Could you tell us about your professional background Alex?
I came to VR from a background in film and television production, mostly advertising. I got my start at Industrial Light + Magic (ILM) in their commercial production division. This is also where I got my introduction to a lot of the tools that have become central to VR development, like virtual cameras, 3D modelling, CG animation, and rendering pipelines.
At the time, I was less interested in the on-screen possibilities of digital effects and more interested in the ways that the tools and techniques used for effects work were changing the production process itself. Pre-visualization was especially attractive.
I loved the idea of creating virtual sets that allowed creative and production teams to explore their ideas in this relatively cheap, very elastic, and super forgiving design space. Everything about it was the exact opposite of physical production. To me, it was clear that decoupling design from execution was hugely liberating in creative terms, but also a great way to reduce a project’s risks. That’s a rare combination. The key was having a virtual production that offered enough detail, precision, and accuracy to reliably map decisions made there to the real world.
When did you first get interested in VR and why?
A few years ago I’d been researching a program for the full-dome theaters used in science centers, natural history museums, and planetariums. The story focused on the overlapping histories of astronomy and cartography. It revealed the ways that increasingly accurate models of the cosmos led to increasingly accurate maps of the world, and by extension, what people were capable of doing within the world. The goal was to make mathematics, science, and technology more accessible to middle-school and high-school students by providing them with a clear view of how they all worked together. This type of interdisciplinary understanding can make learning abstract concepts a lot easier. It can also be very hard to come by in educational systems based on strict compartmentalization of subjects. That’s where third-parties like public science institutions come in.
The problem I found was that the places with these immersive displays couldn’t offer the economic support that this particular program required. I also discovered that these institutions shared a somewhat Balkanized culture. This made co-productions especially difficult, at least for an outside producer like myself. When Oculus announced that it was going to be making full immersion available at consumer-electronics prices, I thought wow, here’s a way to get the program developed and distributed properly.
This proved less straightforward than I imagined. As a friend of mine likes to point out, you should never mistake a clear view for a short distance. It turned out that the technology was both more complex and more nascent than I initially guessed. That’s where I realized my background wasn’t serving me well. When you’re used to life in a very mature ecosystem, you take so much for granted that simply doesn’t exist in an ecosystem that’s just getting started. Even so, I was absolutely hooked. There’s a particular kind of engagement that you get in VR that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. And I think the ability to actually develop an ecosystem around that is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
How do you currently use VR?
First and foremost, the best way to create VR is in VR. This is easier said than done, since so many of the tools, from 3D modeling software to game engines, were all developed with flat screens in mind. This makes it very easy to lose touch with the sense of presence in real space that’s key to the best experiences. The more of the process you can bring into an immersive display, the better.
I also use it for some things I never expected. One of them is fitness. I checked out games like Beat Saber and Pistol Whip just because they were getting a lot of buzz, but then I heard about people who were making them a part of regular workout routines, and getting really great results within 3-4 months and wow, yeah, they were right.
One of my favourite uses is bringing global and spatial context to news stories. Google Earth VR is fantastic for this. Simply being able to go to a place, even virtually, has this really remarkable effect on the way you understand stories, and connect them to other stories. This is due to the very different ways our brains encode spatial memories, as opposed to strictly visual memories. Once you’ve got a place-based component to your understanding, you have a much easier time absorbing retaining, and remembering everything else you learn about a topic. It’s amazing.
That phenomena is actually the basis for what I’m working on professionally, which is outreach programs for historical and culturally important sites. By giving people who haven’t visited these places in person the kinds of spatial memories shared by those who have, it becomes possible to expand the community of those who value a given place, who understand why it’s so important, and who are willing to put effort and resources into preservation.
What are your thoughts on VR and the creative process?
Let me start by narrowing that to the creative process used by film and television production, since that’s the one I know best. The biggest thing I’ve discovered is that you have to get your target audience involved a lot earlier than you would for a 2D medium. Partly, this is because immersive media doesn’t offer a century-plus of accumulated knowledge embedded in institutional structures, production tools, and so on. You can’t count on tried and true best practices to get you most of the way to a finished piece because at this stage, best practices are little more than well-educated guesses.
The other reason to make user testing an intrinsic part of the creative process is that audiences have so much more agency in immersive programs. Even game developers—who are used to having everything based on player input—have a ton of unfamiliar dynamics to manage when people are fully present in a scene, rather than interacting only via a controller and their thumbs. The more room you give people to surprise you, the more they will end up surprising you. This can be frustrating if you’re focused on a specific vision, so it’s helpful to remember that some of your most promising creative opportunities can come out of these unanticipated interactions. The sooner you can get a read, the better.
All this gets a lot easier if you recognize that the core of the medium isn’t what people see on a screen. The core is how they physically respond to events in three dimensional space. This is why it helps to get the basic physical interactions that are central to the experience prototyped and tested as early as you can, so you can use the feedback you get to determine the project’s final form.
This prototyping stage doesn’t need to be in VR, by the way. Some of the smartest studios I know rely heavily on brown-boxing, which is literally using cardboard boxes to work out where different elements should be placed in the space around users, and to make sure people can move around comfortably enough to enjoy the experience. Once that’s sorted, you can design the virtual experience on top of this real-world foundation.
What advice would you give teachers and students who are thinking about using VR for creative projects?
The first thing, and maybe most important thing to do is to experience as much of what’s already out there as you can. Paying close attention to what you do and don’t like should leave you with a general sense of direction.
One of the first things you’ll discover is that VR isn’t actually one technology so much as a bunch of different technologies that are being combined in new and interesting ways. These combinations are the source of a lot of excitement, but they can also be the source of a lot of frustration, especially since pipelines and interoperability standards are so nascent. As a friend of mine put it, in game development, everything takes three times longer than you think it will, and in VR, it takes three times longer than that. So do make a point of being kind to yourself. It’s very much a learning-by-doing effort, and you’re going to get it wrong, a lot. And don’t worry about feeling you don’t know everything about everything because you never will. It’s just too complex.
Eventually the field will deal with this complexity the same way that film and television production, and game development have. We’ll end up with armies of highly-specialised craftspeople who are deeply focused on specific details, and equipped with budgets and schedules to match. But at the moment, we’re nowhere close to that, and I suspect it’ll be many years before we are. For now, the field favours generalists. If this is attractive to you, the best thing is to start with something that seems super simple and purely exploratory, get others involved as early as you can, pay close attention to all the different ways they respond, then building the final product on whatever emerges. Keeping your mind open, especially at the outset, is going to be the most likely way to find your north star.