#1300: Prolific Meta XR Producer Ryan Genji Thomas on VR Storytelling Innovations with Animation

I interviewed Meta XR producer Ryan Genji Thomas at Venice Immersive 2023. Check out all of the Quill pieces, narrative apps, and Horizon worlds that Ryan has produced down below and check out more context in the rough transcript below as well.

Narrative animation experiences
2019The RemedyDaniel Martin Peixe
2020Tales from Soda Island – Chapter 1: The Multiverse BakeryStudio Syro
2020The ReservoirMaiden Interactive
Ric Carrasquillo
2020Cube Farm (ep 1)Two Trick Pony
Dir. Tory Stanton, Scott McCabe
2020Cube Farm (ep 2)Two Trick Pony
Dir. Tory Stanton, Scott McCabe
2020Cube Farm (ep 3)Two Trick Pony
Dir. Tory Stanton, Scott McCabe
2020Tales from Soda Island – Chapter 2: The Neon JungleStudio Syro
2020Goodbye Mr. OctopusAtlas V x Studio Gepetto
Dir. Amaury Campion
2020The BeastBlue Zoo Animation
Dir. Grant Berry, Dave Winn
2020Lifetime AchievementParade Animation
Dir. Yonatan Tal
2020Four StoriesNick Ladd
2020Tales from Soda Island – Chapter 3: The Quantum RaceStudio Syro
2021Peace of MindBlue Zoo Animation
Dir. Ben Steer
2021Kteer TayyebSamia Khalaf
2021Tales from Soda Island – Chapter 4: The Golden RecordStudio Syro
2021RebelsFederico Moreno Breser
2021NightMara Ep.1So Meta Studios
Dir. Gianpaolo Gonzalez
2021_HELLOSamuel Klughertz, Nicolas Capitane
2021Tales from Soda Island – Chapter 5: The School TripStudio Syro
2021NamooBaobab Studios
Dir. Eric Oh
2022Lustration Ep.1New Canvas
Dir. Ryan Griffen
2022Lustration Ep.2New Canvas
Dir. Ryan Griffen
2022Lustration Ep.3New Canvas
Dir. Ryan Griffen
2022Lustration Ep.4New Canvas
Dir. Ryan Griffen
2022Mescaform HillEdward Madojemu
2022NightMara Ep.2So Meta Studios
Dir. Gianpaolo Gonzalez
2022Tales from Soda Island – Chapter 6: SilenceStudio Syro
2022Tales from Soda Island – Chapter 7: The First IngredientStudio Syro
2023ReImagined – Volume I: NyssaVery Cavaliere
Dir. Julie Cavaliere
2023ReImagined – Volume II: MahalVery Cavaliere
Dir. Michaela Ternasky Holland

2017Dear AngelicaOculus Story Studio
Dir. Saschka Unseld
2017Baba YagaBaobab Studios
Dir. Eric Darnell
2023Wallace & Gromit in “The Grand GetawayAtlas V x Aardman
Dir. Finbar Hawkins, Bram Ttwheam
2022Creepy Cabin
2022Dead End Drive-In
2022Neon Arena
2022Shaqtacular Spectacular

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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 immersive storytelling, experiential design, and the future of special computing. You can support the podcast at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. So continuing on my series of looking at different experiences and folks from Venice Immersive 2023, this is number 30 of 35 of my series and the 10 of 10 of looking at the context of ideas and the seven of seven of looking at my series of animation within VR. wrapping up with Ryan Genji Thomas who is a XR producer at meta who has Been quite involved with producing over 30 different animation projects over the last three to five years a lot of them over actually the last three years But there was an effort there to do a lot of funding of these different types of quill projects and so a lot of the projects that have been out and about on the festival circuit Ryan has had a hand in helping to give feedback and produce and yeah, just provide some funding for a lot of these different animators. Three of the different projects that were there at Venice Immersive this year, the first ingredient, Tales from Soda Island, Pepitos, The Big Saga, as well as Perennials were all produced by Ryan. And yeah, I just wanted to be able to sit down with him just because I know that Meta for a while had this whole effort to support these different types of independent animation projects and there's just a lot of amazing work that's out there that is well worth checking out. I'll have links in the description where you can go check out a lot of the different work that's been produced over the last number of years. It's a bit of a shame that there's been both a cutback of some of the different funding of these animation projects but also that some of the actual mechanics for how to discover and see some of this work hasn't necessarily been the best optimized. It's kind of difficult to find. You have to dig it up and go looking for it. If you just search for it in the store, it won't show up. You have to go and open up the specific application of the MediQuest TV app and then almost kind of know what the name of the title is that you're looking for in order to find it since the discovery mechanism is Mixed in between a lot of the existing 360 videos and other programs that are there so I'll include lots of links within the show notes and you can go click through and maybe add it to your playlist or play it directly in a device and make it a little bit easier to get access to some of these but Nonetheless, there's been a lot of really amazing work that has been produced over the number of years and had a chance to sit down with Ryan to be able to talk about both his journey into becoming an XR producer and a lot of the different exciting projects that he's been a part of. Just as a note, in light of the different layoffs, there's been a shifting away from the funding of a lot of these different types of immersive independent types of projects. and much more into their own internal projects of the Horizon worlds. And so he's lately been both producing a lot of the narrative games. And so he's actually a producer of Wallace and Gromit, The Grand Getaway. And so there's some more interaction between animation and narrative games that he's also going to be working on. But also a big part of his team that he's on is looking on creating these different worlds and this intersection between entertainment and the social VR components of Meta's own homegrown Horizon worlds. So a little bit less of a focus generally on funding these different types of more independent, immersive storytelling projects that are out there. And there's, I think, honestly, a big gap between the different types of experiences that we see at places like Venice Immersive and what ends up getting primary distribution within the context of the Questor and just Meta's priorities in general. There's been a lot more focus of gaming and the things that are going to be driving engagement time. But I think there are folks that are out there like Estrella Immersive and Diversion Cinema, Lucid Realities, and other emerging distributors that are trying to find a place for these different immersive stories elsewhere in the context of location-based entertainment environments and whatnot. But there are some places that are still on the MetaQuest where you can go find some of these real premier immersive stories. And like I said, there'll be some links in the show notes where you can come check those out. definitely recommend checking out the Tales from Soda Island as a series to get a good taste for what's possible with the Quill medium. And yeah, it's still possible to produce your own pieces within Quill and start to distribute it in the context of the Quest platform. There's not a lot of monetization with these and it's all kind of free content, which may be part of the reason why Meta had some cutbacks. Anything that wasn't generating any income or revenue, I think had a lot of cutbacks. In fact, Amy Seidenworm doing a lot of the VR for good, is now more of an independent producer where she was working in the context of meta producing these independent stories now more on her own off doing executive producing an independent production on some of these different projects. So anyway, we'll do a deep dive into what's happening there with meta and a little bit more of a backstory, which I think is a really amazing body of work that Ryan's been able to work on over the last number of years. digging into some of the different highlights and also unpacking some of the different underlying innovations and grammar of immersive storytelling that's happening within the context of animation. So that's what we're coming on today's episode of the voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Ryan happened on Monday, September 4th, 2023 at Venice immersive in Venice, Italy. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:05:13.511] Ryan Genji Thomas: Hi, my name is Ryan Genji Thomas, and I am an XR producer at Meta. And I produce multiple formats and pieces of content from immersive animated stories and shorts to interactive narrative apps and embodied social experiences.

