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The Inevitable Future of Storytelling: Virtual and/or Augmented Reality

January 26, 2015

When you ask someone about storytelling, most people will make reference to books, film, or television. A few will talk about storytelling in games. Even fewer will mention storytelling in business. In reality, storytelling is all around us, weaving it’s way through our daily lives and making things interesting and relevant to humans around the globe. It’s such a fundamental element of the human existence that we rarely see it when it’s done well – we become a part of a good story, immersing ourselves into it, letting it drip over our consciousness.

We want to be immersed in good stories. We want to have a narrative woven through and around us. We want to feel connected to others through these stories. That’s why virtual and augmented reality are the future of storytelling. These fledgling technologies, once they’ve come to their fruition, will change the way we experience storytelling, and eventually the way we experience the world.

To me, the question isn’t if virtual or augmented reality will take over, but when. And in what format? Who will lead the (invariably long and arduous) march to taking over how we interact with the world and these new storytelling experiences?

Currently there are two front-runners in this space, Oculus and Magic Leap, and I want to talk a bit about each and what makes them different.

Oculus

The Oculus Rift was the first foray from company, and was funded on Kickstarter back in September 2012, smashing their initial goal of $250,000 and bringing in nearly $2.5 million of backer funding. The Rift was arguably the piece of tech that re-ignited the public’s interest in virtual reality, creating a lot of buzz for a virtual reality headset that was targeted mostly at games.

Since the Rift, Oculus has moved on to even more impressive hardware. The next generation development kit 2, or DK2, improved a lot of the initial problems with the Rift, including improved resolution, optics, refresh rate, and possibly most importantly, latency. It has a pretty precise positional tracker that lets developers use the user’s head position in games and experiences.

And now there’s the Gear VR, in which Oculus has teamed up with Samsung to let you put your Galaxy phone into the headset and use it as the screen. This setup is interesting for a variety of reasons, not the least of which are that you’re no longer tethered by a cord, and that pretty much anyone these days has a smart-phone, so you can imagine the possibilities here.

Oculus has recently unveiled their new “Crescent Bay” prototype, which promises to reduce the nausea that many users experience using the previous generation headsets. Eliminating this motion sickness is really the final frontier before a device like this could really take off in the consumer market, and not just be a toy for gaming nerds.

I recently had the opportunity to use the “Crescent Bay” prototype, and I can attest that it has much more “presence” and a whole lot less motion-sickness than previous models. Strapping this headset on really can transport you to a different place, and immerse you in a virtual environment. The possibilities are endless.

Oculus also recognizes this, and are clearly very keen to make sure that there are developers out there working on a wide range of applications and “experiences” using their hardware. And they’re putting their money where their mouth is by starting the Story Studio at Oculus, which is currently a small group of directors, story artists, 3d artists, and technical directors, who are creating cinematic experiences for use in virtual reality on Oculus hardware.

Of course, this is extremely exciting. The same way that audiences of the first “moving pictures” were taken completely aback and amazed by these new moving images on a screen, the first users of virtual reality cinema are constantly amazed by how completely immersed they are in the world and the story. Oculus is well on their way to being a forerunner in the inevitable change in how we consume entertainment (and possibly education).

Magic Leap

Magic Leap is a bit of a dark horse (or rainbow unicorn, depending on your vantage point). So far, they have revealed very little of what they are working on, preferring to keep their tech under wraps and presumably at some point in the relatively near future release something that will inspire awe and wonder. They’re all about creating magic, and I suppose a key element to magic is actually secrecy, so it makes sense.

So, what is Magic Leap up to? Well, there are plenty of signs that they’re onto something big – not the least of which is that Google just lead a $542 million Series B funding round, placing a huge bet on the Magic Leap team. The company is helmed by CEO Rony Abovitz, who, despite his seemingly corporate background, having built and sold Mako Surgical to Stryker for $1.65 billion back in 2013, is possibly a bit of an eccentric. And that may be an understatement.

