In Tuesday’s American-Statesman, you may have seen my column on virtual reality. In the process of reporting that story, I did an email interview with Ben Lamm, the CEO of Austin-based Chaotic Moon Studios, which earlier this year was bought by Accenture.
Chaotic Moon has been working on VR projects for quite a while. Here’s the full interview, only a small portion of which appears in the column.
AMERICAN-STATESMAN: Why is Chaotic Moon so invested in virtual reality (and, I’m guessing augmented reality)? What is it about these technologies that excites you?
Ben Lamm: We’ve been developing in the virtual reality space for a while, because — while it’s not mainstream yet–there’s absolutely zero doubt that this is the future. It’s that simple. When I got my hands on the first iterations of one VR project we’re working on, it blew my mind — and I’ve seen a lot of incredibly technology. Or ask anyone on our team who’s experienced VR at the level I have. We’ve all recognized that same thing. It’s insane. It’s THE FUTURE and Chaotic Moon has always been about harnessing that insanity by taking the most bleeding-edge tech in the world and creating an even cooler experience with it.
With respect to Augmented Reality; VR is a stepping stone to AR. With AR, we are using a combination of software and hardware and enhancing the real world with virtual objects, which is the future we’ve been imagining since Star Trek and the holodeck. The devices that typically render augmented reality are head units that are have enough transparency to allow the user to still view the real world, or have cameras that capture real world data and render it onto the headset’s screen. This view of reality is then augmented with rendered 3D objects or other graphical effects that can be manipulated by the user through some form of tracking input.
Virtual reality allows the user to see a totally virtual rendering, but augmented reality gives you the opportunity to combine the real and virtual world and transform your reality, which presents us with crazy opportunities to innovate. That’s why I believe there is no other choice but to completely dive into this space and take this thing to eleven, by dedicating: time, our smartest and most creative people — and a hell of a lot of money. That is what innovators do; we take risks and we want to be leading innovators in both these arenas.
I’ve seen some examples (not from Chaotic Moon) of, let’s just say not-fantastic VR. Demos on Oculus that were half-baked, VR Film Festival shorts that didn’t seem to have a point or add much to what you could do with 3D film. Is there concern that bad/mediocre VR content will saturate the market before the really great stuff gets there and turn people off before VR goes mainstream? Is that why you all are putting out creative demo stuff so early, to counter that?
The problem with lame VR experiences is that corners are being cut and creators aren’t taking the time to craft out a good experience or design something that’s interesting, understandable and fun. It doesn’t matter which device we build it out for. The key is that we take the time to design an unforgettable experience for the user, even within the limitations of the platform we are trying to develop on. So yes, there’s a balance between trying to be first, and getting it right.
This is exactly why we started out early, experimenting with different user experiences, game structures and simulations. We’re constantly testing out what can and can’t be done, and what works and doesn’t work. It’s all experimentation and exploration. Since we are at the start of the VR paradigm, there has to be work done to create a design that is tested, iterated against, and demoed out.
That said, I don’t think these poor attempts have turned people off yet–people are smarter than that. After all, in every area of creation, you’re gonna have the awesome and you’re gonna have the awful. I’ve walked out of a ton of movies, but it doesn’t mean I’m not going to see Star Wars in December. It’s the promise of potential and progress that keeps us coming back.
Now obviously it’s different with technology that most people have little to no experience with. Products like Google Cardboard are great when it comes to giving people a small taste of the tech, but yeah, waiting for it to get to the mainstream is frustrating. But once VR is made more available and everyone gets the experience the bleeding edge VR tech we’ve been lucky enough to be working with all this time, it’s going to change every sector of our society. I’m starting to worry that no one is going to want to leave their homes ever again, once they experience the full power of VR. I can’t say it enough, this is going to change everything when it gets main stream adoption.
3. Even some of the VR headset makers think this tech won’t really mature for at least 3-5 years. Is that what you’re thinking, too or do you think it could happen sooner?
That sounds less like a challenge than a question.
