#285: Travel Inside Reggie Watts’ Imagination with ‘Waves’

reggie-watts-8Reggie Watts was at Sundance showing off his first 360-degree video VR experience called Waves, which is a surreal trip into his imagination. It’s one of the most quirky and entertaining 360 videos I’ve sen, and could be described as a dream within a dream that’s jam packed with special effects, music, philosophy, and humor. It turns out that Reggie is a huge VR geek who first tried out Dactyl Nightmare in the mid-90s, and has been fascinated VR ever since. I was able to catch up with Reggie at the Sundance New Frontier lounge to learn about his journey into VR and where he’d like to go next. You can watch Waves on Milk VR’s Sundance channel until Feb. 12, and then it’ll likely be available through WEVR.


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Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.

[00:00:12.036] Reggie Watts: My name is Reggie Watts. I've always been a fan of virtual reality, or at least the idea of creating another reality with technology that's relatively believable. And then with the advent of movies like 13th Floor, Existence, Lawnmower Man, things of that nature, that became much more enticing to me. And then I experienced a little bit of VR in the mid-90s, and then it kind of died away. And now we're here, where we have many choices that have yet to come out. and some good interim choices in the meantime. So I got into VR just because I like being immersed in other realities and having the ability to create those realities.

[00:00:48.427] Kent Bye: Yeah, so you're here at Sundance and you've created one of your own realities, Waves, with Weaver. So talk a bit about, like, how did this project come about?

[00:00:56.367] Reggie Watts: Well, my friend Ben Dickinson, who's director, he was invited to do something for Weaver. And so we were like, OK, well, what can we do? And then just like brainstormed on something because I was so excited about finally getting to do something in VR. Yeah, and then we got invited by Weaver, and that was kind of it. That's the most of it, because they were like, do whatever you want. And so Ben and I were like, OK, well, I guess we'll do whatever we want. We got Natalie Emanuel on board, and that was amazing. And she was so down and so cool. So I mean, that was it, just a dumb idea that I had to do a reality within a reality within a reality and take advantage of the possibilities of visualizing my imagination.

[00:01:39.145] Kent Bye: So yeah, if you were to kind of describe the plot or what happens, I saw it and it was sort of like a psychedelic experience, but if I were to try to summarize it to someone, how would you describe it?

[00:01:49.330] Reggie Watts: I would say it's an homage to everything from Narnia, Tron, The Matrix, Existence, sci-fi, kind of just an imaginative journey that is intended to be confusing, disorienting, but primarily funny and entertaining. and to kind of mess with emotions a little bit, speeds of awareness a little bit.

[00:02:12.035] Kent Bye: And so what was it like to watch this experience that you created for the first time? Because there's a lot of special effects. So what was it like for you to kind of experience it for the first time?

[00:02:20.455] Reggie Watts: Well I kind of experienced, I kind of re-experienced it for the first time today because the audio wasn't finished at the time that I saw the last iteration of it and there were some special effects that were different as well and so they made major improvements and what you saw I was about 90% done so there's still some tweaks and refinements that are going to happen but I mean, it was amazing. I was actually, I was really happy. It was, you know, there's always things that I'll nitpick about, but it was our first VR attempt and we learned a lot from it, but I think we maxed out what we captured as best as we could. So, yeah, I was very excited. I was very pleased with it.

[00:02:56.824] Kent Bye: So, tell me the story of your first VR experience. What was that like?

[00:03:00.965] Reggie Watts: Our very first VR experience would have been, there was an arcade game in Redmond, Washington called Quarters. and they had this virtual reality game. It was like two players could play and it was a, I guess, yeah, it was a first-person shooter. You were playing against somebody and you were standing on this platform that had a ring around it, so a railing so you couldn't leave, and you had, I think, a hand controller and, of course, a headset. And you just kind of moved around this like vector graphics environment and went up platforms and tried to hunt for the other person and shoot them. That was the first time I experienced it. And that was incredible. I mean, like seeing Lawnmower Man and all of that, I was so incredibly excited about it. But, you know, the technology was such low resolution and it was very short lived. I think that video game was around for maybe half a year and then it was gone and then there was no VR. for a long time. So that was my first experience. I was very, very excited about it. I just think it's a unique platform that's separate from everything. Video games can take advantage of it, but it's still its own medium. It's not related to film, really, and it's not related to anything. It's just being somewhere, really. It's putting someone somewhere.

