education, celebration and dealmaking! VRDays will be the immersive tech super spreader event. I think one thing is certain - that all future events will be hybrid in some way. It's just thinking about where the value is for the audience. And how do you bring engagement if you don't physically meet. It's inescapable that we will travel less. We want to travel less. At least I want to travel less.
Last year was an experiment and we made a decision to go all out. As we always do. we made a magazine for the first time. A physical print magazine. Because we thought we need something in your hand, you need something engaging. And another way for advertisers to get the message out. So we made them the magazine. We hosted for three days a sort of television show. We recorded a lot of stuff. We did so much that now we can pick and choose and say, "Okay, what worked? What didn't work?"
What was it like for you back in 2013 when you were just discovering this technology?
When I put on the headset for the first time, I was really amazed, it felt like I was really in a different world. I was looking at a world like I was looking at a film and it felt like I was on stage. Instead of people looking at me, I am looking at the world. It's a sort of weird mix between theatre and film. And I thought, "How the hell are you going to tell a story with this technique?”. So I got very excited about the possibilities. I saw there was a link between performing arts and VR and this technology.
Back in 2013 I wanted to reinvent myself. I had been an actor with Toneelgroep Amsterdam before I quit acting. Then I became a commercial manager of an online company selling websites. In 2013, I also thought, “This is not it”. I was ready to reinvent myself with the VR goggles.
I thought maybe I should be a VR director like film directors or theatre directors. That job title didn't exist. So I thought that I could take it. And then I thought of doing a theatre VR piece. I was talking to theatres and then I said, “Okay, but if I have this theatre at night and in the daytime, we should do workshops and conferences”. Then I realised VR is just not only the arts. This is healthcare. This is defence. This is architecture. This is research. It’s almost everything.
And all of a sudden I organized VRDays Europe. With support of the City of Amsterdam and VRDays co-founder Daan Kip. And many many people who I could not have done it without. You have to realise I had never organised anything but a birthday before 2015.
How has the interest changed and grown since then?
Sometimes I am a bit disappointed with the acceleration of the development of the storytelling within VR. I want it to go faster and bigger, because I am so eager. At the same time, I also understand why it's going slowly. But every year I see a couple of things, or hear a couple of things, speak with a couple of people, which again, amazes me so much and gives me energy to keep going.
What are some of those conversations?
I interviewed a lot of people during the last VRDays, and a couple of people, especially in mental health care were talking about applications that are really astonishing. One was how VR is being used to sedate people undergoing real physical operation. This Belgian startup, Oncomfort just raised €10 million. They use very low-fi VR to sedate people. You can get your knee operated on without any anaesthetic, just the VR. That's an impact, right?
On so many levels there’s an impact. There is a startup from Amsterdam that uses VR for neuro-rehabilitation. So if you have a brain stroke or something like that, and they can use VR to trigger brain activity that you would normally be very unlikely to trigger again. There are also great examples in physical rehabilitation. You can use VR to mimic a limb, but with your mind power, you can move it. And then all of a sudden your arm starts to move also. This would be far harder if you would see your real arm and see that it doesn't move that much. Then there is the Skill Center at AMC (Amsterdam Medical Centre) that trains surgeons using immersive technologies like VR and AR. There is a lot happening in Amsterdam.
So the motivation goes up. Once I was worried VR was blocking our imagination. Because it shows everything, fills everything in. In November, I learned that VR can give extra powers to the brain. It's unlocking brain capacity. I thought that was super-exciting.
What does it mean to you to be based here, when you say proudly that VRDays is from Amsterdam?
First of all, I think Amsterdam is one of the best places to live. The quality of life here is amazing. The past couple of years, I've traveled a lot. Every time when you come back, you think it’s so quiet here. Especially last year. But the quality of life is so good here. For the conference, it’s great to be in Amsterdam because everyone in the world loves to come to Amsterdam. VR is being used more and more by bigger institutions. Police Amsterdam is using VR to educate detectives. It's being used for shooting exercises. It's being used by the fire department. Slowly, but steadily it's being used in the skill center which is from the medical from AMC to train researchers and surgeons. People come from all over the world to Amsterdam. So VR it's going one step at a time. It's like an oil stain. Slowly spreading, slowly spreading, like a force. So Amsterdam for that matter is good.
Since we started, our view has been very international. Now I want to take a step back and also see where I missed making local connections, and who do I need to connect with here in Amsterdam? So I have a new mission. Recently the CEO of OLVG West posted a photo out on LinkedIn where they said, “Hey, look how our surgeons and caretakers are taking a moment of quiet time to relax using VR.”. Because it also can work great if you're in a hectic environment. The VR, with the headset and headphones, it can bring you into a state of relaxation *clicks fingers* like that! So it can be very effective in places like hospitals.
Where can we learn more about the work that you're doing, and what else would you suggest that our readers take a look at for themselves?
On www.VRDays.co! At this moment we are working on the 17th to 19th of November here in the Kromhouthal in Amsterdam to host a physical event. And we'll integrate more companies from the Netherlands and Amsterdam. If they want to know more about what's happening with immersive tech in their field of work, they find it easily. And if they don’t search for it, it won't take very long before immersive tech will enter their work in some shape or form. It is because VR and AR and immersive tech is the visual layer of the future. Come to VR Days to meet the immersive tech elite, get educated and experience the most amazing new tech.
Benjamin, thank you so much.
The Amsterdam Founder Series is a Troopl initiative with the goal of shining a light on entrepreneurs in Amsterdam and how they are unlocking growth in their companies. If you are, or know of, a founder in Amsterdam who would like to participate, please get in touch with us.
Each interview is combined with a portrait photography session conducted by Tristan and Benjamin, co-founders of Troopl. Portraits are made available to participants free of charge.