#227: How the Toybox Demo Inspired Will Smith to Quit Tested.com to Start a VR Company

For the past three years, Will Smith and Norman Chan have been playing the latest virtual reality demos and tracking the evolution of VR with their Tested.com reviews. Will was able to see Oculus VR’s Toybox demo at E3 this year, and the amount of presence he was able to feel with the Oculus Touch controllers combined with dynamic social interactions convinced him to quit Tested to start his own VR company. Will isn’t talking about the specifics of his new venture just yet, but he alludes that it has something to do with telepresence communication as inspired by the interactions from the Toybox demo.


Will talks about some of the big turning points in tracking the story of the consumer VR revolution starting with first seeing the Doom 3 demo at PAX shortly after the Kickstarter was successfully funded and after the initial buzz from Carmack showing it off at the 2012 E3. He says that the DK1 release was a huge turning point for developers, and then the amount of embodied presence with hand tracked controllers with the Vive demo at GDC this year was another huge turning point.

Will says that the thing that the Vive demo was that it opened up more verbs that are available to game developers and VR experience designers. While previous actions had to be abstracted out into a keystroke, button, or joystick movement, the hand tracked controllers allows us to move in a more intuitive and natural way that creates a sense of immersion that really fools much more parts of our brain into believing in the reality of these virtual worlds.

Will talks about noticing how he backed up to avoid hitting his head on a virtual table that didn’t exist in real life, but his primitive brain still believed in the reality of it. With the addition of real-time interactions with another person in the Toybox demo, it just increased that feeling of immersion and helped to convince him that virtual reality was a technology that was ready to make a game changer today, rather than be a technology that could have an impact 5-10 years from now.

In terms of experiences that Will is looking forward to having, he’s really interested in doing all of the things that are either impossible, too dangerous, or too scary to do in real life. He’s also really interested in telepresence applications of VR, and sees that VR is going to fundamentally change the way that we communicate with each other. He’s looking forward to being able to spend time with his wife while he’s away traveling, and that this is one of the things that he’s working towards in his new venture.

You can continue to listen to Will on the Tested Podcast, and if you’d like to keep in touch with his next venture, then you can sign up to his newsletter here.

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Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.

[00:00:12.094] Will Smith: I'm Will Smith. I formerly am of Tested.com. I am on my way out at the end of the month and I'm launching a new company that's focusing on VR content and communication. So it's weird to be on this side of the microphone because I have for the last five years run a site called Tested. with Norman Chan in the last three years we worked with Adam and Jamie from the Mythbusters. And the message there was always to go out and find people who are making and doing cool stuff with science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. And as part of that, one of the things we covered is emerging new interesting technologies like 3D printing and quadcopters, drone flying, and then of course virtual reality. So we were early on VR, we missed the 2012 E3 Carmack demo with Doom 3, but I caught that a few months later at PAX after the Kickstarter had run, and saw it and was like, this is gonna be, I mean, this might take a while, but it's gonna be a thing. The Kickstarter hit, Oculus got acquired, everything accelerated at this incredible pace, and at E3 this year I saw the Toybox demo for the first time. And I went from thinking, oh, this is gonna be really cool in about 10 years or 15 years, Oh, okay, it's now. It's very similar to... I'm going to date myself. I'm old enough that I went to college in the fall of 1993. And my first couple of weeks at school, I saw Mosaic for the first time, for the first graphical web browser. And I saw that, I was like, huh, this is interesting. I think people might use this. I had the same feeling from Toybox. Being in a shared virtual space with somebody, being able to interact with them and the world around you was just revolutionary. I know people who haven't tried this, when you describe it to them you sound like a crazy person, but it is truly a new way to use computers and I wanted to be part of it, more than just covering. I've covered stuff for a long time, it's time to do something and make something.

[00:01:59.745] Kent Bye: Because you've been tracking VR and the specifications of it for so much, what was that like to, as a journalist, be focusing on the leading edge of some of the most technically adept interviews?

[00:02:11.640] Will Smith: I mean, so the interesting thing is Norm and I have a dynamic with VR stuff where, you know, he's the technical person, I'm the experiential person. I spend a fair amount of time in the background of the demos with my mouth open looking like a goofball, trying to pick them apart and see, you know, what works, what doesn't, how the newest hardware and the newest demos are working. And as a result of our status as journalists, we've seen almost everything that's out there right now. Magic Leap, if you're listening to this, I'd love to come visit you in Tampa. I'll sign your NDAs now. But, you know, the technology went from being okay to, oh, this is much better, to, oh, okay, this is something that I put my wife in a Vive, and she was like, this is, I don't want to stop doing this. I want to keep using Tilt Brush indefinitely. And when that happened, I realized, oh, something's changed here, and this is, it's time.

