Making Virtual Reality: How Creators Embrace a New Medium

by Ken Kaplan
Executive Editor
, iQ by Intel

VR creators describe why now is the time learn the craft, and why they want to help create a VR breakthrough moment.

In the 1960s, talk of virtual reality (VR) sounded more like dystopian science fiction than a promising new medium that immerses people in exciting experiences. A new generation of creators is moving VR out of the darkness into the mainstream using passion, talent and technology that’s faster and more accessible than ever.

“We’ve been talking about this idea of the digital world colliding with our physical world for a long time,” said Gabe Paez, founder of WILD, a VR production agency in Portland, Oregon.

“When we talk about the potential of VR, all of those sci-fi ideas that have been around for many years now seem possible.”

He said this is just the beginning because VR technology – from 360-degree cameras and high performance computing to headsets and controllers – is getting into the hands of more creators and consumers. Beyond entertainment, he said VR can be transformative for industries.

“When I put on that headset I’m transported into a digital world,” said Paez. “I look around, walk forward, move backwards, bend down and jump in ways that were once impossible with a desktop or laptop computer.”

Big VR Fire Power

VR may be a new phenomenon for many, but tech-savvy creative people like Tawny Schlieski, founder of Oregon Story Board, have seen it evolve for decades.

“We’ve been waiting for enough computational power, both to build and experience these worlds, and we were pretty stuck with neither one until quite recently,” said Schlieski, a former research engineer at Intel, where her digital storytelling skills helped bring to life Leviathan, Royal Shakespeare Company’s Tempest and experiences at the Sundance Film Festival among others.

VR creator Tawny Schlieski paints in the air at Oregon Story Board.

“Raw computational power of computer and graphics processing, memory and storage have improved in recent years, so now we can build and drive complex digital environments,” she said. “In order to make VR, you need all of those things to be big and fast. The constraints that we had before are starting to dissolve because of rapid technology innovation.”

Industry analysts expect the total augmented and VR market to reach between $80 and $150 billion by 2020. As technology gets better and more affordable, more creators are using it in new ways that could profoundly impact human learning and interaction.

“It might cost around $7,000 for a really fast server chip, which is something that ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) or Disney can afford, but most creators can’t,” said Schlieski. “Now consumer-grade chips that cost hundreds of dollars can deliver enough performance to create VR experiences.”

Most VR experiences are massive digital environments built with high quality pixels that need to move and react smoothly whenever the viewer turns their head or interacts with the scene, according to Portland-based Ravi Velhal, Intel’s Global Content Strategist.

“The vast majority of existing pre- and post-production processes have been optimized for standard HD and 4K media, but 360 immersive VR format has to work with media that is exponentially larger in size, higher in resolution, and performs complex operation on that media,” said Velhal.

Sharing VR Worlds

Paez’s team at WILD built a cloud-based design platform that makes it easier for industries like architectural design to create digital experience that combine virtual reality with elements of real life.

“The first time I put that headset on, I knew that it was something special that can really be meaningful and change our lives,” said Paez.

He immediately realized VR could translate ideas into experiences that allow people to learn and share together even if they’re physically in different locations. Architects can create a VR experience where people can see how a design idea looks, and then virtually walk through the design with others. It requires him to have a tool that builds a design quickly in high fidelity so others can easily experience it and manipulate it.

“We’re taking that leap through the screen and into this ability to really communicate ideas at a level that we couldn’t before,” said Paez. “Our ability to create and render that content in real time is mind-boggling.”

Gabe Paez believes that VR and the physical world are now colliding.

Although VR’s breakthrough moment hasn’t hit yet, Paez believes VR will someday allow people to interact better than they can today using a phone call or video chat.

But creating VR is hard. The environments must be photo-realistic and interactive. Schlieski said that requires high resolution at high framerates.

“As you make more objects respond naturally, you get the computational challenges,” Schlieski. “When you pipe your creation to a headset, your audience is going to be very physically uncomfortable if you have too slow of a framerate. You’re going to get people throwing up in your experience, which is suboptimal.”

VR Wild West

The world of creating VR still feels like the wild west, but new tools are making it easier than ever, according to Corey Warning, cofounder of Rose City Games, which organizes the Portland Indie Game Squad, known by locals as PIGSquad. The nonprofit organization supports game development in the Pacific Northwest and hosts networking events, game jams and mixers for VR creators.

“If somebody’s working on a game in a 3D space, there’s all these tools that you can just check a box and now you’re ready to translate that into VR,” said Warning. “That stuff is super helpful, especially for somebody who has never got their hands on virtual reality before.”

Corey Warning supports VR creators through Rose City Games.

He advised VR creators to thoroughly think through the kind of visual and audio experience they want to make.

“You can have a door slam or an upstairs floorboard creak, and when someone has the headphones in and the headset on, that immersion is pretty terrifying,” he said.

VR creators need to know if the player is seated or in a big room and what kind of movements they might make. These aspects need to be built into the interactive environment, along with a keen understanding of people’s intolerance for motion sickness.

“As the technology continues to grow and become more affordable, we’re going to see increased resolution and that’s going to improve immersion,” said Warning.

Mental Shotgun Approach

VR developers must manage and account for incredible detail in order to create this amazing visual worlds, said Luis Garcia, an interactive developer at PixelPool, a Portland agency building virtual showrooms for the retail merchandising industry.

In order to have the desired psychological effect, VR creators have to know how to trick the senses. He calls it the mental shotgun approach.

“You take the eyesight, hearing, movement and make the person think they’re actually inside the store,” said Garcia.

He said VR developers must consider information about where the user is looking, their body position, velocity of movement and reaction to their touch or hand controllers, and then use physics to react to those movements in a smooth, life-like manner.

Using a mental shotgun approach, Luis Garcia creates VR retail experiences that immerse customers inside the store.

He believes VR could be the next technology to transform society, just as databases, personal computers and mobile phones changed daily life.

“Mixed reality and VR will go as far as artists will takes it,” said Garcia. “Once we move away from having these awkward headsets on your head, people are going to be able to incorporate VR technology into their culture and social settings.”

Schlieski hopes a wide range of people with different interests and backgrounds learn how VR works, using it to express themselves and change their view of the world, just how filmmaker Martin Scorsese used his evolving craft to create groundbreaking cinematic stories.

“When more people begin to see in VR, I think you’ll begin to get some really amazing art,” she said.

Editor’s note: Making Virtual Reality is part of iQ’s special video series on VR creators. 

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