Other than giving a TED talk that more closely resembled a performance art piece than a typical presentation, it seems Abovitz and his team are attempting to create an entirely new kind of experience. Rather than a large, all-encompassing headset such as the ones currently made by Oculus, there are hints that the device being made by Magic Leap is a much smaller and lighter wearable – something that will give the user the chance to experience virtual imagery placed on-top of the existing world; augmented reality combined with virtual reality. Think of it as closer to something like Google Glass than Oculus Rift.

But how would this work? Magic Leap have revealed very little about what might actually be happening on the technical side, however Abovitz has referred to his stealth product as “dynamic digitized light field technology.” Most of the rumors seem to point towards some kind of retina projection, but the company is keeping this under wraps until the consumer product is launched, which Abovitz says should happen “relatively soon.”

Assuming this product is able to do half of what it’s rumored to be able to do, this could be an incredibly exciting new technology and could open up doors into storytelling in completely new ways. Imagine being able to interact with both virtual and real-world elements simultaneously and seamlessly. The way we experience cinema, games, advertising, education, and the entire world around us could change overnight.

The future is incredibly bright for these front-runners in the VR/AR game. Which device or company will prevail and pave the road to a new type of storytelling used worldwide is still up in the air, but I’ve seen the future, and it’s definitely going to be seen through some kind of wearable tech. I’m excited to see this space unfold, and to be witnessing (and maybe even contributing) to this new eye-opening field.

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Takeaways: Escape the City – Startup MBA

April 14, 2013

I just finished the first offering of the Escape the City Startup MBA, which was a 2 weekend course on lean startup methodologies. The purpose of the course was to set you up with the knowledge and resources you needed to start your own business successfully, or at least to point you in the right direction.

The course was sold as a great way to learn from some industry experts in a focused way that filters through all the crap you might learn in your first year or two floundering and figuring out how to build at startup company. The idea is to give you a good foundation and help you get rolling on your own ideas in a fast, efficient way.

As someone who’s already “escaped” my job and who is looking into the startup environment and the possibility of starting my own business, this course was perfect for me. Of course, I think it would have been even more beneficial to me if I actually had an idea for a business already in mind and had made a little bit of headway (though not much! I learned a lot of ways to cut out waste in the early stages!).

There were about 30 people in the course, with a diverse spectrum of backgrounds, industries, and progress towards starting their own company. We had a really good cross section of folks, some from banking, some lawyers, some from teaching, some from government, a few randoms from food, tools, and then me, from art/media. The first night we spent giving a 4 minute introduction of ourselves, and I got more than a few bizarre looks and questions as to my mental health after saying I quit my job working on movies!

The one group that was not represented in the course, not at all surprisingly, was tech. I suppose that most technical folks who want to go start their own thing just go build it. That said, if I was a software engineer or developer that had been working for a larger company and was thinking about building my own tech startup, this course would have been SUPER useful – perhaps even more so than to any of us in the room. I was probably one of the more technical people in the room (coming from a CS degree and having experience with the web and web apps, etc.), but I would never really consider being a developer for my own company (at least not in the mid-to-long term). However, I feel like the group that may have been best served from this course could well have been developers.

Why should developers and software engineers bother with a course like this? Tons of reasons, but the most important one is this: developers love to go build stuff, and they often lose track of the goal, or think the goal is to finish the product, or write as much code as possible as fast as possible. But the biggest takeaway I learned in this course is that the goal is NOT the final product. The goal is LEARNING!

Validated learning is the goal, and although developers who are rarin’ to go and develop their brilliant tech product could get this information from The Lean Startup, the course delivered so much more.

The lead instructor on the course, Rob Fitzpatrick, was absolutely brilliant. Quirky, knowledgable, fun, and full of interesting stories – Rob had an amazing grip on the entire classroom when he was going through his startup experiences and the ins-and-outs of building a business from scratch. I could gush on and on and wax poetic about Rob, but you can read all of his blog posts for yourself. I highly recommend that you listen to him speak if you get a chance!!!