[00:03:03.813] Kent Bye: Yeah, and there's something at the GDC where you have your hands in a game where I saw like there was the first time of having both the place illusion and the plausibility illusion of actually being in the experience and feeling like you have control over it. And I think the Toy Box demo has that as well. But from your perspective, what were some of the big turning points over the last couple of years in terms of the big leaps in VR technology?

[00:03:23.887] Will Smith: Well, I mean, DK1's obvious, right? That opened the door for people to build software, even though the hardware is kind of anemic by today's standards. The GDC Vive demos that we saw, it seems like it was two years ago, but I think it was earlier this year. Like you said, bringing your hands into the world did two things. It opened up the number of verbs that you have access to as a game developer, as an experience developer. So instead of things that you can map to a keyboard and mouse or a gamepad, like running, jumping, shooting, cutting, you know, whatever, you suddenly were able to lift things and push and pull and grab and do all the things that we can do in the real world, which had an added benefit along with all the graphic stuff that When you go see a movie in the theater and you get excited about it and you lose yourself in the film, that happens all the time, but you never forget you're in the movie theater. Early VR stuff was like that. Your conscious brain would get really into the content. You'd have a really good time, whether it's driving Euro Truck Sim or maybe piloting a Mech in Hawken. you know, play any one of the virtual cockpit games that were kind of the early standout experiences to me. When your hands are involved, it's not just your conscious brain that gets fooled, it's also the reptilian brain. When I dropped something off the edge of the table in Toy Box and I needed to pick it up off the ground because I wanted to play with it more, I actually took a step back unconsciously without thinking about it because I didn't want to whack my face on the table that didn't actually exist there. That happened with the Vive demo with Tilt Brush and the Job Simulator. It happened again with Toy Box. And it's an amazing feeling when it happens. You just want to do it more. So it made me realize we were much closer to something that was going to be real and accessible for more than just games.

[00:05:00.639] Kent Bye: And so what type of experiences in VR do you want to have then?

[00:05:03.560] Will Smith: I mean, the stuff that I really enjoy in VR are the things that are impossible, right? Anything that is either too impossible, too dangerous, too scary, I'm game for all of that stuff in VR. I'm really looking forward to the game that Epic showed today. What's it called, Bullet Train? I think that looked fascinating. It's the first first-person shooter that had any kind of speed to it that we've seen from a big developer with lots of resources. I'm interested in that. I love the opportunity to experience other people's, the way other people live. I did a presentation about VR a couple of weeks ago and one of the slides I put up was the walk of the acrobat who walked across the gap between the two towers in I think 1971. I would love, love, love for somebody to put together, you know, just a piece of closed cell phone that's two inches wide that you can walk on. and lines up with the gap, and then you just do a 50-foot walk between the two towers, a 150-foot walk, whatever it was, so you can have that experience. Because, I mean, that's impossible. It's incredibly dangerous. The buildings don't exist anymore. And it's this incredibly romantic moment that this lunatic made for himself. I'd love to do stuff like that. I hope people make all those things, you know, barrel riding over the Niagara Falls, all the daredevil stunts of the early 20th century that probably we shouldn't be doing anymore.

[00:06:19.664] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you see as the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:06:26.409] Will Smith: That's a huge question. I mean, I think short term, the answer is going to be that it's going to really change the way we communicate with each other. The short, short term is that games are going to be incredible. The next shorter term is that communication is going to change for everybody who buys into VR. I don't know. I mean, is it a horrible dystopian future where we're all jacked into couches and eventually there's a spike in the back of our skull? I don't think so. I kind of hope not. That sounds kind of gross. But if it's a way for me to spend time with my wife when I have to be away from her for work or whatever reason, I think that's a lovely outcome and I'd love to see that kind of stuff. So that's what I'm working on and that's what I'm excited about.

[00:07:06.424] Kent Bye: Anything else left unsaid that you'd like to say?

[00:07:08.905] Will Smith: Yeah, we do a two-hour podcast on Tested every week. where we talk about VR for a minute or more. And as always, you can check Norm's VR coverage on Tested. It'll be here. He's at Connect somewhere around here today, too. And if you want to find out more about what I'm doing, then I have a tiny letter at tinyletter.com slash will hyphen smith. You can go there, sign up, and when I'm ready to talk about what I'm doing, you'll get an email right in your inbox. So that's it. Thank you, guys.

[00:07:34.727] Kent Bye: Awesome. Thank you. Oh, sure thing. And thank you for listening! If you'd like to support the Voices of VR podcast, then please consider becoming a patron at patreon.com slash voicesofvr.

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