[00:05:32.828] Kent Bye: Maybe you could give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into working with VR and immersive storytelling.

[00:05:38.354] Ryan Genji Thomas: Certainly. So I think like most people in this industry, it's often a meandering road and not a direct path. And so my direction towards VR and VR space wasn't necessarily an intentional one from the beginning. VR didn't exist in my brain space in the 80s and 90s. And so I grew up illustrating and drawing and animating and making short videos as a skater. So I would make skate videos. I had a wonderful high school that was an arts magnet. We had an Avid and we would edit on that. I had no idea how great that was to have as a resource. I ended up going to the University of California Santa Barbara, where they had a film school. I studied film theory, history and analysis there, and really fell in love with cinema. But my real passion was always animation, so it was really kind of serendipitous that I ended up with a job at PDI DreamWorks Animation up in the Bay Area. And that was my introduction to feature film. And I was there for about 10 years until that studio closed to consolidate resources at the Glendale studio. And after 10 years, it was a comfortable space for me. And so it was a little scary to see what was out there in the world. But at the time, Facebook had acquired Oculus and a few of my previous co-workers from DreamWorks happened to make their way over to Story Studio. I was made aware of that and found out there was some really cool experimentation of testing the traditional CG animation pipeline and testing that out into a VR pipeline to see what that would look like. Oculus Story Studio at the time was kind of composed of Pixar, DreamWorks, EA, AAA, games, you know, top-tier folks. And so it was really cool to be with these top creative minds and exploring what storytelling looked like in this brand new space and potentially being pioneers and defining what that might look like. And if hitting dead ends, then we would learn from that and share with ourselves and the community. So I started on Henry. I came at the very end of Henry, about the little hedgehog. who did not have friends because he was spiky. And once we wrapped that up, we started to think about new projects. And that's when I produced my first VR project, Dear Angelica, using a new tool that was built for Dear Angelica, Quill. And after Oculus Story Studio, I made my way back to Facebook and started to help build a slate for VR animated projects through Quill.

[00:08:01.400] Kent Bye: And so, were you an animator, a producer? What were you doing on Dear Angelica?

[00:08:06.404] Ryan Genji Thomas: Producer. So, as much as I saw myself as an artist as a young person, I never really went to art school. I had traditional arts. And so, as good as I thought I was when I joined the team at DreamWorks Animation, I realized how talented these people were. And so, I had to It was a wonderful payoff for me to be associated with these people and have a credit and help facilitate the bigger vision. And so that's kind of been the case ever since. I still see myself as a creative. I have a creative background, especially through my experience and education through the film school at UC Santa Barbara. However, not necessarily practical application as an artist, you know, being a model or an animator. in that sense, although I have animated, I do animate in Quill, but more as a hobby, and especially when I compare myself to others, it's a little daunting, so I let them do that work, but I'm still able to help from development to creation, so that was one thing that was really nice at Oculus Story Studios, you know, fairly democratizing, opening up a forum for feedback among the crew, where it was a lot more rigid at major studios like DreamWorks, unless you were a director, or a production designer, or VFX, and especially if you're in production, you kind of stay in the back and you take notes, or you know, you manage the schedule. And so this is a new playing field at Oculus Store Studio. My first experience producing, overseeing the whole project, but then also helping contribute in ways I could creatively. And I've only been able to really exercise that and flex that muscle more so now with the current coolest light with Goro Fujita as my creative partner as well. We're able to really help kind of mold and shape and kind of inform and guide new creators in ways based on the learnings that we've made before.

[00:09:43.420] Kent Bye: Well, yeah, I remember the Oculus Story Studio as an internal effort to experiment and prototype with the future of immersive storytelling. And eventually, Oculus Story Studio was shuttered. And is that at that point when you went back into the larger Facebook ecosystem? Or had you gone back into Facebook prior to that?

[00:10:01.986] Ryan Genji Thomas: Yeah, it wasn't immediate. So that was another, it was interesting, you know, coming off a layoff at DreamWorks Animation, it was a little daunting at the time when DreamWorks shut down. I had a 10-day-old baby in my arms. Actually, when I got the call, I had a 10-day-old baby in my arms. So it was a, you know, it was a, oh crap moment. But, you know, the saying is, well, a door closes, a window opens. And so that was really serendipitous that I was able to find my way into VR. So when we got the sense the day before that, Story studio is potentially being shut down and all the folks in DreamWorks had a little bit of an eye twitch We kind of knew what was coming like and nothing that you know, you want to hear we had a really really tight family feel at story studio So I think that was one of the biggest Letdowns was that the dissolve of that family feel Facebook I think took most of they seem like they think the engineers and so as a producer I don't know at the time Facebook knew what to do with the producer. So there was some there were a few months where I I didn't have work, which was nice. It also afforded me some time with my then two-year-old son. He still refers to it as Daddy Dylan Summer. It was fantastic. And that's priceless. That's time you can't get back. So that was really nice. And then I did a small stint at Fable, which was fantastic. And it's, you know, fellow peer Edward Saatchi, Pete Billington, Josh Amash, Andy Wood, and Rick Carrasquillo. And so I was over there for a little bit until I had an opportunity to go back to Facebook and support Quill as it was being incubated as a product.

[00:11:19.231] Kent Bye: OK, so you're working on Wolves on the Wall there at Fable during that time?

[00:11:22.234] Ryan Genji Thomas: So actually, that was something running in parallel. That was already on Rails. I had a great team behind that. And what I was doing at Fable, and this is very brief. This is for a few months. But Edward Sascha was really gracious to have me come in as I was looking for work and kind of support my career path in creative development and being a development producer to support their initial vision of what it might look like to have an animated Quill slate. And so I worked closely with Rick Carrasquillo, who is also The original pioneers, he and Goro Fujita, really, to kind of see what it would look like to do an animated slate. And I left them hanging a little bit. I went to Meta as the opportunity arose. We made sure they were set up with some other stellar folks.

[00:11:59.014] Kent Bye: I know I've had a chance to talk to folks like Elena Richitsky as well as Colm Slevin when he was there and you know having these different discussions like at Sundance with Colm where we're talking about at that time I'm not sure how much this has changed but how the structure at well I guess from Oculus to Facebook to Meta that there was a gaming section and then more of the immersive entertainment, or I don't know exactly the name, but more of the storytelling side. So more of the narrative-driven center of gravity versus the gaming center of gravity. And as we move forward, I'm sure we're going to have more and more of that fusion of these narrative games where you have a little bit of both. But there's been a pretty distinct split, and I'd love to hear some of your reflections on that split and whether that split's closing or if it's different now or if there's other priorities or, you know, we'd just love to hear a little bit of your reflections on your experience of this organizationally, how to make sense of something that's more narrative driven and more of an immersive story versus something that's more gaming driven and interactive game.

[00:12:56.750] Ryan Genji Thomas: Certainly. As you called out, there's not necessarily a binary between game and storytelling. The best games are very narrative in my eyes. And so there's a gray area between the both. But if we kind of make the distinction between the two, let's say games and storytelling, Games really had a head start. We kind of see them as the big brother, at least as it relates to Oculus and MetaQuest. And the marketing teams behind it, you know, being it's a business, marketed the headsets as gaming consoles, because that's really what there was with the advent of the first, you know, the Rifts and the Quests. So, really, games kind of had a head start. And then that means that that is the kind of bread and butter, and that is the monetization model. for them is games. And so because it had the head start, the media aspect of it and the storytelling aspect of it is still kind of catching up. And so because it's catching up doesn't mean that META is not interested in it. It just means that games have had a head start. So they're really invested in embracing and supporting media and media entertainment. And part of that is immersive storytelling.

[00:13:57.862] Kent Bye: I think that some of that legacy of that split is still within the ways that you find these different experiences and where you go, whether you go to the store, which is where most of the games live, or if you go to, like, the Oculus TV, which is where a lot of these more immersive stories are, and they seem to sometimes be split. If you search for some of these, like, Tales of Sodor Island on the store, it may not show up unless you go to the TV in Search for Tales of Sword Island. So there's a little bit of a still of this bifurcation of even how things are structured. And traditionally, when I've talked to Colm and Jelena, most of the focus of these stories have been trying to build out the context of the Oculus, or I guess it originally was Oculus TV, now maybe a meta Quest TV. But yeah, I'd love to hear when you came in, what was happening with this split between the store and where was the TV app at that point?

[00:14:45.553] Ryan Genji Thomas: Certainly. Yeah. And really the breakdown and the separation of where these pieces live is really based on format. And so the store is made up of apps. So those are downloadable. that sometimes are free, mostly monetized. And the Oculus Store, I'm sorry, the MediQuest TV channel, if you will, its own app, provides media offerings, entertainment offerings to the consumers free, and they're streamable. So it was just different functions and how they were brought to the user, either downloaded or streamed. And then it was kind of like, you know, you think of it as TV because it's free. No, I think there's much to be desired as it works out in terms of discoverability for different formats within that, like immersive video versus immersive animation, what's rectilinear, what's fixed off. But that's always a work in progress. But essentially, that's the bifurcation of the two groupings because it's solely based on format.

[00:15:41.382] Kent Bye: And had Oculus TV or MetaQuest TV already launched by the time you came on back into Facebook?

[00:15:47.266] Ryan Genji Thomas: It's been a while. Let's see, when I officially came back on, Facebook it was like 2018. I don't totally remember, but the one thing that stands out is I know that it was in existence before we were able to get the Quill projects on there. And so that was kind of the goal for us at the time. We were able to, it was really interesting, at the end of Dear Angelica, essentially Quill was created. for Dear Angelica. It didn't have a name. Inigo Quiles, the creator behind Quill and the engineering team, did such an amazing job supporting Dear Angelica and creating this tool for Wesley Allsbrook, the art director of Dear Angelica. And by the time Dear Angelica was done, we were like, hey, we have this product that's actually like public ready. It's amazing. And so it was really serendipitous that we were able to launch those at the same time. So we did a bunch of testing. We had creators like Goro Fujita and Rikara Skio start to explore what I meant to tell stories in Quill, using Quill beyond Dear Angelica. However, there was no discovery surface for that. There was no place to kind of to share those pieces rather than like instead you'd have to export them out as video and show them on YouTube or something. So We'd been eyeballing Oculus TV at the time to say, hey, is there a way to get these IMM files? IMM is the Quill file, stands for immersive. And our small Quill team was able to work with the bigger product team. And I think in the beginning of 2020, we were able to put up our first Quill project. I think it was the Remedy by Daniel Pescia. one of our first funded pieces. But it wasn't just the funded pieces though, it was also an outlet for all creators who have the ability to create in Quill to upload. So it was this really kind of beautiful ecosystem where it was funded projects that were kind of used as North Star's inspiration for the community, this creator community, and then that community would then be able to upload their own pieces, their own user-generated UGC, And it kind of became this flywheel of inspirations, others seeing these pieces as well. Another thing that Goro Fujita did in parallel was create a virtual animation group on Facebook. And it was tool agnostic, otherwise he would have called it a quill animation group. He was very intentional in saying VR animation because he wanted to kind of create a forum and a place for all creators to share their immersive animated work. And that was really a great way for creators to asynchronously share content that wasn't directly in VR. So then it became this really interesting firewall where people would see a clip and go, oh my gosh, that's crazy. I want to see that in VR now. They would go to Oculus TV, check that project out, but then maybe see a tale of Smithsota Island or another project and go, oh my gosh, wow, that's really, really interesting. And people would ask questions in that group. So it was a really interesting moment at that time where we really started to see this use of Quill and immersive storytelling really blossom.

[00:18:42.762] Kent Bye: Yeah, and so how many total different Quill projects have you been involved with either funding slash producing over since you've been at Meta then?

[00:18:51.388] Ryan Genji Thomas: Yeah, so I had to do the count, I had to scan my schedules and lists to see how many, and I think we're at exactly 30 since the beginning of 2020. And those are the officially meta-funded pieces, all between roughly 5 minutes to 20, 25 minutes, depending on the project. Anywhere from single creators, to teams of creators, to studios. Some are individual one-offs, some are episodic. So a really interesting variety and that's something we're really proud of. Goro and I intentionally sought out visual variety and a wide variety and wide diverse slate of creators. So 30 in 3 years was a bit daunting, not only producing cool animated projects but in parallel was also producing some interactive narratives as well. So I think the quantity there, 30 in three years roughly, give or take a few months, is a testament to the speed at which creators can create and produce these projects within a relatively short amount of time in comparison to traditional processes and methods. It takes how long to learn Maya? It takes how long to shade and to light and to render these things out. It's no fast process. But the interesting thing about Quill is that I think it lowers the barrier to entry for VR creators. And it definitely helps to know animation. And it definitely helps to understand storytelling. But if that's not your goal, to create an animated 20-minute short, it's still a really, really easy tool and product to learn. And it's just really delightful just to even draw in your own space.

[00:20:27.458] Kent Bye: Yeah, and as I've been going to the different film festivals, I've come across a number of different cool projects over the years. I'm sure a number of them that you've been involved in producing. Like how many of those 30 have made like a festival run versus how many of them have just like launched on the cool player or now the immersive media player?

[00:20:45.109] Ryan Genji Thomas: Yeah, so each of those launch on the VR animation app, which people can go find now, and on the MetaQuest TV. So all 30 are there and each 30 have what are called supplemental pieces and they expand on the universe and the world and the design of each of these projects in certain ways. But if I had, the number escapes me off the top of my head how many have made it as official selections, but I want to say it's between like 20 to 30. around there. So it's quite amazing that, I would say, for the majority of the projects that get produced and launched, I would say there's roughly five to eight, maybe more, festival selections per year, and that's not including award nominations. So we're really, really proud of that, and the creators behind these projects, because I give them all the credit for this amazing work they do.

[00:21:32.505] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I had a chance to do interviews with three of the different Quill artists here. The Tales from Soda Island, with Studio Syro, and Zoe with the Perennials, and then Roxandra with the Pepitos, the Beak Saga. And also, you know, going through previously, there's Illustration, and Il-Hong Jeong, Carving with Memories, and Reimagined series with Nisa, as well as Mahal. So each of these pieces, I've seen how using Quill and the animation, camera movements, There's been a lot of evolution of the grammar of storytelling within VR. There's already a lot of evolution of visual storytelling grammar that's been evolving with animation genre in general within the context of film. So I'd love to hear any reflections on how you see Quill and animation and VR in general at the frontiers of pioneering and helping to define some of the emerging grammar of storytelling within a spatial context.

[00:22:26.797] Ryan Genji Thomas: Certainly. So there have been some really big milestones for me and I would hope the immersive storytelling community, especially for those who use Quill, among the funded projects that META has funded over the years. And when I'm looking back on those, there are some that stand out. Tales from Soda Island won. Chapter One, The Multiverse Bakery, directed by Funi Simone and by the Studio Sairo team, really stands out as one of the groundbreaking projects that really played with camera and camera movement. for multiple reasons. I think that's actually one of my favorite intros for those who haven't seen the Multiverse Bakery. You're kind of in blackness and there's this kind of like little magic fox guy and he's got this kind of crystal ball and he cracks it and you shoot through space on the z-axis and constellations are whipping by you to reveal the title and it's one of the most delightful things that still I watch it and I love it and this I would say is probably one of the things that I I'm inclined to show people for the first time that haven't tried VR. Studio Syro is also known for doing some really great, I guess I would call them editing techniques, I wouldn't necessarily call them cuts, but they employ a thing where they'll, we call them wipe transitions, where maybe the camera is panning from left to right and a tree will pass camera in the foreground. And as it passes, it reveals a brand new environment. But because the character or the point of interest is at a certain place, they'll do an eye match. And so the character will maybe be in the foreground in one scene, in the second scene it's in the background. But because it's the same point of focus, you don't miss a beat. They're seamless. And so it's a really interesting technique. It's also the first time we tested episodic, that kind of format. They're little, the through line for each episode isn't completely linear, but once you see all seven you kind of get like the general story. So that was a really interesting kind of test to see what it was like to put episodic projects in. Goodbye Mr. Octopus, directed by Henri Campion at Studio Geppetto and Atlas 5 was also a really interesting one for me as well. Dear Angelica kind of level, emotional impact, but I think the diversity For me, it was the first time I really saw an interesting sense of diversity. At the very, very beginning, we saw some early concept art for character design for them. And the interesting thing about the story Goodbye Mr. Octopus was that it was influenced by a song by a creator named Abisai Shaw called Between the Lines. And Abisai Shaw is an African-American songwriter and rapper. And when I saw the character designs, the character designs for this one girl, I assumed was going to look black. And she was kind of neither, or she was like a purple character. But there was these features that didn't feel like they represented the influence of the original project. So I went back to the creators and I said, is there a way to potentially reflect in the character design, the influence of this project. And, you know, the response was just amazing. These creators were like, yes, that sounds fantastic. And they went above and beyond. The concept art that they brought back was for the main girl, Estella. She was of mixed race. And they changed the character design of the father to be African American. and the mother caucasian and it was such like they were just so passionate about like yes that sounds fantastic and to see that was really interesting and then it really made me start to think about representation in this space as well and then made us think about, me and Gaurav started to think about the diversity among our own creator. So that was also a really big milestone. So not only just kind of like for storytelling, grammar, but in terms of like ownership of representation and how we go about selecting projects and who is representing these projects and what stories are being told. A couple of the quickies, Four Stories by Nick Ladd. It was really interesting, the building in FOMO, because you've got to look at different stories on different facets of a building. That was really cool. The Beast by Grant Barry, a Blue Zoo animation. It was kind of the first time we saw visual poetry. It was a really kind of stunning piece, and a little abstract. So that was kind of the first of its kind. Nightmare, episode one, by Gianpaolo Gonzales of SOMETA Studios. plays with the idea of the graphic novel and comic book kind of style, but he uses the pains in an insane way and he actually uses them as diegetic elements where you pass through his portals or the character will run and will trip on the edge of a comic book pain. he will do these really interesting camera moves where he'll push in and the camera kind of like knocks over an object and it makes you feel like you bumped that chair and it kind of gives you a second guess like am I in it? So it's a very interesting take and using onomatopoeia and animated text so that's also very cool and then the illustration series by Ryan Griffin of New Canvas was the first time a creator has used A funded creator has used the UI panel in Quill where you can select the different cameras. And so this project essentially has four episodes. You have two parallel narratives running at the same time, and it's up to the user to choose which camera you want to watch. And what's built in is FOMO. You know you're going to miss something out, and so you'd have to go back and watch to catch the other parts of the story. And that was very intentional by Ryan Griffin. He wanted the user to work for the narrative. And so every time you watch it, it's going to be a different experience. You're going to see different things. And that was really novel and very, very interesting for us as well. But I think the biggest highlight for me, and I think what was interesting for me, and maybe this is going a little bit away from storytelling grammar, but I think back to the idea of diversity. Goro and I really made an intentional decision after about the first year, maybe after the first 10 episodes or so, and seeing the lack of diversity within our creator slate, it was a direct representation of the demographic in VR. It was not very diverse. And so we thought, well, we sit in a position where we get to choose what projects come through for Quill. So why don't we be intentional about this and build in diversity? Why don't we look for that? Rather than save a seat at the table for someone, why don't we just build our own table? And, you know, that was really a wonderful thing to have agency in and to be supported by a team at Meta who gave us agency in that latitude to make these decisions. And so from that point on, we really pursued a wider variety, you know, a greater diversity of creators and storytellers. And so through that, we launched projects like Ketir Tayeb by Samia Khalaf. who's a wonderful Syrian-Palestinian-Muslim woman, Miska From Hill, a Nigerian director, Edward Matajamu, in Lustration, First Nations-Australian director Ryan Griffin, and Perennials and Pepitos by female directors Zoe Rowland and Roxandra Popescu. And we see that variety from these different storytellers, a visual variety and different perspectives. I also want to call out, you know, the Reimagined series, as you mentioned, by a very academic productions who boasts a full team of female producers, writers, directors, headed by Julie Cavalier and Michaela Terneski-Holland.

[00:29:11.925] Kent Bye: Yeah, that's a great great summary and overview and folks can go check out all these experience on the I guess it's the Oculus TV and the is it the VR animation player or what? Yeah.

[00:29:21.677] Ryan Genji Thomas: Yeah. Yeah the VR animation player app and the meta quest TV app

[00:29:26.142] Kent Bye: Yeah, definitely go check out those. I've seen a lot of those on the festival circuit that I've played, but I'll have to go back and catch some that I've missed as well. So, as you were given the remit to go produce what has now been around 30 different animation projects over the last three years, what was the larger way that having these animation projects, how does that fit into the ecosystem of VR and the business of VR for meta like how's that feeding back into? Supporting an ecosystem that is either creating content or also helping to inform what the nature of the medium actually is

[00:30:00.047] Ryan Genji Thomas: Yeah, so there was a big push a few years ago for two channels for the VR animated shorts and interactive narrative apps. And as business models change, as hardware evolves, as business models change, Meta has had a MetaQuest and the Reality Labs team, the media team, the games team have different areas of focus oftentimes constantly shifting. And so the newer focus is on these embodied social experiences. And because there's focus on that, And so much focus on that, there seems to be less focus on the VR animated shorts, very specifically at the moment. And Gora and I are always going to be evangelists for the space, it's a medium and a format and a creator group we love. But right now the main focus is really at Meta bringing people to kind of a social experience platform, which is Horizon Worlds. and how we kind of experiment in bringing entertainment projects to that. So it's not that it's been abandoned, it's just focus is elsewhere at the moment. So I think VR animation as one format is still definitely important to the general ecosystem, because back to the beginning question around the difference between games and story, games is always going to be there, or games are going to be there as a really important player in the VR ecosystem for MetaQuest. I still feel strongly that immersive narratives or interactive narratives and immersive storytelling are a huge component as the media marketplace is really big. And I think there's a huge benefit to bringing those users in. I'm a big proponent of saying, if you build it, they will come. And I think the more projects, the more content with diversity, if we bring that kind of content in, I think the greater diversity we'll have within the VR demographic, which is always going to be a benefit.

[00:31:43.153] Kent Bye: So yeah, that shift is happening now. It sounds like there's a little bit of a step back from some of the producing and funding of these VR animation projects. But I guess I was asking like three years ago as well, like what was the original intent for what was driving the initiative to fund it? Because I think it's great to be able to support all these artists. I'm just wondering what was the broader reasons for why Meta was supporting these different types of creative projects.

[00:32:09.525] Ryan Genji Thomas: Yeah, I mean, I think for all of us and with traditional media, these kind of experiences already exist. Storytelling, animated stories have existed for a very long time. Film, TV. And so this was kind of the next evolution of that. And so there's kind of a lot of experimenting and testing to see how these perform. In a very competitive space, especially specifically for interactive narratives, the game space is incredibly competitive. And games are often, have higher retention and longer play, which is a higher value proposition for quote-unquote gamers. And when these consoles are marketed towards gamers, there is an expectation that everything might be a game. And so when they encounter an interactive narrative, even though it has gamic interactive elements, the playtime might be shorter or the payoff might be a narrative payoff and not a, that may not be like an end state where you might have an untraditional game. because a lot of these immersive projects were going to put in right alongside games, I think it was potentially a little confusing. And that's something that can be mitigated and addressed through some UI and discovery design. But that was the idea, to see how do these things perform, and what's general interest. And I think the challenge there was that because these headsets were marketed so heavily towards the gaming community, and these were marketed as gaming consoles, It was a little bit of a challenge to monetize these projects. But at the same time, there was still strong support to invest in interactive narratives like Wallace and Gromit that are really well-known IP. And then to see how those perform, because the IP is so well-known, there's a high confidence that there's going to be a draw because there's an appeal towards a young audience, an older audience who has nostalgia for that. And so we're really excited, especially having been a producer for projects like that, you know, working with teams like Aardman, Atlus 5, just like fantastic. And so we're extremely excited to present this to audiences. And I think, you know, gamer or not gamer, these are going to be incredibly delightful experiences. So there's still hope that these media experiences, I'll also call them as interactive narratives, will still be able to, you know, play in the same ballpark as these traditional quote-unquote games.

[00:34:10.313] Kent Bye: Yeah, it's Wallace and Gromit, The Grand Adventure is playing here at Venice Immersive and I had a chance to check out a full build at home to play through the entirety of the whole experience. And so, yeah, I really enjoyed the overall arc of where the piece goes and I had a conversation with Aardman and no ghost. to get more context about Walton Gromit because I did not grow up with them and so there's a lot about the characters that I didn't know. So I feel like it's also a piece where there's a lot of subtle inside jokes that if you're familiar with the IP then there's going to be additional layers that I may have missed and we'll have to go back and watch the movies and then play through again to understand. But even absent of that, I think it's always an interesting challenge to create this kind of novel, interactive, and fun gameplay, but with some really exquisite environmental design that you have in this piece, but also this character-driven comedic elements that are happening between the relationship between these characters and the long history of how these different characters have had this kind of adventure arc throughout all these different stories. So yeah, I think it plays into that. same type of adventure story that they've had in their previous films, as recounted by Aardman. But yeah, I'd love to hear any other reflections you have on Wallace and Gromit and this, I guess, challenge of trying to create both the characters and the look and feel of the animation, but also, like, blend this balance between the narrative components and the game-like components.

[00:35:30.496] Ryan Genji Thomas: Certainly, and I think the Wallace and Gromit, the Grand Getaway project is a really good example of a quote-unquote narrative experience that sits closer to game. You know, it's in that gray area, it's not on the far side of passive narrative. And, you know, working with the Aardman team and No Ghost and Atlas V, Aardman, they're just, they're exceptional. It's a known quality, everything is incredibly high quality, visual, storytelling. They're on rails. They need no guidance. So the expectation there is we're going to get something amazing. I grew up watching Wallace and Gromit. It's actually a really big, huge inspiration for my interest in animation. I'm forgetting the name of it. There was a Nick Park piece that preceded Wallace and Gromit. Creature Comforts. And it was all stop motion and it was incredibly charming and so it was a kind of full circle moment to be able to work on a project about Wallace and Gromit. And so there was a huge attention to detail, as you mentioned, on set design and maintaining, you know, these characters' look and design and the playfulness and the charm that they have and making it feel like you, because you embody Gromit, you embody Wallace, you embody this robot that they've created. And so you have an opportunity to be these characters that Whether or not you know them, it's incredibly charming. But another new element to this is to ensure that the interactions feel playful and game-like. So they're not only engaging in terms of story, but really engaging in terms of interaction and providing a variety of interest at each kind of chapter within the project that should be incredibly delightful for users.

[00:36:58.712] Kent Bye: Yeah, ahead of Venice Immersive 2023, I wanted to go through and watch all of the different chapters of Tales from Soda Island since Chapter 7 is being featured here and I hadn't seen it in any of the other festival circuit and I wanted to go through and watch them in order. And I found out that it was actually kind of difficult to Play them in order. I first went to the store and search for it wasn't there then I went to Oculus TV and then I found it and then it was a bit of like having to find the first episode and then like Save it to my playlist because when I would play an episode then it wouldn't automatically recommend the next episode because it was like automatically recommend the next one but it wasn't the next episode in the series and so then I would have to go back and research for it and refine it all again. And so I ended up having to like click and save all of the series into one of my save file and then in my save file, go back and look at it. But it just felt like at least two or three or four additional layers of friction for just wanting to have that experience of just watching the series. It just felt like a lot harder than it should have been. So love to hear any reflections on the additional friction that you have in Oculus TV.

[00:38:01.588] Ryan Genji Thomas: Yeah, I do not disagree. And I, along with many of us on the cool team, the media team, have strong opinions on that. And it's challenging. Meta is an incredibly gigantic team and company. And there are multiple product teams within that. And it's a big machine to manipulate and to make change. And so people hear it, but there's a lot of diplomacy and bureaucracy in play to try to make those kind of changes. So it's acknowledged, and there are efforts being made to make these things better. But it is a huge friction point, and I don't disagree. And it's unfortunate for creators who have such great work out there that it's not as easily accessible or organically discoverable. For people who aren't going in intentionally, I think even if you go in intentionally, as you mentioned, it's challenging. And that's not ideal. And so I think there's definitely room for improvement, and hopefully sooner than later.

[00:38:56.753] Kent Bye: Yeah, and what can you say about what you've been doing in Horizon Worlds, doing some of the same type of producing, or different worlds, or any projects that are in the works that you could talk about, or pieces, or worlds, or experiences that have already launched?

[00:39:09.652] Ryan Genji Thomas: Sure, yeah. So yeah, this is kind of a new area for me when traditionally it's been animation or an animated CG pipeline. That's very familiar for me. I've been doing that since 2005-ish. Whereas these Horizon worlds are still CG kind of environments, if you will, but on a platform that allows for embodied social interaction where you can, through the MetaQuest platform, you can create your own avatar, to look like you or to look like however you want in a kind of human form and then join these worlds that are either games or social experiences, comedy clubs, sporting events, and socialize with anybody else on that platform. So the distinction between what I'm working on and what these other teams are working on are this media focus where games are games and we kind of know what that is. And media experiences is kind of actually a wide variety. These entertainment worlds vary from IP-based projects like the NBA arena, where you can enter an arena and watch 180 NBA games, live games, courtside. And there's a huge value proposition for users with that, because not everybody can just walk up to a Lakers game and sit courtside. That's hard to do, it's very expensive, that's a high barrier to entry. For this, you can walk into a place, you can play a little pop-a-shot games, and you can walk into the arena and watch a 180, almost fully immersive game, high-resolution, with other avatars, other users in there, and interact with them, and travel to other worlds. And other worlds include soapstone comedy. We can watch live comedy performances with other people, which is super interesting. And then also other worlds that showcase media. Around Halloween last year, we launched a couple worlds that showcased Halloween horror content. So one was Dead End Drive-In, where it's kind of a spooky, haunted, dilapidated drive-in, where there was a drive-in screen that showed some wonderful kind of horror-type content. And then Creepy Cabin was kind of similar in terms of format. However, instead of a rectilinear screen, it was a 180 screen. So you go through this cabin, and you can see kind of spooky things, and walk around, and explore, and then go out to the back balcony and see scary videos and things that were curated through our programming team.

[00:41:23.430] Kent Bye: Yeah, and the last number of years at both Venice Immersive and Raindance, there have been a selection of different immersive worlds gallery that have mostly been VRChat worlds. And this year, they have one Engage world. And I'm curious if you've kept up with some of what's happening in some of these different selections, highlighting the excellence and the frontiers of world building that have been happening on some of these other platforms, like VRChat or Engage, just to see. Because I find that there is a certain levels of environmental storytelling that happens in, say, Dr. Morrow, or, you know, they have a couple of pieces in competition, like Fens with Complex 7 and District Roboto that he's had. And yeah, so there's a lot that's been happening in sort of the more, I'd say, environmental storytelling as a genre. And if you've been looking at that or paying attention to that at all in terms of potential inspiration for where some of the fusion of narrative and storytelling might go when it comes to world building in the context of Horizon Worlds.

[00:42:20.035] Ryan Genji Thomas: Certainly, yeah, I think one of the things I'm really excited to see, and I have yet to see here, with a few more days left, it's on my list, are the world tours here at Venice, and these VRChat worlds that are these expanses, highly detailed worlds, and so I think, so yeah, so that is something our team is aware of, and how to utilize that and leverage the virtual space, the design space, to kind of guide users as a narrative, and we lean on examples, even like Disneyland, the theme parks are great, kind of example of guiding users organically and making them feel that there's something to do and guiding them towards points of interest. And we kind of use those kind of frameworks as models to help guide users within our space. And so it's always great to take inspiration from great creators. And so I'm really excited to see these world tours here from VRChat and see how they might be applicable and inspiring for some of the worlds we're creating down the road.

[00:43:08.961] Kent Bye: Maybe you could talk a bit about what else were you doing here at Venice and the Venice Production Bridge and what's been your experience here so far?

[00:43:15.531] Ryan Genji Thomas: Yeah, so yeah, I'm here kind of in the background to support the meta I'm sorry media We keep changing our name. It's the metaverse entertainment content team. You have a multitude of projects here for projects I produced one is perennials by Zoe Rowland another is Pippitos the beak saga by Roxandra Popescu and then there's Walsingromet the grand getaway atlas 5 and Ardman and no ghost and We also have Tales from Soda Island, Chapter 7 by Studio Syro. Not in competition, but best of Venice. And also a couple of the pieces, The Concourse of the Skies and Space Explorers here. So really excited to support those in the background and kind of high-five the developers and creators who worked on those. But I'm also here for Production Bridge. So this is my first time supporting a program like this and helping, you know, being at the market and hearing from other projects what they're working on, being inspired by these incredible projects and to see in which ways we might be able to help support and which might support our own kind of internal goals.

[00:44:15.845] Kent Bye: I had a chance to talk to Lewis from the Conquest of the Sky, the David Attenborough series, and I had another interesting experience with Oculus TV, which is that there's no episode numbers. And so there's actually sort of a logical progression for how the story is told. And I watched it out of order because it wasn't clear where to begin. And so the narrative was actually kind of jumbled because because of that. And so, yeah, he was saying that, you know, there was a strong push to not have episode numbers and to have people just kind of dip into any one of the episodes. And so there's this very interesting tension between when you have an epistatic to kind of drop in and watch one independent of the other ones and they can stand on their own and they can't stand on their own. But when you do watch all three, there is kind of like a best of order to watch them in. And yeah, it was a bit frustrating for me at least to have kind of watched it out of order and having to jumble together certain puzzle pieces that may have been introduced in episodes that were kind of watched out of order. So anyway, that was just another frustration that I had.

[00:45:10.830] Ryan Genji Thomas: Yeah, that's great feedback. It wasn't a project that I had the association with. It was a meta-funded project, but that's always good to hear. And I think that's the challenge, you know, finding with episodic, whether or not something is, you know, has a linear progression to episodes or whether they're anthologies. And if there's any kind of through line, then do we still want to put them in a certain order? Do you want to give users agency to kind of drop in as they want? So it's always good feedback to hear users experience and then apply that going forward. And that's a huge thing that Goro, Fujita, and I use and apply going forward for all our cool projects is we not only learn from the creative process and development through our creative partners, but then going to festivals like this and soliciting feedback from the general public users and hearing feedback from their experience at these kind of booths and seeing how we can apply that for projects going forward to make sure that they're kind of the most delightful experiences for everyone.

[00:46:01.868] Kent Bye: And there's been a number of different mixed reality experiences in the festival circuit there over the last year. So Eggscape picked up the third place prize last year. Really amazing tabletop game that has mixed reality components. You have Gargoyle Doyle that's playing here at Venice Immersive 2023 that has a lot of like the beginning of a mixed reality. And then you go into more of a narrative animation experience. And then Monsterama that was at Tribeca is more of like a mixed reality type game where it transforms your room into a monster museum. I'd love to hear the role of mixed reality as you move forward in terms of animation and immersive storytelling and how you see this kind of blending of realities start to influence or shift or change the process of having site-specific or contextual to your own environment and blending that into the story in some fashion.

[00:46:51.042] Ryan Genji Thomas: Yeah, it's another step along the way in the direction of the Wild West. With every kind of new feature set like pass-through and scene set up where the headset detects walls and floor and potentially furniture, provides creators with new frameworks to build within, whether it's game or narrative. But it's something that we're also exploring, not only with just games, but also our media team as well, to explore that space and work and fund creators who have these visions to see how we can play with that and also find new ways of telling stories by using your own room and pass-through and learning from what we use from immersive space, then how do you apply that to space that varies from room to room from different user to user and different volumes to still have a consistent experience. So it's something we're definitely interested in and something we're working on at the moment to help kind of to exploit those new features as they come out.

[00:47:45.587] Kent Bye: There was some research that I think Chris Pruitt had showed that there was some demographic research saying what are things people are interested in and one of the big takeaways was that narrative and games and narrative games was a big push that a lot of the hardcore gamers had a lot of their experiences but like a big market that's going to be moving forward is this fusion between narrative and storytelling with gaming so love to hear any reflection for If you see that as a push of trying to blend more elements of strong storytelling and the future of the types of experiences that are going to help to build out the market for virtual reality beyond just like say the hardcore gamers that have kind of started with.

[00:48:25.224] Ryan Genji Thomas: Yeah, I think that's a reflection of just great games, the focus on narrative. I really think that you need a strong narrative to have a great game experience. It's such an important quality to have in that. So, I mean, I think of, you know, from my gamer days and the games I was interested in, games like, you know, Halo and Mirror's Edge, you had these really wonderful narratives that you can get behind and follow. And those are just typical iceberg games. And we're thinking, I'm sure there's other ones. We're thinking of Half-Life. Alex, and these insane immersive games have these really deep stories. And so I think what Pruitt's saying is that this narrative is just an incredibly important part of games, and I think that will just make those even more successful and more enjoyable for the users.

[00:49:08.355] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think is the ultimate potential for immersive storytelling and interactive games and virtual reality in general, and what it might be able to enable?

[00:49:19.812] Ryan Genji Thomas: Yeah, I mean, I have a lot of hopes in this space. VR is an incredible entertainment medium and it's the next generation evolution of the traditional media formats like TV and movies. And so it's a really exciting space for me to partake in and see where it's going. And we've only scratched the surface, especially for immersive storytelling, even though there's a lot of projects out there, a lot of interactive narrative apps and immersive experiences all the way from, you know, Dear Angelica and these 30 cool projects to these interactive narrative apps. Baba Yaga, and Wolves on the Walls, which is one of my favorites, and to see these new projects coming out, like Walls and Grommet, Grand Getaway, we still have yet to, I feel like we've barely scratched the surface on immersive storytelling. Games are evolving, but I feel like immersive storytelling is not moving at that same pace And I would love to see that grammar to like define. We're still figuring that out I don't think there's answers yet, and we're still seeing some wonderful techniques, and I would like to see that push So I think there's a future where we can really define that the other thing I'm interested in I think we can go towards is We know that VR is an empathy machine. It's a known, and I think with that, we can lean into that more with storytelling. Immersive stories are entertaining, but I think they can be also so powerful by building awareness around, especially around issues like social and racial injustice, mental health, and climate change, and there's so much more room to expand in that area, but also not just like traditional commercial stories, but I think experimental and kind of high art pieces as well. I would love to see a world where we can expand into that, not only commercially viable projects, but experimental pieces that get you thinking or just abstract. So I think there's a, we kind of have a ton of latitude to move in that direction. And with a company like Meta specifically, they're often so willing to support these visions and just takes time and have teams embrace these things. But we've taken steps towards that. There are examples of that already. And so I would just love to see more of that. I have a vision of a future where we fully embrace that and lean that direction.

[00:51:25.780] Kent Bye: Yeah, and as someone who's been on the film festival circuit, I will say there is a pretty significant gap between what's being seen at these festivals and what's being distributed and maybe even seen by folks from META itself, because the pieces are hard to see, but there has been quite a lot of innovation of storytelling at Venice Immersive and Tribeca and South by Southwest, Sundance New Frontier, IFADOC Lab, all of these places. I do think that the innovation is happening, it's just not widely distributed yet.

[00:51:49.715] Ryan Genji Thomas: Certainly, yeah. And I think for those of us who are close to it, are advocates to try to get as much of this content that we see at these festivals and the circuit out into the public. It might not be commercially viable, but maybe it is. And I think that's something that I would love to see tested more and to make sure that it is accessible and that it is discoverable organically. There are less points of friction. So that is definitely an area I'm excited to try to pursue and see if we could bring what we see here at these festivals to the general public, because they're incredibly delightful, as you and I both know, and I think it just benefits the VR space for those to be out there in the world.

[00:52:23.762] Kent Bye: Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community?

[00:52:28.393] Ryan Genji Thomas: Thank you for all the fans out there who have supported Quill and used Quill. It's really actually fantastic to see and to hear some of the creators and projects in the marketplace here for Production Bridge who are using Quill in a multitude of ways, whether it's pre-production or for their whole production pipeline, people who are inspired by the creators who are here. So it's wonderful to hear the great feedback from either the tool use itself or the experiences people had watching these fully immersive 6DOF animated projects where you're in someone else's painting and animation. It's incredible. And the support we have from the fan base and new users is great. And so when we hear such words of praise, I'm just fortunate and thankful for everybody who has a chance to either contribute or share such wonderful sentiments. And so I'm just full of gratitude and thanks and opportunities like this to meet with you, Kent, who's someone who's so passionate about this space, but also provides wonderful supportive criticism to help make this space and experiences better for users and for creators. So thank you.

[00:53:26.912] Kent Bye: Yeah, and thank you for being here and helping to produce all these amazing cool projects and a little window of opportunity to push the innovation of the animation and now moving into other interactive and world building contexts. But yeah, I do see that the community that has been fostered by a lot of your work and support has born out lots of deep innovations in terms of the grammar and structures of storytelling. And from Tales of Soda Island and all these pieces that you mentioned, it's well worth looking at because I think there's a lot of, as we talk about the grammar of storytelling, there's a lot of seeds that are already in both these projects, but also projects that are here at a festival like this here at Venice and beyond in the festival circuit. So yeah, thanks again for all your work and for joining me today to help break it all down.

[00:54:09.710] Ryan Genji Thomas: Thank you, Ken.

[00:54:11.037] Kent Bye: Thanks for listening to this interview from Fitness Immersive 2023. You can go check out the Critics' Roundtable in episode 1305 to get more breakdown in each of these different experiences. And I hope to be posting more information on my Patreon at some point. There's a lot to digest here. I'm going to be giving some presentations here over the next couple of months and tune into my Patreon at patreon.com slash Voices of VR, since there's certainly a lot of digest about the structures and patterns of immersive storytelling, some of the different emerging grammar that we're starting to develop, as well as the underlying patterns of experiential design. So that's all I have for today, and thanks for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And again, 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 so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

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