Brad Herman & Shiraz Akmal recently left DreamWorks Animation to raise $3 million to start SPACES Inc., which is a virtual reality and mixed reality company focusing on storytelling for different brands including Microsoft, NBCUniversal, and The Hettema Group. Brad founded the DreamLab at DreamWorks in order to focus on developing content for mobile and cutting edge immersive technologies like VR, and so he’s been intimately involved with exploring storytelling in VR for the past couple of years. I had a chance to catch up with him at SVVR 2016, where he shared his thoughts about storytelling in VR and mixed reality, how to deal with non-compliant users, how he thinks that VR differs from film & broadway, and one of their first mixed reality projects of Big Blue Bubble’s My Singing Monsters.
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[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. My name is Kent Bye, and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. On today's episode, I have Brad Herman, who is one of the co-founders of Spaces, which is a VR and mixed reality company. For the last couple of years, Brad has served as the head of the DreamLab at DreamWorks Animation and has been pretty intimately involved in a lot of the latest consumer VR headsets And so Brad has been at the cross section of these new immersive technologies and storytelling, and he's decided to go off on his own and start Spaces, focusing on VR and mixed reality storytelling. And so that's what we'll be covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. But first, a quick word from our sponsor. Today's episode is brought to you by Unity. Unity has kickstarted this virtual reality revolution by making these easy tools set available for content creators to be able to take their dreams and make them into reality. There's no better way to learn about virtual reality than by getting started today by creating your own experiences. And it's easy with Unity. To learn more information, check out Unity at Unity3D.com. So this interview with Brad Herman happened at the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Conference and Expo at the end of April in 2016 at the San Jose Convention Center. And I actually met Brad two years previous at 2014 at the very first SVVR and ran into him a number of times, but could never really talk to him because they would have to get it approved through DreamWorks Animation. And so now that Brad is off on his own, he was completely free to talk about his new venture with Spaces. And so with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:01:55.173] Brad Herman: Hi, my name is Brad Herman, and I'm the co-founder of Spaces, a virtual and mixed reality company. And before that, I spent three years as the head of DreamWorks Animation DreamLab, where we explored mobile, immersive, and interactive technology and storytelling. So for us, you know, we spent three years looking at immersive and interactive cinema. What is storytelling in VR? How do we get content out to people? How do we deliver it to customers? And we were really focused on what's next. And we worked with the executive team at DreamWorks and, you know, towards the end of 2015, we got the permission to, you know, separate out from the company. And we really decided what our plan is, what we were really passionate about, the next chapter for the team. So we officially left in February, we're now April here at SVVR, and it's going well. We're very excited.
[00:02:42.933] Kent Bye: Okay, and so tell me a bit about, like, what are some of the big lessons or takeaways that you've gotten from doing your early explorations of storytelling in VR?
[00:02:52.315] Brad Herman: So I think some of the earliest things that we found is how compelling character can be. How compelling it can be to simply be just like you and I are here, one-on-one with someone. Just looking them in the eye, talking to them, and hearing things back. You know, a lot of things we see are focused on the complete immersion, the craziness of 360 around everything that's going on. when sometimes those most personal moments can be very close. So we call that the personal space, which is if you put your arms out in like a T and spin around, that's your personal space. If a character, if a person in a 360 experience, in a VR real-time experience is inside that space, you better know them. There better be a really good reason why they're there, and you should have invited them in. If you haven't, it's just like somebody being that close to you in real life, and if you don't know them. So we found that that can be an incredibly powerful piece of storytelling.
[00:03:41.852] Kent Bye: And talking to Eric Darnell, he sort of makes the claim that, you know, there's a tradeoff between either you're going to have a lot of interactive components that make it more about your own agency and exerting your will into an experience. And on the other extreme, you have perhaps a more empathetic, non-interactive experience where you're able to get immersed more into the story and put yourself into someone else's shoes. And so how do you see that balance between agency and narrative?
