Nests

Yesterday in a no-frills classroom in UW’s Mechanical Engineering building, I met Dr. Tom Furness. The occasion was a class taught by Abighyan “AK” Kaustubh in which teams of students shared the VR apps they’d created. AK had invited me to be a guest judge of these projects. I listened to Tom and AK’s questions and suggestions to the students and sensed the weight of this peculiar historical moment. Here was the grandfather of virtual reality and one of Seattle’s brilliant young VR pioneers coaxing a generation of engineers to make something with this new medium.

Dr. Furness has devoted literally fifty years of his life to researching and developing virtual and augmented reality. Without Furness there would be no Oculus, no Vive, no Google Cardboard. The fledgling VR industry we celebrate in this blog rests on his shoulders. AK is among the thinkers, including Eva Hoerth and Trond Nilsen, whose expertise in VR is the result of Furness’s mentorship at RATLab. To say meeting Dr. Furness was an honor is an understatement.

It’s one thing to theorize about virtual reality and imagine what it will one day become. It’s quite another to start coding in Unity and try to make an app. The vast majority of VR apps don’t match the fidelity or polish we’ve come to expect from video games and 2D entertainment. The industry is trying to figure out how to manage the vast reservoirs of server capacity and bandwidth that will be required to deliver truly photorealistic, immersive VR experiences. It’s easy to imagine the beautifully rich virtual environments to come while butting our heads against technical constraints.

Recently at CoMotion Labs, Scobot showed me a VR environment developed to promote the movie Dr. Strange and it left me mostly unimpressed. It was basically a series of connected rooms created using Tiltbrush, and after about thirty seconds, I became bored with it. Part of the problem was it’s hard not to compare its relatively rudimentary visuals against the hyperkinetic visuals of the movie.

Compare that experience to this clip called “Worlds in Worlds” by Goro Fujita, which blew up on Facebook yesterday:

You’ll notice that the wonder in this short film is the result of the nested structure of the environments. The illustrations are cool enough, but no one would claim they’re anywhere near photorealistic. What’s compelling here is the act of zooming into one world after another, like you’re riding a fractal down and back up through several realities. Perhaps this marks a moment in the development of VR’s grammar. While movies have jump cuts and montages, maybe a structural element of VR is that it can include nests.

The point of this post, I suppose, is to encourage a bias for production, for making, for building, for throwing something out there. Teachers like Dr. Furness and AK are in the business of opening doors that others can walk through. That’s the only way to discover what VR wants to become. Talking and thinking and imagining only get you so far. At some point you have to turn on the computer and get your hands dirty. You never know when your little project, your app, your short clip, reveals the potential of this new medium.