Here are the top things I learned from the course, in fairly random order based on what comes out of my head first:

  • Startups can’t measure their progress in conventional ways, so should measure their progress in terms of validated learning.
  • De-risk EVERYTHING as much as you can. You’re building something that by definition is uncertain, so you need to break things down into testable units to learn as much as you can as quickly and cheaply as you can.
  • You have to build something to really understand it. You can read a bunch of blogs, think about things, and study up as much as you want, but until you try to build something, you haven’t really learned anything yet.
  • Using the Business Model Canvas is a super useful way to quickly iterate on business ideas – you could come up with hundreds of ideas and quickly start validating (or invalidating) them using this model.
  • There’s a tool (usually a SAAS tool) that exists for almost everything these days that can help you do something smarter/faster/more efficiently. Know what’s going on in the tech world, as these things can save you days, weeks, months of time.
  • There’s only 2 legal things you really need to worry about getting right: (1) Own your own code (and other IP), and (2) settle the stock issue between founders. Everything else can be fixed later. Oh, and always read your contracts.
  • Get advisors! Depending on what you need, you should try to get tech, industry, or strategy advisors on board to help you out. And make sure you trust them.
  • Utilize your skills/experience as much as you can: it’s what makes your idea unique. What qualifies you to start this business in a way that no one else could?
  • Working alone is a drag. If it’s possible, have a co-founder. Or at least have a “business buddy” you can bounce ideas off of so you’re not sitting alone with your laptop in bed all the time.
  • Take time for physical health. We all know this (duh), but seriously. No, really.

And possibly the most important thing I learned (personally) in these 2 weekends:

  • Push as hard as you can part-time, while still working and supporting yourself on someone else’s dime. 

This one was a massive surprise to me. I figured that if I just quit my job and had nothing else to get in the way and interrupt my genius brain, the ideas would flow and a bazillion dollar idea would just come to me. I’ve been having trouble figuring out why I’m having so much trouble with this part, since I have all the mental capacity in the world just waiting to be activated with my brilliant business idea, but it just hasn’t worked like that for me.

So, for me, I came out of this course with a lot more knowledge, but my first point of action is to UN-escape the city and get back into a paying job. It’s ironic that it took going to an event put on by a company called “Escape the City” to realize that for me, right now, that’s not what I need.

My plan: get a short-term or freelance gig to keep my brain more activated and my wallet more fat. Start saving. Keep learning. But, perhaps more importantly, start positioning myself in a way that once I have an idea I can take advantage of it! Start creating a tribe, work on setting up a network of trusted advisors, start learning the specific skills I’ll need. And once I actually have a valid idea that I think I want to start on, then start it! Just do it! Create an MVP and get dirty. BUT do all this while still working. Keep working until it’s just not possible/plausible anymore – until my time would be better spent on my startup business than working for my paying gig (whatever that might be).

So, all in all, I think it was £500 well spent for 5 solid days of instruction. The people I met, the information that got crammed into my head, and the realization that it’s okay (in fact, it’s GOOD) to keep your day job while you’re figuring things out – all of these things made this a really excellent course, and perfect for me at this point in my career/life.

Thanks, Escape the City. And many, many thanks, Rob.

DLD Tel Aviv & a Meeting with President Peres

October 26, 2012

This week, I attended the DLD Tel Aviv conference, where I learned an incredible amount about the digital world, entrepreneurship, start-ups, innovation, and a host of other things. I was invited to moderate a panel on “Art, Design, Technology, and New Media”, in which I had a great group of speakers!

In addition to meeting tons of fantastic people and hearing all kinds of amazing and inspiring talks, today, I had the opportunity to meet with the President of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres. This was organized through the DLD team, and there were about 100 or so people who were invited. 

