Noah J Nelson on Thursday, Sep. 17th
Continuing our series of interviews with the founders of The Virtual Reality Foundation, which presents the second annual Proto Awards next week.
Sometimes the start of something big can all be about being in the right place at the right time. In the case of the Virtual Reality Los Angeles Expo and it’s offspring that right place was Reddit, and the right time was early 2014.
The people who were there: Cosmo Scharf—the USC student who thought it was a good idea to start a VR meetup in LA and John Root. Root was the motion capture supervisor at Digital Domain, one of the biggest visual effects companies in the Southland. Root saw Scharf’s post.
“At the time I was sort of leading Digital Domain’s effort to get into VR,” said Root when we met at the recent VRLA Expo, “and thought that this would be a great way to make a splash in that world.”
A splash it certainly made.
“Not long after VRLA number one I left Digital Domain. For the last year and a half I’ve been working at Magic Leap. Which is the… well… it’s the company that raised a bunch of money from Google. I’m not sure what the official word is one what were allowed to say that they do.”
The mystique around Magic Leap is massive, which befits a company that is hailed as the absolute future of VR and augmented reality. Like a secret society the truth about Magic Leap is only known to the initiated. Sitting across from Ross I was solely wishing for some truth serum to get him to talk.
That wasn’t about to happen. As a veteran of the VFX and video game industries—Root’s early years were at Midway during their heyday—he knows how to keep a secret. Even though Root left Magic Leap at the end of August to spend more time inside doing what he already does at VRLA: helping the emerging VR community come together and build out various visions of the future.
Root’s own vision of tomorrow is tempered by his decades of experience. While most of The Virtual Reality Foundation are millennials, Root is a Gen Xer—he’s watched VR’s steady march in the film production industry long before it retuned to consumer interest.
“As a motion capture guy for the last 25 years now I’ve been using virtual reality. Like real time computer graphics. We used the virtual cameras on the big productions for [Robert] Zemeckis. So I guess i’ve seen this coming for a while now. It’s cool to see it blow up like this.
Root shared a story about the production uses of VR, albeit one with the serial numbers filed off to protect the identity of which production.
“We did a cool thing with VR, real time virtual reality on a motion capture set, where we took the stage and broke it into two pieces. One side of the stage all the set-deck was built out like double sized. So if you were on that stage you were the dwarf, right? And you’re sitting at this table and your legs are dangling off your chair.
“The other side of the stage the set deck was all built to half size. So if you’re sitting at that stage you are the ogre. You have this little thing chair beneath you and your knees are up high. But in virtual reality these two characters are sitting across from each other in a medieval tavern. But now their eyelines are correct.”
Filmmakers have been doing this for a while now, using virtual sets to create instantaneous visions of the imaginary worlds that actors are playing on. Which the actors can then see as soon as they step off the deck. The experience the VFX has with these techniques is one of the reasons that so much of the VR innovation seems to be happening in the Southland.
“LA is really hot for it,” said Root, pointing to VFX houses watching their business get siphoned off due to runaway production. “I think that this has been a great way to reinvent this economy in a way. So were seeing a lot of people get away from visual FX and get into VR.”
While the VFX industry used to be specialized the explosion of access to computing power and software have changed things since the salad days of the 1980s and 90s.
“Film and visual FX just became about the lowest bidder. It’s treated as a commodity. Unless you have some very special, never before seen effect, or character most of the work is treated as you can send it to anybody. So send it to whoever’s cheapest, and the people who are doing it for cheapest are the people who are taking the tax subsidies in other countries.”
Root’s experience provides him with a kind of gritty sobriety when it comes to the impact that VR can have. He’s a true believer in the future of the industry—he’s betting is career on it, at this point, after all—but he sees the dangers in the road ahead.
“If I wanted to I could create a virtual reality experience that would make it very difficult for you to stand up. And I could right now put this on the Internet and you could throw it on your dev kit that you could just buy right now online and you could fall and hurt yourself. You wouldn’t even be able to reach out and stop yourself from falling because your eyes and brain are lying to you about where the ground even is.
“what I’m worried about is that somebody cracks their head open on a coffee table or sits in an exercise like for an hour and goes ‘Oh I’m late to pick up my kid,’ and jumps in their car and gets in the freeway or something.”
In other words: it’s trolling time a thousand. A way to mess with people’s heads that goes beyond Twitter harassment.
“I think that responsible content creators don’t do that. They wouldn’t do that. But there needs to be a barrier between people who just think it’s funny and just do it because they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Nor is it just about malicious trolling. That’s the extreme version of the problem. According to Root users an education campaign is going to need to go hand in hand with the marketing efforts in the coming years, because the computers people use for VR are, given the costs involved, not going to be dedicated.
“What does a virus do to your computer running in the background when you’re trying to run around in VR? It’s going to make these little glitches when it wants to send out a bunch of emails. Sometimes it’s not even your fault as a content creator. People’s machines are often just riddled with crap and that’s going to affect performance sometimes, and if effects performance at the wrong place at the wrong time? You can really get messed up.”
In Root’s view the companies leading the industry have a vested interest in this version of the future not coming to pass.
“Oculus and HTC and Sony are very responsible and they’re doing the right thing and they’re trying to educate the crowd, but there’s people out there that might not be so mindful of the problems.”
So the stakes may be high, but if the destiny of an industry can be found in it’s origins then this little anecdote about the first VRLA is a beacon of hope:
“Long story short: Rich Flier, who was the head of Digital Domain commercials at the time, was kind enough to let us use the stage. And that was no small favor because we had about 150 total strangers walk into is the most expensive motion capture performance capture stage in the world. There was a lot of concern that stuff might get broken or stolen or whatever. At the end of the day everybody picked up all their garbage, nothing was broken, and it looked like nothing ever happened there.
“It was a real testament to the beauty that is the VR community.”
Tomorrow in the series: Jonnie Ross.