[00:04:08.343] Brad Herman: So we generally refer to them as being a ghost or being present. And what it comes down to is that if you have agency, those are when we call you being present, and if you don't, we call you a ghost. Ghost stories are most 360 videos, not all, but most, and when you're really passively observing what's going on. Sometimes you get immersed in those, sometimes you don't. It's certainly much harder in a ghost story to really pull people in at the level of VR. I think a ghost story, you can absolutely pull people into the level of traditional cinema because effectively every movie you've ever seen is a ghost story. You're not in it, you're sitting there as an observer watching someone else's vision. And those are incredibly compelling, they can be great. But what they necessarily can't be is as immersive as when you truly have someone present. When someone is really there. Now, someone present doesn't mean they have to be able to change the linear narrative. Like Aperture Robot Repair did a wonderful job of this. You know, there's things that you have to do tasks to complete, but the narrative is still always linear, but you are a central character in it. You know, one of the things that we found is, is how do you deal with non-compliant users? You're trying to tell a narrative, and let's say your narrative is, you know, the whole thing through is like nine minutes long. And fundamentally, you'd like them to experience the whole thing. But every time that there's a choice or an action required by the user to help maintain presence, to help maintain agency, you have to figure out, well, what's the option to do if they refuse to do it? And we tried a lot of different things, like do we just jump ahead? Do we just do it anyway? And what we found is you actually had to take the same amount of care you did in writing the whole experience. in writing those additional little transitions. So the example I used in the talk I gave is we had a piece where you're supposed to toast another character. The character is handing you a cup and you have to take it from their hand. If you don't, the experience can't really go on because it's a plot point. So what we really focused on is we tried a few different things and in the end the piece that worked well is that after a certain amount of time, if you don't take the cup from the person's hand, They look at you, they grab the cup they were going to give you, and they throw it in the air away from them, and they make an offhand comment about it, and then the thing moves on. So the narrative doesn't change past that, but there's two little options that have to go back and forth. You have to be able to pick one of them, And it's not about like a choose-your-own-adventure, and we're fine with that. Although when you go down choose-your-own-adventure, you're really starting to get heavily into games. I love games, and one of the things I said before was that narrative in VR has as much or more in common with modern video game development than it does with cinematic filmmaking. You know, I really feel like the tools, the vocabulary, you'd look at things like Modern Warfare, had over two hours of cinematics. You know, two hours of interactive characters acting for you. It's not VR, but I mean, if you put a VR camera in that, okay, is that a two and a half hour narrative? You know, and how different is that from a lot of the work and things we see out there? So we think that's where there's this interesting, you know, kind of fuzzy line.
[00:07:06.357] Kent Bye: Yeah, in my conversation with Devin Dolan, we kind of explored the different models that he had in terms of looking at the different types of story in VR. And I think one of the things, the other dimension, whether you're a ghost or character, is that whether or not you have impact or no impact. And I think that One distinction that I use is whether or not you have local agency or global agency. So, global agency would be that your actions that you're doing could yield some sort of completely different outcome, or they are of some sort of consequence, rather than what that sort of decision that you talked about is a little bit of a local agency, where it's kind of flavoring the experience that you have, but it's not necessarily sending it down a completely different path.
[00:07:44.770] Brad Herman: You know, I would think, for me, global agency really starts to fall into being a video game. Nothing wrong with that. That's great. There's absolutely amazing, tremendous VR video games being done. But I think that the amount of work required if you're going to achieve global agency for any kind of lengthy experience is the amount of work required to build a video game, which is different from trying to build a short or even medium length VR narrative. You know, you look at content cost and content creation time. that's involved in these things. You know, you look at what it costs and takes the time it takes for, like, feature animation, where films, you know, range from $75 to $150 million to make, and there's no agency, there's no choices, it's not a choose-your-own-adventure, there's not, like, the audience can make this choice. You know, if you're trying to achieve that level of fidelity and that level of someone's vision, it's very difficult to do that and have global agency. Sort of. In Hollywood, it is. Outside of Hollywood, we call those games, and you basically have like Arkham Knight. Because, I mean, Arkham Knight is all about global agency. And, you know, the Arkham game's amazing voice acting, absolutely amazing character performances, amazing character animation, and just fun. And I think the first two ones, Paul Dini wrote them. You know, one of the most, like, famous Batman, you know, writers, Batman The Animated Series. that's a global agency interactive experience and story. And the local agency is you happen to be Batman and have to beat people up, but you're playing out this big, larger grand scheme of a story. So for me, like it doesn't have to be one or the other, but if you're saying you're doing one, but you're actually building the other thing that I think you might be doing yourself a disservice.
[00:09:21.402] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think there is a tension there where, like I said, the one that's more focusing on sense of presence may be something that's more geared towards that interactive. But I guess, you know, that's a challenge that I see is that, you know, doing all the things that trying to cultivate that presence, you start to get into like the two illusions, according to Mel Slater, are the place illusion and the plausibility illusion. So the place illusion is fairly straightforward in terms of putting someone into the place and making them believe that they're in another world. But yet the plausibility illusion, you start to get into this kind of like, you have to have fast feedback loop cycles of your agency having some sort of impact so that you really believe that if you're moving around, then the character's looking at you. Or if you do have any sort of dialogue exchange that it feels believable. And so, you know, to me, some of the best examples of something that I would call an interactive drama, rather than a game, would be Facade. And I did an interview with the director of that, Andrew Stern, on AI and the future of interactive fiction. But that starts to get into a little bit of like creating a script that has emotional beats that have, you know, maybe 2000 different dialogue pairs. And when you go through an experience for 15 minutes, you may only see 20% of that. And so it's more about creating a short experience with a lot of highly dynamic interactions with it. But it sounds like that you are kind of not as interested in going down that route and more of like focusing on the extent of which you can go down telling a passive story.
[00:10:47.163] Brad Herman: So I think part of it comes to my personal preference of what kind of content I like, but also I like trying everybody's stuff. I like that people are exploring all of these things. You know, Telltale Games, they do absolutely amazing, very dense experiences where your choices have a lot of effect. They do a lot of dialogue branching. They have every small section of their games has a tremendous amount of choice involved and a tremendous amount of variation. I think those things are great. I think those games are great. But for me, I guess the fundamental way to think about this from my perspective is whether or not it's my vision that I'm trying to express to you, which is kind of a filmmaking perspective, which is the cinematographer, the director, this is what we're trying to get you to experience versus the other perspective, which is I'm putting you in a place. I'm being more casual about how I want you to get somewhere emotionally, right? And in a film, there's very specific language for, okay, how I'm gonna make you cry, right? Like, I'm gonna set this up, I'm gonna put the mom there in tears, something happened to her child, and it's very sad, right? Like, it's very clear. In VR, where people have so much more agency, they have so much more ability to look around, to walk around, to interact with things, it is tougher to achieve those things. It's really like you can't say that, oh, by minute three in a beat board, this person's gonna be feeling this, because that might be minute 27 for some people. So that's kind of my perspective on that. I don't think one is better than the other. I think they're just actually almost different genres, right? Like at the end of the day, they're actually a same medium, but just like we have genres of movie and genres of games, I think there's going to emerge to be these genres of VR storytelling. and I guess you could consider jump scare a genre. Not my favorite genre, but I guess it's a genre. I'm okay with horror movies, but horror VR, no. Like The Sisters, I lasted like three minutes. Like it was a dark, rainy night in LA when I was going through it, and I'm on a Vive, and I'm like, no, I'm done. But the thing is, like, I don't get scared at like a horror movie in three minutes, even in a, like, and great, there's occasional books and things that do a good job, but it usually takes more than that amount of time for me to go, nope, done. You know and presence agency and scared like for me.
[00:12:57.253] Kent Bye: That's a huge success So just to kind of focus in on one phrase that you said a beat chart What is a beat chart and how's that feed into storytelling?
[00:13:07.110] Brad Herman: So it's very common to take nearly every aspect of storytelling, from visual color to emotional beats, and put them on a timeline when you're making a linear narrative. Now, this is something that is very difficult to apply to virtual reality, but is incredibly common in cinema. Now, at least in terms of the linear nature of it when it comes to filmmaking. And it actually, in my understanding, tends to work very differently in games. Like, they have, like, this scene is supposed to evoke this emotion or, you know, this mechanic and these things. But in a film, it's very common to have, like, the hero's journey. And at this point, it's all very, like, programmatic at this point. At this high point in the story, we want the audience to be feeling this. And then at this low point, the audience should be feeling this. And, you know, you do things like what colors are on screen at the low. You have a lot of blue. There's all these, like, very simple things that run for forever, and they're all about, like, driving people to this emotional goal at that point, so that, like, the redemption at the end of the movie is worth it. So, like, you feel like you went on a journey, right? When you're dealing with things that are branching, When you're dealing with things that the games industry has had to deal with for a very long time, they have different techniques and different methods for dealing with some of those things, but also they have an entire wheelhouse of what they've learned over the years for how do we get people to look over to the left? How do we convince the player to go over there? And some of them are, you know, like simple things like invisible walls, which are pretty hard, but like it really forces the point. And others are subtle, like lighting effects. Like, oh, it's going to be darker over here and brighter over there. Or there's health boxes here, and we have a bunch of crates stacked up, so you don't go that way. That language has been established for that, and I think there's a lot to learn and a lot of that to pull over into these VR immersive narratives.
[00:14:50.040] Kent Bye: Well, how do you describe the difference between film and VR?
[00:14:53.495] Brad Herman: It's easier to describe the difference between things like VR and mixed reality. The difference between film and VR. So, film at its core is fundamentally people experiencing someone else's specific vision of something. Now, this can apply to someone shooting a video on their phone, or this can apply to a Hollywood blockbuster. That's someone else's vision of exactly what they want you to see. And everyone who's experiencing it sees the exact same thing. Except for director cuts. Or if they come back a lot later and do a special edition. But other than that, everyone who's seen it saw the same thing, and whether or not you were emotionally connected to it the same way as someone else, well, they have no control over that. They have no control over if you got up and went to the bathroom, or did something else, or if you were also on your phone while the movie was playing. But you see a rectangle, and that's what you saw. That's film, that's TV, and then you start to think, I'm gonna put one more thing in the middle, which is stage plays and Broadway. Everyone doesn't quite see the same thing, right? So suddenly you've got people in a several thousand seat auditorium. Everyone's seeing it from their own perspective a little bit. There starts to be some shifts, right? Like, okay, their vantage point is different. So the blocking and staging all have to be arranged so that if you're in the cheap seats, you get a decent view, hopefully. And if you're in the orchestra, you get a good view. But then add to the fact that, well, actually, every performance is at least a little bit different. They're not robots. These are people. Sometimes there's actor substitutions. Sometimes someone just picks a different word. So actually, every Broadway performance, every play, is actually a singular, unique piece that's been done once. It's one of the reasons people go and actually pay to go see it, what they do. It's why it's, amongst many reasons, far more expensive than a movie, is because there's real people up there doing something unique one time, okay? When you go to video games, that's when you get to the fact that, well, yes, you can have heat maps and people saw similar things, but fundamentally, every person who plays that game is gonna have at least a slightly different experience because they're using the controllers different, they have different motivations, they're different people. Yes, they will have similar experiences, and yes, you do a lot of hard work to make sure that they find the goal, but you're always going to have edge cases of people that go the wrong way or do the very wrong thing, right? But because players in games have agency, at least when something is a game, they make choices. And those choices can be subtle. They can often pause, save, walk away, come back weeks later and have had different life experiences when they come back to it. And that's where I feel like when you think about what people experience in VR, even something as simple as a 360 video, no two viewings are really quite the same, right? Like no person's head is moving exactly the same way. Kind of like Broadway, these things, like everyone's vantage point's a little different, what they choose to look at. Yes, you may have like an 80 percentile that looks at the right thing, but it's slightly different. Also, when you talk about things like VR, you're strapped in. You're committed. It's a much bigger buy-in whenever you are putting on a headset and going in and staying in something. So you already have them committed to a certain point. They're already much more invested. They're invested to the level, I would say, of people going to a Broadway show. more than they are invested even in a traditional video game or certainly far more than a mobile game. I would say people are invested as much or probably more than television and they're invested differently than seeing a film in the theater. So it's kind of like going to see a film in the theater that's certainly an investment of like time and money but not as much we watch a film on tv right like you're flipping through channels but When we talk about the commitment of time, when we talk about people being excited about VR, about wanting to experience things, the responsibility of the creator is to respect the fact that they have taken the time to put this on. They are in there and you have fundamentally lost control of what they're about to do next. You know, unless you lock the camera and unless you drag them around the VR world, which we all know those are like two of the worst things that you can do to people in VR. So that's where I look at the difference between games and film. And yes, there's many other things we could talk about, like, oh, games are interactive, and you have agency, and all these things. But those are some of the big, my personal views on that.
[00:19:07.296] Kent Bye: Well, in terms of storytelling, what do you see that the mixed reality is adding that's different than VR?
[00:19:13.383] Brad Herman: So I'm going to attribute this quote to Clay Braver from Google said this, which is VR is the power to take you anywhere. And then augmented and mixed reality is the power to bring anything to you. And when we talk about things like mixed reality, that's about stories in your world. That's about content and stuff that's in your world that's happening around you. The practical upshot of that, by the way, is from a purely technical and what-you're-doing kind of level, you only need to add content. Like, the world already exists. And the thing about in VR, like, some of the hardest stuff to create and deal with is the fact that, like, they can look everywhere. But with mixed reality, it's like, oh, I just need a character. Or just need these two or three characters and these props. And that's all I have to worry about. You have to worry about what size the room is and all these other problems. But it's incredibly clever and cool to see what happens when you bring digital characters into the real world and let them interact with people. I think we'll see some amazing things as AI starts to move down the road with some of these things. But right now, like even scripted interactions based on traditional game mechanics, and just having people play with characters and having them respond to you, and just even the concept of seeing these like foreign things in your world. One of my favorite visions for where we're headed with all this stuff is actually a promotional video. So the Niantic Labs guys, same people that make Ingress, have Pokemon Go coming out soon. And Pokemon Go's promotional video is brilliant. It's beautiful. And it shows this mixed reality world in which people are battling and basically playing Pokemon with full-size characters out in the world. There's parents and kids running around in fields playing together and trying to capture a giant Charizard and people coming together and running through Times Square and fighting Mewtwo. And that. Like, the ability to have your head up and be in the real world and interacting with story and character and being able to turn the whole world into your playground is very exciting for me.
[00:21:10.536] Kent Bye: And so, leading on to that, what is your new company, Spaces, doing with all this realm then?
[00:21:16.739] Brad Herman: So Spaces is really focused around working with brand partners to help them achieve those goals. It's really to help them bring their content into the virtual and mixed reality world. You know, coming from a big Hollywood studio background, we've had a lot of time to think about these things. We understand you know, the pains of dealing with this stuff like as when it was R.I.P. So we're able to work with these partners to help bring their characters. So we worked with companies like Big Blue Bubble to bring My Singing Monsters into VR and mixed reality. And it's a really compelling experience. You know, this is a really well-selling, really fun mobile game. It's a game that my kids play, it's a game that my co-founder Shiraz's kids play, it's a great game. And seeing the reactions from the kids in VR of those characters at scale, those characters playing and singing, it's powerful, right? And we're still a ways away from when it might make sense for a casual mobile game to do a full VR port of what they're doing. But for right now, it does make sense for them to be doing something in VR because one, VR is hot, it's cool, but also it gives them a new way to interact and connect with their fans. You know, when we were able to bring their characters into the Microsoft HoloLens, we suddenly allowed the My Singing Monsters to actually roam around and play in the real world. and through the HoloLens we're able to create some really cool videos showing what it's like. And much like that Pokemon Go video I talked about, the only difference is is that we're actually able to do that in real time and we can do things on the fly and actually walk around and do it instead of spending a whole lot of time on the back end doing it through visual effects.
[00:22:53.298] Kent Bye: So I had a chance to do the HoloLens demo. There was a narrative experience from Microsoft Studios where I was kind of walking around the room and, you know, the thing that was really striking to me was that I was able to kind of roam around, had positional tracking. It was great to have an untethered experience. But at the same time, I was really starting to question, like, what is really me being physically present adding to the experience rather than me kind of having a stationary mobile VR experience of the same story?
[00:23:22.258] Brad Herman: So for me, I will use the example of one of the things that we did over Passover was at my house, we actually like hid the Afikoman in a HoloLens. Not in the HoloLens itself, but we actually used the HoloLens to hide holographic matzah around the house. So my oldest son, he put the HoloLens on and then ran around the house to see how fast he could find and zap the matzah that we placed around the house. And he had to go find it. And because we have Real tracking of a real space. We have occlusion. We have all these things He actually had to go play hide-and-seek in our house to go find something and it worked Like one of the most important things the end of the day is is that it worked and granted we've had time to develop on these things we have tools and work with Microsoft but The fact that, you know, I could use our systems to build that out for him and do that, like, it really shows me these amazing possibilities of that's why it's fundamentally better for me. Things like the Vive, I'm a huge fan of. I'm a fan of VR. I love VR. We're going to keep making great stuff in VR. When it comes to mixed reality is suddenly you're not at room scale, you're at, like, world scale, you're at convention center scale, and you can just walk around and you can do things that are more on the scale of, like I said, games like Ingress, right? where there is this amazing element of you actually have to be active. You have to go hunt and find these things, like games that hide things behind a couch, right? Suddenly, the real world and your agency in the real world matter, and you're not tripping over stuff, which is good, too.
[00:24:48.168] Kent Bye: So I think you know two years ago. I think that's when we first met I was just starting into doing the podcast and you know you were at that time still at DreamWorks And I think I've probably run into at least a half a dozen other times where you're not able to speak to me So it's been two years since we've been kind of crossing paths It's been great to finally have a chance to talk to you But I was wondering like as we're standing here now in this moment in time looking back towards you know what? has been essentially this consumer virtual reality revolution. What do you kind of make of the story that's unfolding right now?
[00:25:20.057] Brad Herman: So I think it's an amazing time to be alive. I guess that's the simple answer, right? I'm proud of what we as a community, meaning the people that are here at SVVR, the people that go to like Austin VR, VRLA, you know, the community on the East Coast, everyone who's ever attended a VR event, every backer of Oculus on Kickstarter, what we as this community have done. Like, that's the thing that amazes me, that warms my heart, that makes me so happy and excited about where we're going, is we're right now finally at a point where there's a lot of consumer hardware shipping. You know, not one, not two, but there's three different pieces of mainstream consumer VR hardware shipping. There's even more coming, you know, this holiday season. It's amazing. You know, I know, like, Ready Player One gets referenced a lot. I'm a little bit older. I reference Snow Crash a little bit more. Certainly love Ready Player One, too. But since I was a little kid, I wanted the stuff in Snow Crash to be real. And I've been lucky enough to live in an era where a lot of the stuff actually has come true. You know, like Keyhole Software made their 3D Globe thing because they read about it in the book. and then Google bought them and renamed it Earth, like it was called in the book because that's what it's supposed to be called. It's Earth, right? D3O made basically Splintergel. Like there's all these companies that have actually made the stuff from that book and to be alive and in the industry and working hard so that the metaverse, the literal metaverse, can actually come to fruition to where, you know, the concept of these gargoyle rigs and, you know, like whether that is people wearing Gear VRs. I mean, like that's a thing you can do now. Like the ODG glasses are doing some really cool stuff. They've done some really neat things that are that overlaid view. What HoloLens is doing. There's so many cool companies out there doing great stuff. And it's all towards this collective vision that I'm excited about. And there's nowhere else I would rather be. That's the core thing of this. I've spent the last three years doing nothing but working at this. And I look forward to spending all of my next years continuing it.
[00:27:26.829] Kent Bye: Well, what's some of your favorite memories or stories of being in virtual reality?
[00:27:31.291] Brad Herman: So we'll start with some of the recent ones. I'm currently down 50 pounds, thanks to RoomScaleVR, and Apple Watch, and exercise, and other things, and Just Dance as well. But hoverjunkers and a combination of two things that got me to start losing weight. I was looking at my own demo videos. I was shooting video of us doing stuff in VR, because we were making some promo videos for some of the DreamWorks stuff. And I saw myself in VR, and I'm like, that's not a flattering angle. And then it was the same time that we got an early beta key for Hover Junkers. And I started playing that, and like, first of all, playing against the devs on that game is no fair. But I got out of that a dripping mess, and I'm like, okay, I need to be in better shape to compete in this game. And I'm like, you know, that vision of people being like overweight in a corner, like in VR, is drawn by cartoonists who generally probably haven't tried fully active modern VR, right? Like, because that stuff you move, you move a lot. And I love that. The first time I did Aperture Robot Repair. Blew my mind. It's still actually one of my favorite storytelling pieces in all of VR is Aperture Robot Repair. The writing, the narrative, and what I love about that piece actually is even if you're not a fan of that world, even if you don't know any of the backstory of the stuff about it, it plays. It plays incredibly well. The comedy plays. If you're already a fan of that world, it plays 10 times better. In VR, other things I would say, the first time I did the Oculus Touch demo. You know, the first time I did Toy Box at their offices. The level of hand presence, right? You get it, but until you're sitting there with me and Aaron Davies and flipping the lighter and just playing with those things, it blew my mind. I'm like, okay, every time there's these great advancements of things. The first time when they showed off the Crescent Bay demos, the edge and you look over and you get positional tracking for the first time. Actually, the first time I tried what would eventually become the Gear VR, which is a very long time ago, when I tried the thing that much later would become the Gear VR and really saw the potential of combining that level of low latency with mobile and untethered and saw the potential of that. was mind-blowing. One of the earliest VR experiences I ever had, we're gonna go way back here by the way, Carnegie Mellon in, I wanna say SIGGRAPH, it's like 1996 or 1997. They had done some world building stuff, they had a demo at SIGGRAPH, which was a Spider-Man thing. And this was like, almost like, looked like VRML, like this is very blocky, very early stuff here. But they had haptic gloves. And you put on the haptic gloves, you put on the very heavy headset that was counterbalanced on like a wire and weighted system so that, you know, because the thing just weighed more than your neck could support. And you put on these gloves that actually had motion tracking. This was a long time ago. But you were Spider-Man. And you look at your hands, and you actually had web shooters. And you actually had real clickable web shooters in your palms. And if you made the Spider-Man pose with your hand and clicked it, webs shot out of your wrists, out of the shooters, and that's how you navigated. You actually navigated by shooting webs between these basically rectangles representing buildings in New York. And you swung from building to building. And I saw that, and I, like, that was actually the moment when I knew VR was where it was all going. There was a very long time between that moment of true presence and, oh my God, and I love this and I can't wait for this to be real, between that and the first time I got to try an early DK1. It was a very long time. And I had the fortune and I worked hard and I was in the visual effects industry and worked on art and games and making cool stuff, but it was never quite like the VR experience, never quite like the Spider-Man thing. I always went back to that. You know, one of the earlier things that I had a chance to do in a DK-1, of all things, was actually with Jan, with the pseudo-treadmill, you know, with the curved base, with the Omni. And he had it hooked up to, I want to say, Half-Life. And basically I'm standing there with the big giant gun controller, DK-1 on my head, I'm in a suite, and looking all around and playing with this thing, and I'm in there, and it tells you to go forward to run. You have the special shoes on and you run. Like, okay, I'm moving forward, this is all kind of crazy, and I'm in this giant get-up, like in this harness and this thing, but you run and you move forward. And I'm like, okay, this is cool, and it was a headlocked controller, but you can shoot at things. I get to a point near a fence where somebody throws a grenade at me. And the grenade comes, and I look down, and I see the grenade at my feet. And I instinctively turn around, and I run. I run as fast as I can. I didn't think. I just ran. And I got, you know, maybe six, seven paces. The grenade exploded, and you hear the beep, beep, beep. It's a very classic noise, and the screen's red, and I'm dead. But the absolute moment where I just realized that a digital character just threw a grenade at me, I followed it with my eyes and looked down, and then I ran away and got blown up by it, I'm like, oh my God, this really works. Like, yeah, it was early. Yeah, screen door effect and DK1 resolution, like all those things. All those things did not matter. The amount of presence I had from that moment, What I love about this, and what I love is that you can still have those moments, not just because there's great new content being made, great new experiences, great new games being done all the time, amazing stuff that we're seeing come out of so many different amazing parts of the world, but because, frankly, 99.9% of this world hasn't ever tried any of these things. But I'm excited to see what happens when they do.
[00:33:22.328] Kent Bye: And so how did you get involved in the modern renaissance of virtual reality then?
[00:33:28.338] Brad Herman: So my story began over three years ago. I was on the filmmaking side at DreamWorks Animation, really focused on actually bringing AI to crowd animation. I was the head of crowds on a couple of our films like Kung Fu Panda 2, you know, doing procedural animation systems, doing fuzzy logic, you know, node network AIs, trying to like animate giant groups of people and animals, talking animals. And I really felt like we were on this interesting cusp of something going to happen. I wasn't sure what it was going to be, but I really felt like looking at mobile, looking at gaming, looking at entertainment, that there were just bigger opportunities out there than what I was currently working on. So at the time I was trying to decide between leaving and starting a startup and chasing those things. or do something internal. So I sat down with Lincoln Mullen, the CTO of DreamWorks, and proposed to him the idea of DreamLab, of a group of people focused on mobile immersive and interactive technology and storytelling. A combination of production tools, of content, of just kind of very forward-looking, like where are the digital touch points for the company going to be five years from now? And my goal was simple, to either make as much money as we were costing or to save as much money as we were costing inside that first year so we could continue. That was the overall goal. A few months in, we were talking to some people, like Mark Bolas over at USC, you know, we got a chance to see FOV2Go, you know, like, is this VR thing going to come back? You've got these cool labs, you've got, you know, like the six-shooter experience, they've got all these really great, really fun things over there. Paul Debevec's been over there doing just amazing stuff for a very long time. And, you know, we're like, oh yeah, VR, there's definitely going to be stuff coming, the Kickstarter, keep an eye out, stuff's going to happen. Okay, we'll keep an eye out. Kickstarter happens, Oculus happens. And, you know, we happen to know some people there early on, we were able to have some meetings down there, we got some, you know, very early headsets, got like, brought up to us in a brown paper bag from Irvine. Still have some of those, like, cables and screws on them and stuff, and they're cool. And, yeah. We're off to the races. We're like, okay, I think we're gonna focus on this now So the mobile stuff is fun and it was very, you know, not mobile VR, but just like mobile games But you know, we're looking at like how could we do storytelling on mobile and maybe do something different with that? but we certainly saw the potential in VR and then we gave people at DreamWorks demos and we started making stuff and started pulling from the massive library of like content experiences and the talent pool of DreamWorks to You know start our journey of making stuff
[00:35:57.935] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you see as the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?
[00:36:04.945] Brad Herman: Well, that's a broad question, isn't it? So, I think the ultimate potential of these things, in general, is actually going to be at the point where VR and mixed reality and AR, all these things fused into just one thing. I mean, in the end of the day, if you have an experience that's 99% opaque, but 1% transparent, is that a mixed reality experience? Or is that VR? But it's 1%, so does that change a contract definition? For me, you know, we will get to the point of magic glasses, right? We will have whether they be light field displays We will have something that is as small and as light of the glasses that you and I are both wearing right now We're wearing separate pairs of glasses, but we're both wearing glasses So once we're at that point once we can seamlessly integrate digital content in our world or take ourselves anywhere that's when we have unlocked the true potential of VR and that's when it fundamentally changes kind of every industry, kind of everybody's lives. And it's gonna take a long time before this reaches everybody in the world, right? Like it'll reach a select few first and it'll expand out from there. But I think it has the potential to expand a lot faster than people, well, people are starting to believe it's gonna expand pretty fast, I guess. But for me, I think there's a lot of empathy. I think there's a lot of really positive things that can come from people seeing a VR experience. There were a couple of beautiful shorts around Syria. You know, ones the Emblematic group did and ones like Chris Milk's group did. And those changed people I know's views on Syria. Like, it doesn't matter how long they've been seeing stuff on CNN, one real-time walk around and one 360 video later, and suddenly they have a different worldview. That's the power of this stuff. And, you know, when it comes to entertainment, fundamentally people want to have fun and they want to be entertained. They have since the beginning of their being people. So, I think it's going to mean a whole new era of amazing gaming and amazing things and ones that are actually as social, if not even more social. You know, like role-playing games and LARPing and all of these things will all be just rolled into how people live their lives and the ability for people to have self-expression. Like, you know, the holographic costumes that people might be wearing someday, whether they're wearing them inside of a VR world or wearing them out in the real world and you're seeing them through special glasses. You know, I think that amount of self-expression, that amount of empathy, I think it has the potential to bring a much brighter future to the world.
[00:38:41.154] Kent Bye: Awesome. Anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say?
[00:38:44.465] Brad Herman: Well, I'd like to say it's an honor to actually be on the podcast, having been a listener for a very long time. And I want to thank you, actually, that's what I want to take a moment to do. I want to thank you for the place that you have been in this community, for the hard work that you have done for bringing this podcast to life, for the sheer labor of love this has been. And I want to encourage people to support you on Patreon.
[00:39:08.655] Kent Bye: Awesome. Thank you so much, Brad. You're welcome. And so that was Brad Herman, one of the co-founders of Spaces, a VR and mixed reality company. And so a number of different takeaways from this interview is that, first of all, I think that the point that Brad made about the level of commitment that VR takes in order to go into an experience is really quite interesting, and it really made me realize that Before you dive in and watch a VR experience, you really kind of have to drop and let go of everything else and really commit to the experience, which is something that's a lot different than a lot of other media, which with our attention split amongst many different distractions out there, I think is pretty unique as a medium. And also from the perspective of the user, it takes a lot of intention and commitment to be able to even begin a VR experience in that way. Also, I think that it's really interesting to hear Brad's distinctions when he talks about interactivity and agency and the line between when something becomes a video game and when something becomes more of a narrative experience. And I kind of think about it in a couple of ways is that, first of all, I've talked a little bit about how I see that there's four different types of presence with active presence and social presence, emotional presence, and embodied presence. And to me there's a pretty distinct differentiation when you talk about active presence and emotional presence because it feels like video games are leaning much closer towards that active presence where it's more about exerting your agency and will whereas the emotional presence is like Brad said it's something where he's able to express a vision but he's having a lot more specific intention with where you're going at emotionally and it feels like The sense of emotional presence is something that storytellers are a lot more concerned about when telling a story in a narrative rather than the active presence, which is more about you kind of exerting your will into an experience and having something that's highly dynamic. And so in listening to this, I was really starting to see that tension between the active presence and the emotional presence. Also, I really like the distinction between mixed reality and virtual reality from Claiborne saying that virtual reality is more about taking you to another world, whereas mixed reality is more about bringing this world to you in your own environment and interacting with it. that narrative experience from Microsoft was called The Fragments. And I think it did a really good job of trying to bring in these characters into your own space. And I could start to see how you could perhaps start to weave narratives throughout your entire space. And it just kind of does something different to your brain when you're going beyond room scale and something that could be as large as your entire house when you're on this untethered augmented reality headset like the HoloLens. So it sounds like Brad's going to be potentially creating some specific tools or experiences that are focusing on this mixed reality storytelling that is a little bit different than what you can do within just a VR experience alone. And so I think it's also a really interesting question to think about, how do you still fit a story assuming that a user may be completely non-compliant with your requests for different levels of interactivity? So if you do have small actions that you'd like the user to take, what happens when they don't take that? And is it going to be something that you're not going to be able to push forward your plot, whether or not they do the action or not? Dealing with non-compliant users, I think, is something that storytellers in VR are going to have to account for if they're going to try to include any type of active presence elements within their story. So those are some of my thoughts that I'm taking away from this interview. And just to kind of wrap things up, I really do appreciate Brad's call for Patreon contributors. Yeah, the Voices of VR is something that has been a labor of passion over the last couple of years for me, and I really do need your support, so please consider becoming a contributor to my Patreon at patreon.com slash Voices of VR.