Granted, VR is just a toy right now until someone figures out input. The company that will win the VR game is the one that’s able to figure out input and how the user is able to interface with VR and AR in a precise and perfect way. And it won’t be long. As VR integrates with mobile devices that are untethered and will eventually be able to render powerful graphics, and you will have the ultimate VR experience. And while it’s still a few years out, a perfect experience is possible. But the things we’re already doing, and others are doing in this space are the real deal and we are all getting closer everyday. And the first company, be it gaming, or simulation, or education who cracks the code and completely captures the user’s imagination, is going to be hard to catch.
4. It seems like some of the biggest challenges, according to folks like Oculus, is how to interface with/control the experience (ie handheld controllers), wires and resolution/computing horsepower. Are there other challenges you’re seeing? Are those some of the biggest hurdles in your mind to this tech being more refined?
There are several hurdles to the overall challenges facing the total adoption and success of VR and AR.
Two big questions are how to get VR and AR hardware out to the masses at a reasonable price point and how to make that hardware as accessible as possible. To get an Oculus Rift, you have to buy the actual VR headset and ensure sure you have a computer powerful enough to drive the VR experiences, which will cost around $1,500. While this price point is considerably lower than one you’d be looking at for a VR platform in the past, it involves the user being tethered to a machine and unable to move around a space freely, which isn’t ideal.
As I alluded to before, Google Cardboard definitely makes it easier for everyone with a phone to experience VR in some capacity. The problem is that there is no standard for input and most of the experiences limit the way the user is able to interact in the space. The ideal would be a self-contained platform that allows the user to be mobile and enjoy the experience, with a standardized input that works well with VR.
The second challenge is that many people still think of VR as a gimmick or just a cool way to try out some games or simulations and watch movies from a different perspective. The key is making VR and AR an essential part of the user’s life by implementing it in ways that makes their life easier. For example, you could watch TV on any wall of your house with AR, or you could have an entirely VR operating system on your computer that changes how you interact with the machine and access content. You could even use AR and VR to make tasks like visits to the doctor less of a nightmare.
Those are just a few small examples. At Chaotic Moon we’re exploring all of these types of avenues and experiences to help drive forward the total, worldwide adoption of VR and AR.
5. What’s the coolest thing you all have done with VR so far?
Of course we are playing in the entertainment (TV/Film) and gaming space, it’s in our DNA. But because our clients are also in many different verticals, we are experimenting with many applications be it education, entertainment, gaming, e-commerce even oil and gas exploration. Today, brands want more than anything to offer their customers an emotional connection to their products. So we are on it. Whatever is takes to help give our clients a competitive advantage. over engage their customers If it gives our clients. It just so happens that we also love playing in this space. We blow people’s minds, and make life less boring and more awesome for a living.
Unfortunately, we can’t brag about most of our projects due to NDAs, but here’s a little bit.
In terms of education, take the classroom: That’s a terrible environment for learning. You’re sitting at a desk in a room listening to someone talk for eight hours. I sure as hell don’t want to do that, and I’m an adult, so it’s no surprise kids don’t want to go to school. But if you added virtual reality? We looked at ways that we could pump up the volume and make learning interactive with VR by combining the Leap Motion device with the Oculus Rift. We created an interactive experience in a virtual classroom that would teach kids about the periodic table, and they could actually grab elements and combine them. Then, for example, if they formed a molecule of water, they’d be immersed in an underwater environment. THAT is how you learn.
Another awesome project that attracted a lot of attention for us was a VR game called “Death from Above.” For this, we combined a PC running a virtual reality driving game with an iPad communicating directly with that game in real time, which served as a unique way to offer a multiplayer experience through two different platforms. Player One drives in a virtual environment using a steering wheel controller and the oculus rift, with the goal to reach the finish line, while Player Two uses an iPad to attack them with bombs, all while looking at a live feed of Player One. As Player Two drops bombs, the action is simultaneously reflected in the Player One game view. It’s pretty awesome.
Oh yeah, we created a really awesome game called Shark Punch for SXSW. Hundreds of people waited in line to hit virtual sharks, and George Takei even came by to check it out. You can ask him about that one — or just YouTube it.