[00:04:09.025] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think with the VR, it's a technology that once you experience it, then it kind of opens up these worlds as to what's possible. And so I'm curious if some of the VR experiences that you've had that kind of serve as an inspiration for where you want to continue to go with working with this medium.

[00:04:23.679] Reggie Watts: Yeah, there's a demo called Irrational Exuberance. that I really loved. That's approaching kind of a mist level of puzzle, kind of puzzley solving, but more like kind of like a weird blend of experiential discovery, puzzley type of a simulation. That was very inspirational to me because it was all CG, so you can do a lot with CG, plus it's more stereoscopic instead of 360 degree flat video, which is cool, but that's a ways off for live action. But that one's very inspirational. You know, the deep blue is great. I mean, it's a very basic kind of like suddenly there's a whale, you know, holy shit, you know, but, um, so that, that was inspirational in that it was very environmental. I thought that the aperture demo was really enticing. I loved like reaching into the drawers and pulling out the drawer and seeing this miniature civilization be scared of you as a God. And like, just like these sub genres within just one room. And then the familiarity of the CG effects from the game from portal, I thought that that was beautiful. I was really disoriented. And the detail is so incredible in that game experience, what would I call it? So those are very inspiring. And then as live action gets better, at being able to capture live action and have it correspond with the parallax and let it be stereoscopic, that's going to be a whole new world of believability as well.

[00:05:47.410] Kent Bye: Yeah I really enjoyed the Irrational Exuberance which is here at Sundance and you're kind of in this asteroid and you're using the controllers to kind of break out and you're kind of seeing this world unveiled and it really conveys this sense of scale but also it has like this low-poly aesthetic so if it gets too realistic then it does have this really deep sense of presence that was also one of my favorites here because you know it's allowing you to really feel like you're there and it just To me, I just felt this sense of wonder and awe just looking around and just taking it all in. And I think that's one thing about the language of VR is that it's really about creating environments and scenes. And in the waves, you're kind of like rapidly going through all these different crazy experiences, which is really great. It's almost like I've gotten a little sneak peek into your imagination, which is great to see that.

[00:06:35.648] Reggie Watts: Yeah, that was the idea. The idea, I wanted to move between CG and live action. That was really important to me. I wanted to sandwich it in live action. And I wanted the first to be kind of almost stupidly staged, like extras running around doing dumb things that people normally would never be doing in that reality. But then moving into this construct idea, then moving into another reality and having a music video and then this indoctrination video, and then ending on a beach like a meditative thing with a Nathalie Manuel. I was like, let's just do it all because why not, you know? And I wanted to give a sense of reality shifting that can occur within the VR experience.

[00:07:13.529] Kent Bye: Yeah that was kind of like the contemplative moment of like you're just sitting there kind of reflecting of all that's what's happened and I've actually noticed that there's a lot of VR experiences that are at beaches or end at beaches and it's just something that I don't know if that'll be like the cliche thing in a few years of any on the beach but for you and the Rational Exuberance there's no characters there's no people in it you're just a first-person perspective and If you're using that as inspiration, do you foresee wanting to get more behind the scenes of crafting an experience for people, or do you see that you'd be in it as a character?

[00:07:45.757] Reggie Watts: Absolutely. I love that experience so much because I love that given very little information and having to work your way out of a reality is very compelling to me, and I would love to design experiences where I'm not necessarily there. It's just my vision that's guiding people along. You know, another one that I really liked was the Van Gogh inside the Van Gogh painting. I think that's really beautiful. I love, like, oh, there's more to discover and it's 3D, but it's a painting that's kind of familiar, but then you're discovering more to the painting as if they're extrapolating, like, what else is in that painting that you're unable to see. I love that. I think that that's incredibly intoxicating. When I put that on, even though it's like using the Samsung Galaxy Gear, which has a limited resolution, and you do get a little bit more dizzy in that system than you do with HTC or Oculus, but it's really compelling. It just works as soon as I put it on. So I would love to design things that don't necessarily have me in it, but have my voice present.

[00:08:45.636] Kent Bye: So with VR, there's a new kind of language of storytelling. You know, it's different from film, it's different from other mediums. And so, with kind of your earlier experiments, what do you see as kind of like the real strengths for VR as a medium to tell stories?

[00:08:59.099] Reggie Watts: I think the strengths are being able to sense scale and scope in a way that is more immediate than having to travel somewhere. So I think some of the strengths of VR, I mean, like one of the catchphrases that people talk about is empathy. which I think is accurate, but also it kind of missed the point a little bit, like both empathy and immersion are kind of like, you can't, it's, I don't know, they kind of cloud what it's about. But I think what it does, it transports you to another, either someone's philosophy about what they think life is, or it puts you in direct contact with someone's experience, a real thing that someone has experienced, and you're able to kind of get a sense of that. Also, I really, look forward to being able to capture experiences when you're traveling and you can send to a relative that can't travel anymore and they can put on a headset and just, you know, eventually when we figure out what the file format is and how we can actually share these experiences, once we figure that out, you know a person who's 80 years old can like see a pair of goggles because they put on goggles before and it's just a red lights flashing means that they've got a new vid and they just kind of put it on and press this big button and it just starts playing so you can like send these experiences to people on your travels and allow them to you know see what you're seeing which is a huge part that we just don't know you know especially as people get older and they don't have access to their loved ones lives they might see photographs but man putting a spherical stereoscopic video in their hands. I mean, that's incredible.

[00:10:23.528] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think that one of the reasons that I see that empathy is kind of brought up so much is that when you do a 2D film, you're kind of detached. You know you're not there. Sometimes. Yeah, but I guess that's the thing about VR is that there's some stories that I think will be told in VR that you wouldn't be able to tell in 2D. So I think that's part of the reason. But I'm just curious if you've had any sort of experiences of empathy in VR or things that you felt like you had an emotional experience that came from that immersion.

[00:10:51.675] Reggie Watts: Yeah, I mean, there was that video that was kind of showing what people in like flood disasters, they were showing different natural disasters, what the aftermath was like immediately. I think that that's very powerful. It's not someone trying to convince you of anything. It's just the reality of a situation. You're just visually seeing what's happening. And sometimes that's enough in storytelling wise. Yeah, I mean, you can include that as the atmosphere for understanding. And then you can also include people's personal stories and interviews and things like that. So that was pretty impactful for me, because I'm like, oh, this is crazy. Even though it was still 2D, 360, I still got this sense of like, wow, this is not a good situation to be in. This is terrible. How can I help? Or how can I help in the future? Or whatever it may be.

[00:11:37.063] Kent Bye: So what do you really want to experience in VR then?

[00:11:40.466] Reggie Watts: I want to be able to travel to imaginative worlds, and I want to be able to interact with characters that are grounded, that are believable, that are either naturalistically voice acted or real people that are acting naturalistically, as opposed to kind of this early days of VR. The actors don't have a sense of scale and they don't necessarily have a sense of what they're acting against. And oftentimes casting is tough in that situation. And if someone, it depends on someone's acting training. So it's really about letting artists, whether they're interpretive artists like actors or improvisers, whatever, to just allow the technology to get out of the way. them to naturalistically and groundedly perform how they want to perform. That's really key. That's the only thing that's going to convince people because the video image could be kind of crappy. If the audio is good and the performance is good or the idea that's coming across is great, people will forgive that. So that's kind of for me like the most important thing for VR. Otherwise it's just a gimmick and I think we're at a point where it's not a gimmick. I think we can move beyond that.

[00:12:40.729] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I think with immersion and presence, having that agency of being able to actually control and interact with the environment is a huge thing. And so you mentioned like talking to characters and kind of interacting with them. There's an experience, actually a video game called Facade. It's like an interactive fiction from 2005 where you actually do like natural language entry. And I did an interview with the creator of that, Andrew Stern, and they're actually doing VR now. But the idea that I see is that's really the cutting edge of storytelling is that you have both local agency and global agency. And right now, we don't have global agency. It's still kind of like a straight, linear path. And you have some sort of, like, you can control where you're looking, but you're not really controlling the outcome. And I think that is going to be kind of like the future of interactive virtual realities, where you're actually going to be able to change the outcome. Even if it's only five outcomes, it's better than just having one.

[00:13:33.350] Reggie Watts: I know. Well, I'm looking forward to, you know, actors being in another studio and you're in a studio and you're getting a real time feed and then they're responding to you so that we're not necessarily having to rely on algorithms or like programming. So it's a way to kind of like jump the gun on that and let technology catch up to that. I mean, like, you know, the immersive plays like, you know, Sleep No More or any of the punch drunk stuff that they've done, you know, the reality, real actors Reacting in real time to what people are doing and responding in the way that their character would blah blah blah blah blah Like that's way ahead of what we have because now we're just like how do we stimulate this like well in the meantime? That's not going to be answered very simplistically That's an evolution of both artificial intelligence and the way that we capture data or the way that we synthesize the data that's captured So in the meantime, why not do that? So the goggles, the headset, that is something that's real and that's available now. And there are no rules. So as long as someone's able to use the accelerometers and to be able to look around a room, even if there are real people responding in real time, it doesn't matter. It's still an immersive environment.

[00:14:38.128] Kent Bye: Yeah, and that kind of reminds me of, like, improv, which is, like, that's an example where you do have kind of global agency. The audience is kind of interacting, determining the outcome, and it's more like that. I could foresee a time where everybody's in virtual reality and you're kind of, like, doing improv.

[00:14:52.811] Reggie Watts: Yeah, I mean, just playing around, you know. I think what VR gives you is people get nervous being on an actual stage or in an actual room with actual people responding to them. And I think with VR, you do have the luxury of like, well, I'm just in a room and I'm putting these on and now I'm experiencing this reality. So you feel like you have a little bit more courage and you can try less fear about experimenting with things and kind of like realizing that all they need to be is naturalistic. And that's it. So, I mean, for me, it's like I'm interested in like solving these problems of How do you interact with people in a way that is joyful and both curious and allows you to have a sense of discovering something about yourself that you didn't know? And it's nice for people to make realizations like that where they can then use that in the real world a little bit. They might be able to loosen up a little bit in social situations.

[00:15:42.290] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you see as kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:15:48.771] Reggie Watts: I mean, I think communication is going to be a huge one. You know, no more conference calling on Skype and kind of seeing someone two-dimensional limited to the position of their camera or them manually moving their camera around. Now you'll be able to be in a space with people and go into your VR room or whatever or sit in your office chair that swivels around and you can have like three of your friends involved in a conversation and you can see each other. So you've got like depth sensing cameras so you can like lean and see the three dimensions of them like being in that room and you can just have like these real-time chats in virtual space with someone who's in Iran and someone who's in Egypt and someone's in Germany and you're in California. I think that that's going to be one of the most killer apps of VR, the capability to chat with other people in virtual space.

[00:16:34.107] Kent Bye: Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say? I'm excited.

[00:16:38.109] Reggie Watts: I'm excited to see what happens with VR. But in the meantime, I'm going to keep making stuff.

[00:16:43.912] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much. Yeah, my pleasure. 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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