We were ushered into the President’s Residence in Jerusalem at about 9am, and had to have our passports checked and go through security similar to an airport security check. 

The president came into the room once everyone was seated and quiet, and then proceeded to speak for about 45 minutes. At first, I thought he was going to ramble a bit without much direction, but his speech was very focused and articulate, and his message was clear. 

He spoke at great length about his opinions about technology, and how he believes it will be a huge force for good in the modern world, and about his peace-keeping attempts and approach in the middle east.

I jotted down a few of his biggest gems of wisdom from his talk, and have printed them below, so that everyone can share the wisdom and humor. All in all, it was a great opportunity, and truly inspiring.

“It’s a new world – unfortunately with an old mind.”

“The world is extremely global, but also extremely individual.”

“Human history is the biography of insane people.”

“Once we understand the human brain, government will change – not global, not national, but individual.”

“The only slavery that exists in the world anymore is the slavery of women.”

“President Obama asked me: ‘Who’s against democracy in the middle east?’ I told him, ‘The husbands.'”

“Today I don’t recommend to anyone to become a dictator in the middle east. It’s over.”

“The French think that boredom is more dangerous than death.”

“When people face a crisis they always think it’s the end of the world. It’s never the end of the world, it’s always the end of the crisis. “

“There is a trend to use good will instead of naked power.”

“Peace is very complicated, as politics is very complicated, as marriage is very complicated. People want perfection.”

“There are two things you have to close your eyes for: love and peace.”

“Polls are like perfume: nice to smell, dangerous to swallow.”

On what he learned from Ben Gurion about when to use ‘We’ and ‘I’: “If it’s a victory it is ‘We’, if it’s a defeat it is ‘I’.”

“The United States is the only country in the world that gained power by giving and not by taking.”

Living and working in Buenos Aires

October 1, 2012

What a ride! I’ve finished my work on a feature-length computer animated film in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

I came on board at Catmandu Entertainment in July, 2011 to act as the Lighting and Compositing Supervisor for their upcoming feature film, Metegol. I worked out of their Belgrano studio with a team of around 100 artists, creating what will be Argentina’s first feature animated film, and it will be released in stereo 3D!

I was tasked with creating a lighting, compositing, and rendering pipeline from scratch, and helping the local artists get up to speed with production techniques for creating animated films of a high quality. I was also in charge of organizing and managing a team of lighting and compositing artists.

I worked closely with the director, Academy Award winner Juan José Campanella, and with the director of Photography, Félix (Chango) Monti, to create the look and feel of the lighting for the film.

We decided to use a relatively new software solution for our lighting and rendering pipeline, called Arnold. We were one of the very first studios to adopt this renderer for a feature animation film as an off-the-shelf solution, and were part of the beta-testing for Solid Angle, the company producing the software.

My time in Buenos Aires was unforgettable. I definitely learned a great deal about starting a production from scratch, and working outside the normal pipeline seen in well-established companies. Being in Argentina illuminated a whole new side to the inner business workings of how content is made in developing countries.

And, I was able to vastly improve my spanish!

After a hectic and rewarding 10+ months working on the project, it was time to take a much-needed break, and I returned to the UK for a bit of R&R.

TriggerTrap

July 4, 2011

I’ve been helping my boyfriend Haje out with a great new project called TriggerTrap.

It’s a camera trigger that can trigger your camera to take a photo based on just about anything – it’s a great little piece of hardware, and it’s all open-source, so the nerds out there can make it better and find new and interesting ways of triggering their cameras.

Haje’s still working on the design of the product, and in the mean time we’re trying to fund the project using Kickstarter, which is a great service that allows individuals to fund projects that they think are interesting.

Check out the project page and be sure to back it!

Ziah’s Digital Artist Masterclass at Bournemouth University

July 4, 2011

After the completion of Angels & Demons, on which Ziah acted as the crowds supervisor, she gave a small presentation to the students and faculty at Bournemouth University. You can see some of the excerpts in this video: