#1186: Chinese Ecosystem for Immersive Stories, VAST Platform, & Neo-Wulin Immersive Music Experience

I had a chance to catch up with Eddie Lou, who is the Founder of Sandman Studios and Director of Sandbox Immersive Festival that’s based in China. I get an update as to what’s happening with the Chinese ecosystem for immersive stories, how he’s bring Western stories to China within a location-based entertainment context, his plans for bringing back the Sandbox Immersive Festival as a physical exhibition with international presence, their work on a social VR platform based on Unreal Engine called Vast (which was used on Mandala that premiered at Venice 2022), and their work on bringing Chinese musical acts into immersive spaces with the browser-based, pixel-streaming experience called Neo-Wulin: The Era of Black Ark that was showing as a special exhibition at SXSW.

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Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. It's a podcast that looks at the future of spatial computing and the structures and forms of immersive storytelling. You can support the podcast at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. So continuing on my 24-episode series of South by Southwest, today's episode is with Eddie Lo, who is the founder of Sandman Studios as well as the director of Sandbox Immersive Festival based out of China. So Eddie has been working on bringing a lot of these different immersive stories into the Chinese ecosystem and created this Sandbox Immersive Festival, which I had a chance to attend back in 2018. They had a piece that was called Neo Wulin, the Era of Black Arc, which was more of a browser-based experience where you can go and have essentially like a journey as you listen to this folk artist based out of China. And they're also creating this social VR platform called VAST, which is what some of the different aspects of South by Southwest was based upon last year. They had a piece that was at Venice on the VAST platform called Mandala. And I had a chance to talk to Thomas Villapax about that piece, trying to create these immersive theater experiences in the context of these virtual spaces. And so most of the stuff has been based upon Unity and they're using Unreal Engine to have a little bit higher fidelity types of experiences in a social context. So we're covering about all the different aspects of what's happening in the Chinese ecosystem and all the different stuff that Eddie is doing in order to bring immersive storytelling into these location-based experiences in the context of China. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Wastes of VR podcast. So this interview with Eddie happened on Saturday, March 11th, 2023. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:48.716] Eddie Lou: Hi, I'm Eddie Lo. I'm the founder of Sandman Studio as well as director of Sandbox Immersive Festival. We've been working in the VR industry since 2016. It's been some time already. And we started as a content producing studio. We've been producing a number of work, original pieces, and three of them got selected by Venice in the past. And apart from producing original storytelling experiences, we also do content distribution in China because we are a company based out of Beijing. So we also introduce top-tier immersive experiences to China at four locations as well as to be published on platforms like Pico and also YVR, Pimax, these companies. and also since 2018 we've been working on a virtual media festival called Sandbox Immersive and we've been running that for four editions already but it was you know quite challenging to do a festival during COVID so the last two editions has been mainly for domestic community and we are preparing the new edition which is going to be later this year which is going to be the fifth edition of the festival And for the festival we're trying to create a platform and also a bridge to bring people together from the West and the East. And also to get people to know a little bit more about the Asian market, especially China market, and how people will be able to work with China basically. And there's a final thing we've been working on, which is an Unreal-based virtual world platform called VAST. We've been working on that for a little while. As soon as we started working on the platform, and then we did realize it's a huge amount of work to do, because we wanted to provide a platform to allow any Unreal-based virtual worlds to be interoperable, to allow any virtual avatars to be visited in a seamless way. So it's a little bit like VRChat, but with Unreal Engine. And we've still been working on it, and it was going to have a closed community beta by the end of the year. And yeah, and this is what we do, basically.

[00:03:48.612] Kent Bye: Yeah, maybe you could give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into the space of what you're doing now.

[00:03:54.357] Eddie Lou: Right, yeah. Because I studied computer science and then also art management, so I have a little bit of background in both tech as well as art. So virtual reality naturally draws my attention, you know, since I was in college actually. So by the time when Oculus released this DK2 and then I just thought that oh the technology now becomes public available and come out of lab and it will be really exciting to work in this field. So I started to you know I think back in 2014 I started to learn More about, you know, VR and I come to States for SVVR conferences and meetups and trying to understand what is happening in the field and then in 2016, yeah, towards the end of 2016, I just realized that I can no longer just stay on the coast and just to observe, I actually wanted to come into the field and actually do something. So I started my own company which is called Sandman Studios and initially we are really inspired by projects like D'angelica, Henry and Lost by Oculus Story Studios and we thought that, you know, we can create something completely new as a brand new storytelling medium. And then we basically started the journey. And it was a very interesting ride in the last seven years. We've learned a lot and we've changed a lot. And although, you know, I think the industry was still in a very early phase of early stage, but I think what we've learned in the past few years are very precious to us. And we wanted to dedicate our next 10 years in the VR industry.

[00:05:33.130] Kent Bye: Yeah, I know that during COVID, there's been a lot of different festivals that were turning to different online platforms. There was the Museum of Other Realities, and then there was certain aspects in VRChat, more for the social components, more than jumping into actual experiences. But last year at South by Southwest, you had the VaST platform that was a part of the virtual component of the physical component of South by Southwest. And so, yeah, I'd love to have you talk a bit about, was that the first time that you launched out the VaST platform last year at South by and some of the other experiences that you've been able to have within the context of that platform?

[00:06:05.096] Eddie Lou: Yeah, so we last, because you know, COVID, everybody's like very, how should I say, you know, there's such a painful experience for people to travel. And all the festivals are considering to have a virtual component. Although I mean, right now, I think festival organizers may have a little bit of different kind of idea. But two years ago, starting from 2021, I think a lot of festival organizers wanted to have this online showcase of sorts. So I've been discussing with Blake to see whether we can provide a way for people to access those experiences remotely. But it's such a technical challenge because, you know, you know, the runtime for every computer, for every, you know, devices are very different so it will be very hard to make it compatible to anyone. But it was a very interesting test and basically it's a pilot test for both of us to see whether we can have an equivalent online showcase of VR experiences just like the exhibitions over here. For now, I think for both me and Blake, we think that just to replicate the on-site exhibition in a virtual world online would not make that much of sense. But rather, I think we should use the online technology or virtual technology to do something that cannot be done. in the physical festival. Because at the very beginning everybody just wanted to bring something physically to the virtual world, but now I think we have to think and design something that is completely native to virtual environment. And I think that will make the virtual experiences outshine from the physical ones.

[00:07:39.147] Kent Bye: Yeah, and you had a piece that was at Venice that was using VaST platform that I was able to see and talk to Thomas Villeneuve. And then you also had a piece that's using Unreal, but maybe you could talk about the other experiences that you've been able to have on VaST.

[00:07:53.820] Eddie Lou: Yeah, because, you know, I think we've been trying to, right now still, experimenting on how we can leverage an online network infrastructure to support different kinds of projects, including whether it's going to be a concert, performances, or just an art exhibition. And we're still experimenting with that philosophy right now. But we're trying to figure out what would be the best way, technology-wise, to support different kinds of virtual world-based experiences. And for the shows that we had in Venice last year, which is called Mandala, A Brief Moment in Time, that project was actually developed earlier, back in 2019, because the first version was actually completely location-based. That was showcased in the second edition of Sandbox Mercer Festival. and we thought that would be interesting to print it completely online that allows any guest or audience to join from any part of the world but also to allow the performer to be connecting with the virtual world from any part of the world too. So the audience was in Venice and the actor was in Paris. So we've been using our network technology that we developed for VAST to support that. And that was only one test that we've been done. And also the project that we have this year at South Byte, which is Neo-Wuling, and that was another test we've been doing. Because we do know that all different kinds of experiences have very different and complex technology in behind. So we wanted to do different kinds of tests and then we can make a modular SDK in order to support all different kinds of projects. Because in the end, you know, for the goal of VaST is that we, if you're an Unreal developer, because we cannot make Unreal and Unity interoperable at this moment. But for Unreal developers, if you wanted to create any kind of experiences, whether it's a social game or a performance or exhibition, if you can use the SDK, then upload your work, and then it will become fully functional at VR side as well as flat screen side. and then we can take care of the very complex network configurations for the developers. Because I think a lot of creators, they have very brilliant ideas and they can develop wonderful experiences, but they don't really have the knowledge or expertise to fully develop a functional network to support multi-person experiences. So this is the goal of us. We wanted to develop that system to support that.

[00:10:16.077] Kent Bye: Yeah, I had a chance to see the virtual concert this morning on my phone and so I was in my hotel and able to log in and use, I guess it was on the back end, like a pixel streaming technology where you have this highly rendered immersive space but I'm able to have access to it and then go through these different chapters of walking through these different spaces and then go into the next chapter and then at the last chapters was this concert with other people that were there, that were live. I think a lot of them were speaking Chinese or other stuff. I didn't have a chance to actually talk to anybody because there was no one that was speaking English, but I was able to kind of like go through, I guess, this journey of mixing this idea of a concert with a world hop or going through these different spaces and worlds. So I'd love to hear a little bit more about this project that you're showing here at South By and how that project came about.

[00:11:05.166] Eddie Lou: Yeah, so the new Wuling project is a creation by one of my artist friends, and he is an artist as well as a musician. So he's been working with a very well-known, I think it's a folk music artist, to create this multi-chapter concert experience, and initially designed for flat screen. But we just thought, because when we were talking about this project, we thought that it would be wonderful to have an embodied perspective on the entire show. So we started to work with them in the middle of their production and then started to create a VR version from it. And also we've been using the network structure of VAS to make it work on both flat screen and VR. And the people in the VR and also in the flat screen will be able to see each other in the same virtual space. But it was only one of the very few projects in China that's been really producing performance type of experiences, because there are so many performance-based experiences in VRChat, and most of them are either from Europe or from the US, but there are very, very few people working in this area in China. So we were trying to help artists and musicians to be able to bring their experiences as virtual world-based experiences, and then it will be able to allow more people to see that. I think the level of access is very important. So that was only one of the projects we've been working on as a concert type of experiences and we'll be working on more projects in the next couple of months.

[00:12:36.623] Kent Bye: Were there any particular projects that you were taking inspiration from? Because I know, for example, Jean-Michel Jarre has been doing these worlds in VRChat where you're able to go from one world to the next and have like these little adventures in a spatial dimension, but also hear a music track kind of evolving. I don't know if you're taking direct inspiration from that or if there's other inspirations that you were taking in to create this experience.

[00:12:59.925] Eddie Lou: For this type of experience, we actually draw some inspiration from a virtual exhibition by Radiohead that was released in Epic Store called Kid Amnesia. And I think that's a wonderful example of how we can use interactive technology to create visually stunning virtual experiences. Although that was not a concert, but I think the artwork that's been put into the project was super, super amazing. So we actually definitely draw inspiration from that one. But also, there was a few projects I really do admire from the early version of Wave XR. When they're still doing the VR component, you know, the, I can't remember which one, it's called Glitch Mob. And Emogenhip, I think, there are a few projects they released earlier, quite a number of years ago. I think they are super well made and we wanted to create this visually rich experiences for people and also to create, you know, atmosphere for people to immerse themselves in those virtual spaces. But you know, it's one of our first try on virtual concert. So we've learned a lot from producing the work and we're going to continue to improve on the future project, especially on the interactive side. Because I think people still haven't quite figured out what would be the best way to do interactivity inside virtual worlds. And that was also a challenge to adapt something that is both work in VR as well as flat screen. So there's so much to be explored and we're going to explore more in the following projects.

[00:14:30.602] Kent Bye: Yeah, I know that. Last year there was a number of VR concert experiences that were here at SXSW, and I look forward to seeing even more this year. There's a number of different pieces here that are exploring that as a theme. I'd love to have you maybe explain a little bit more about what's happening in the Chinese VR ecosystem, especially because it seems like it's almost like a completely different world than what we have in terms of distribution channels and other things that are happening. There's some experiences that I'm sure that are in both ecosystems, but it seems like it's also an area that I don't have much insight into. And I know that you're kind of at the nexus of both the storytelling aspect, but also potentially the distribution and the broader VR ecosystem. So yeah, I'd love to have you maybe expand on what's happening in the context of the Chinese distribution for virtual experiences of immersive storytelling.

[00:15:15.709] Eddie Lou: Yeah, sure. So we've been started working on distribution of experiences, I think, since 2020, right, you know, right after the COVID actually, there are some, you know, definitely impact on the, you know, from the COVID on the distribution businesses. But what is interesting is that, you know, for example, in the West, we have a very big platform like Meta. which has almost like 20 million headsets out there on the market already, which becomes a market that can sustain itself. But in China, we really don't have that size of a home-based device adoption. Although we have ByteDance, which also owns Pico, that has been working on new headsets and new technologies and distribution of work, but it's still relatively small comparing to Meta. So for the online distribution channels, we don't have that kind of size yet, but it's going to grow, you know, obviously in the next few years. but we're still waiting on, you know, I think China is a very complicated market to explain, because there are so many factors that will have an impact on adoptions of technologies. But I think the obvious characteristic of the market is that first, the online market, although there is Tencent, there is Pico, and potentially also OPPO and Vivo, which they're going to launch their headsets later this year, there is no single big one. But among them, you know, Pico is still the biggest one, but we don't have the similar size as Meta. So the online distribution channel is rather scattered. There is not a single singular distribution online platform out there in China. So we're not really expecting, you know, the similar kinds of online sales of, you know, those immersive experiences in China market through online platforms. But what's interesting though about China is that The people of China usually they spend a lot of money at public places. So the location based, the LBE side of the business is really, I think it was a very interesting thing to look at comparing to the Western market. Because I think LBE definitely is also working really well in the West. But because in China we have such a big population of 1.4 billion people. So these people usually will go out to those public spaces, shopping malls and places like this and spend a lot of money there. I think in the next couple of years the LBE component will still be a very important business and market opportunity for VR experiences because I do think a lot of people They may not necessarily go and purchase Pico headsets, but they will be willing to pay just $20 or $30 on an experience at location-based. So I think the experiences like, you know, the Infinite experience from the Felix and Paul, or, you know, any kind of, you know, location-based exhibitions or distribution will probably be the main way of distributing work in China. So in the last two years, we've been distributing a number of projects, including like Spheres, Paper Birds, Madarin Noir, and those are storytelling experiences. And we create a mini installation-based exhibition for each one of them. And then to roll out these mini exhibitions in Beijing and Shanghai and other parts of China has been really, really successful. So we think that people, even though we know that distributing storytelling experiences is relatively challenging compared to distributing games, I do think this kind of experiences if we can market them well and package them well into the right form of presentation to the consumer, to the audience, I think it will be a very successful model. So we definitely proved that at least in China market has been really working model for distributing this kind of work. and we will continue to do that and later this year we're going to introduce larger types of exhibitions like the Infinite Experiences to the Asian market and to see how it goes but as I said I think LBE is probably going to be a dominant type of distribution model in China at least in the next few years before everyone gets a headset at home.

[00:19:29.391] Kent Bye: And I know that Punchdrunk has had, like, Sleep No More and Shanghai aversion there, and so I don't know if you've had a chance to see that, or if there's other dimensions of, like, immersive entertainment that you see is also in that more location-based element, and if you see an excitement for that type of immersive storytelling.

[00:19:46.062] Eddie Lou: Definitely, because I tried Sleep No More four times and every time I go I still find something new from the experience which is super well made. And I think both Sleep No More as well as the immersive exhibition put together by TeamLab definitely do have a very strong impact on how people perceive this kind of immersive exhibitions or experiences. And I think China's been really exploratory on how we can present different kinds of immersive experiences in China. Because, you know, there's a huge population and they always crave for new forms of entertainment. And whether it's immersive exhibitions or projection mapping, or an immersive theatre play like Slim No More, or even the immersive theatre play that you'll be able to participate more actively rather than passively, and it becomes super popular, even during COVID. I mean, you know, those locations are, you know, open and closed because of the COVID policy, but I think people always wanted to go for this kind of experience. So it was not only VR, but even the non-VR immersive experiences, if they can find the right venue, the right partner, it will be very successful. That's for sure. Yeah.

[00:21:00.354] Kent Bye: I had a chance to go to the Sandman Festival. I guess you're Sandbox Immersive doing the Sandman Festival, is that right?

[00:21:07.499] Eddie Lou: It's Sandbox Festival and Sandman Studios. It's a little confusing, I know. And there's also a number of Sandbox named. There is Sandbox VR, there's the Sandbox Blockchain Games. It's a little confusing. But the Sandbox Immersive Festival and We've been working on that for almost five years. We wanted to build the platform to be able to make the world community closer. Because, as you know, we don't have much of a communication between China and the rest of the world. And also, I think China is is a very interesting but also very mysterious place for business-wise. I mean, because it's very complicated to navigate in the business landscape in China. But we wanted to make it more transparent, make it more friendly to any studios or company in the West, at least to show them first. It's complicated, but not that complicated because we're all human beings. We have a little bit of different business way of doing things, but, you know, it's still, it's just a human community. And also we wanted to let people know that some of the Chinese artists are super talented too. So we also wanted to promote them to a world community as well. And I think ultimately VR is a global medium, especially it's emerged after globalization. Although I know we're now a little bit of de-globalizing right now. But we still do believe in the efforts that we can put together in a global community and we wanted to make the global community stronger by also introducing the Chinese component to it in a more positive way, and also to leverage the market power of China, and trying to leverage that to solve a global challenge of expanding the VR industry.

[00:22:55.107] Kent Bye: Awesome. And finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of virtual reality might be, and what it might be able to enable?

[00:23:02.559] Eddie Lou: I've been actually thinking about this question for so many times and it changed actually over the years. So I was just been thinking that because right now we've been working on the platform, which is basically a set of tools to enable more creators to be able to show their work to the world, to their community. I just think that right now, if we can, not only VR though, I mean, if we combine VR with other important technologies like, you know, the artificial intelligence and also even blockchain, that will be able to create a new, vibrant, creative economy. Because I think the creators and artists, they are only a very small component in the entire value chain. And they have a smaller say in the whole ecosystem. But I think by leveraging the right technologies including virtual reality, I think they will be able to have a stronger say and they will be able to position themselves in a better position in the new generation of economy because a lot of those technologies shorten the value chain and they will be able to create more values even directly to the audience because for example in fashion industry a designer they have to go through manufacturing, prototyping you know all these processes a lot of them are not controlled by themselves but right now as a digital artist or digital creator they will be able to create the final product to the end user or to the consumer or customers. So I think they will have a bigger value in the next phase of economy. So I think, you know, by combining the right technologies together and then we'll be able to provide a set of tools to empower the next generation of digital creators and they will be able to create a better digital economy and creative economy for us. So I think that's really exciting for me.

[00:24:55.000] Kent Bye: Awesome. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader Immersive community?

[00:25:01.135] Eddie Lou: There's actually one thing I would like to say that I think we are now living in a de-globalizing phase of global economy, but I still do think we need to work together to create a stronger bond and to create a stronger community to work together to solve the challenges ahead. Whether it's creative-wise or technology-wise, there's still a lot of challenges ahead of us for the VR ecosystem. So, I do think we need to work together stronger than ever before to face the challenges together. So, I'm looking forward to work with anyone in the community.

[00:25:37.663] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining me here on the podcast.

[00:25:40.443] Eddie Lou: Thank you.

[00:25:41.824] Kent Bye: So, that was Eddie Lo. He's the founder of Sandman Studios and the director of Sandbox Immersive Festival. So, I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, The fact that I could watch the Neowola and the Era of Black Art on my phone in the context of my hotel room just to be able to kind of navigate around had really great graphics. And so, yeah, this pixel streaming technology from Epic is a really great way to get access to a lot of these different immersive spaces and to have a browser-based interface as well as more of an immersive VR interface to it as well. I didn't have a chance to see the VR, Version of this piece and it's been about six months since I last had a chance to check out the latest iterations of the vast platform in the context of mandala So hope to be able to check out some more of that soon be able to see what's happening on that platform And eddie's hoping to bring back the sandbox immersive festival back into china this year. So keep an eye out on that I might be making an appearance there in China to that festival as well, just to check into that ecosystem. I think Eddie's doing a really great job of actually bringing together the best of immersive storytelling and bringing it into Chinese audiences and Chinese markets, and also working with these location-based experience contexts to be able to show some of these different immersive stories to folks in China as well, so that the Chinese market is likely to spend some money on entertainment, but less likely to always buy a headset and be able to have this at home as well. There's gonna be more headsets that are launching within China in the context of this next year that have these mixed reality components even beyond what's happening with Pico There was some talk about this potential collaboration with meta and I think Tencent to be able to bring VR headsets into the Chinese market So yeah, keep an eye on what's happening in the Chinese market I mean actually it's difficult to keep an eye on Chinese market because it's very occluded and it's hard to understand what's happening. It's very mysterious. There's a lot of things that are difficult to know and to keep up to speed as to what's happening there, but Eddie's really a through line into what's happening in the market. So if you are interested into getting more involved into that market, definitely reach out to Eddie and keep an eye out on the Sandbox Immersive Festival where this intersection of these immersive storytellers are going to be coming into China and showing their pieces and figuring out how to potentially have distribution in the context there. So, that's all I have for today, and I just wanted to say thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoyed the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listener-supported podcast, and I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue bringing you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

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