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On Mixed Reality and the Brave New Virtual World

“Social Network” by Kevin Dooley, used under CC 2.0

We are on the cusp of a great awakening and evolution through emerging tech.


Our brains, which are themselves highly complex organic computers, collectively comprise this vast, great network. “Humanity.” Your body is essentially an organic bio-shell – a highly advanced haptic suit, designed specifically to allow it to fully experience the physical world in which it exists, through the five senses – sight, smell, touch, sound, taste –  for the purpose of sending information to your brain from the time it develops in the womb, gathering, categorizing and storing data in a complex database deep within the brain where memory is stored.

 The information your brain gathers through the body about the physical world around it is simply data, random chunks of categorized and cross-referenced information  that the brain stores in memory for when you might need to access it later. The body gathers all this data through the senses, but data stored in databases of any kind isn’t terribly useful in and of itself without writing programs that access them, selectively pulling from that vast amount of data, examining the patterns, extrapolating from information at hand to make assumptions, and outputting more data.
“My Social Network” by Luc Legay, used under CC 2.0

Now here we are just past the midpoint of 2017, and Microsoft is investing heavily in pushing what they (and a few others) are called “mixed reality,” they’re partnered with Oculus, and meanwhile Zuckerberg and Facebook are churning away at integrating our collective obsession with the social network – one of our biggest sources of personal and interpersonal information – even more deeply into our daily lives. Apple is said be announcing something big with augmented reality in the fall and if you believe Robert Scoble (which I tend to on this) it’s going to be mind-blowing. Google is politely ignoring the term “mixed reality” for now, preferring to coin its own phrase with “immersive computing.”  We are at the beginnings of profoundly evolving the very way in which we as human beings gather data, communicate and connect with each other in ways that centuries ago – even decades ago – we could never have considered outside our imaginations. But the things we imagine with our brains evolve over time into things that become real.

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On Empathy and Connectedness

The Machine to be Another at Twist360.

The word “empathy” is probably one you’ve heard bandied about a lot if you’ve read up much on this whole virtual reality thing.  It’s a hot topic for panels, a hot topic for storytellers trying to figure out how story translates into this space, a hot topic for women working in this space, who keep getting told that women can SUCCEED in VR way more than in other areas of tech, you guys.  Because empathy! Which having a vagina makes you an expert at. Or something.

Seriously though, I am deeply interested in empathy as it connects to driving social change. Immersive journalist Nonny de la Pena, whose “Hunger in Los Angeles” cracked open the Pandora’s Box of this most recent VR Gold Rush when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival way back in 2012, was exploring empathy and  connection when she made that project, which recreated a factual event of a man collapsing in diabetic seizures from hunger while waiting in a food bank line.

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Stop Being Poor: Access, Diversity & Opportunity Hoarding

stop-being-poorA few days ago I shared this Washington Post piece that breaks down the facts that dispel (yet again) the myth that poor kids just need to try harder.  The article points out that inequity starts at the cradle, but even that’s not entirely accurate. The inequity at the root of lack of access and opportunity is often part of a much deeper and systemic cycle of poverty and class stratification. This related Post piece discusses how your social position and economic class in first grade are prime indicators of what social strata you will occupy as an adult (or even the likelihood that you’ll reach adulthood at all).

Consider if you will my own kids, who have a great deal of privilege and access. My ex (their dad) works for Amazon and makes a solid six-figure salary.  None of our kids have ever wanted for anything. They’ve never worried about whether there was food in the fridge and pantry for dinner, or whether there would be presents under the tree Christmas morning, or if the power would work when they flipped a light switch. They’ve never not had access to technology in their home.  They all have video games, laptops, access to high-powered desktops, smartphones and other devices. They may not be in the top 1% of wealth, but as white kids growing up in Seattle with a dad who earns a high tech salary they most certainly are among the privileged “haves.”

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What Hollywood Doesn’t Grok About Story in VR

*This piece was originally published on Linked In December 15, 2015

branches_of_a_treeAll due respect to Ed Catmull, the co-founder of one of my favorite movie studios, but he’s missing the point in this gloomy Guardian piece in which he warns moviemakers that VR isn’t “storytelling.” He’s wrong, but he’s not alone in his thinking; many Hollywood folk we (and VR devs we know and work with) talk to about VR don’t yet grasp its storytelling potentialities.

Of course VR storytelling won’t look like what Pixar (or any Hollywood studio) understands to be storytelling; it never will, so long as studios consider the problem squarely through the lens of their familiar cinematic model. Movie studios understand (sometimes) linear storytelling, and story in VR will not be linear or anything close to it. It will be multidimensional, with many branching and interconnected pathways, complexly informed, in many cases, by an AI built into the story and the characters – and with the ability to experience a story – or StoryWorld – passively, actively, or interactively.

There’s been some groundbreaking work being done in branching narrative and AI dev by smart people like Emily Short, and the architecture underlying the models of some of the games out of Telltale and Bethesda are probably the closest thing right now to modeling the next gen (or next iteration, if you will) of story in VR settings. Yes, VR storytelling will resemble gaming more than cinema (at least, the structure of the more recent evolution of story-focused games) – but that doesn’t make it “not storytelling.”

We have to imaginate and architect a new model here, rethink and evolve how stories are architected, how VR settings and structure and AI capabilities affect character interaction and being able to follow backstories and multiple non-protagonist pathways (or even to shift protagonists or POVs entirely), how they’re art directed (which HAS to be thought of and designed within immersive virtual platforms to be properly imaginated and innovated, how the UX is constructed.

VR storytellers will also need to evolve a deep understanding of how people will want to interact in virtual spaces with the environment itself, with the story being told, with the characters within the story, and perhaps even with other human players. Yes, VR stories will most likely fall more along the evolutionary timeline of video games –> interactive storygames than cinema (at least in the first few iterations, as developers are migrating to the emerging VR dev space primarily from the gaming sector). But within a decade or so (an eternity in the tech world) the tech will most likely evolve to allow for fully immersive cinema with human actors seamlessly data-meshed into stories.

By the time that tech gets here, developers, designers, storytellers and artists will themselves grok a great deal more about consumer expectations for immersion, interactivity and story in VR settings, and we’ll have collaboratively developed the tools and accumulated knowledge base about UX and construction within VR spaces to be able to begin to more fully merge gaming and big cinema as story forms.

Understanding how to architect story within VR is a massive undertaking and it’s going to require thinking and coloring outside the lines and comfort levels a lot of Hollywood studios have if they are going to enter this space in any sort  of meaningful way. VR devs I’m talking to are SO right when they express their frustration talking to Hollywood folk about VR and say Hollywood doesn’t get VR yet. They don’t. And if they don’t start grokking that they will have to learn to think about story in a different way to play meaningfully in this space, more nimble start-ups built on agile game dev models and fast prototyping will define VR storytelling in the consumer mindspace long before the big studios even wrap their heads around the massive shift in thinking needed to tell their stories around the campfires of this brave new virtual world.

Pixar Co-Founder says VR “not storytelling”