Nancy Bennett is the chief content officer at Two-Bit Circus, which is a start-up specializing in creating immersive digital out of home entertainment experiences for the Indianapolis 500, NFL, NBA, and the Olympics. Nancy talks about some of the innovations they’ve engineered including technology to synchronize up to 200 people watching a VR experience at the same time on the Gear VR, which was used at Sundance as well as the World Economic Forum. She has some keen insights about the future of shared VR experiences as well as emerging narrative techniques. In the end, Nancy’s goal is to create vivid memories similar to the joy this girl felt in returning an NFL punt for a touchdown.
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Theme music: “Fatality” by Tigoolio
[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.
[00:00:12.079] Nancy Bennett: I'm Nancy Bennett. I work with 2Bit Circus and I am the Chief Content Officer there, but I also have been driving our virtual reality business with 2Bit Circus VR. And the work that we started to do as an entire company was for Dave and Buster's. They wanted to see prototypes of VR in haptic games and interaction and do tests to see if it was something that was going to be viable for installation. And at that time we were working with DK1, we did several games. One was a road race game, one was a base jumping game, another was a ski game. And DK1 presented to me the opportunity to do something more cinematic in the space. Because the quality of the image was there. As luck has it, or whenever you throw an idea out into the outer space, sometimes things happen. And I got a call from an agency called Wasserman Experience asking if we could possibly do an IndyCar ride at 170 miles per hour, capturing the telemetry and building a haptic car to put that experience in 360 3D back into the user's hands. Apparently they had gotten a very expensive quote from a Swedish firm and they wanted to see if they could do it for less. And I said, well sure, of course we can. So I spent three days researching and thinking. I actually had several really good conversations with Mike Woods from Framestore, who had just finished the Game of Thrones experience, which was pretty seminal. I think he planted a flag that very few have paid homage to. He did a spectacular job. It was haptic. It was visually stunning. It was substance that people wanted to see. It was very, very well done. And we talked through the process and the kinds of cameras that were available at the time and the process of stitching. And I did a bit, and we ended up doing the job within five days, which was crazy. We built a dummy to sit inside the car that was stable enough to withstand the pressures upon the camera. captured the telemetry and we were given 30 minutes to get one lap. So it was pretty exciting, a lot of pressure and Two Bit Circus has a wonderful group of people. Everybody is so smart and brings a different piece of the jigsaw puzzle to play. and it's very collaborative and one individual inside the organization is a guy named Aaron Thoman who's our lead engineer in VR and he's absolutely divine. He's just so talented and has command of software and hardware but also understands the 3D world from a cinematic process of how you build content and also the physics involved and the engineering involved when you're dealing with parallax and other issues. So Aaron and I started to work together quite closely in the midst of that and many others and we built a Verizon number 12 car that's been on tour ever since at IndyCarGames where you have that experience and we shot at 3D 360. We used the Hero 360 14 camera rig at that time because it was the easiest thing to get our hands on. and from there started hacking cameras and building them into our own geometry because Aaron also built a software system for doing the stitching that is really wonderful and very flexible and immediately after doing that and putting lots of people through that experience on location at Indianapolis 500 we were asked to do an NFL project by the same agency Wasserman Experience at that time working for Verizon So I wrote a treatment. I thought, what's the scariest thing you could do in football? To me, it was a punt return. Just looking at the sky, waiting for the ball to land while you've got these huge people running towards you on the field. So I wrote what ostensibly is a dream of being a punt returner. And we shot it at Cardinal Stadium to execute that and to block properly with these 22 football players around us. and also to abide by the rules of the NFL and Impact and all those fun things. We have a system that allowed us to pre-vis from the camera and also a robot to simulate the run. So we did a live stitch and pre-vis in Oculus on site and commanded this robot from afar and played back for approval with the client and stitched together and made this crazy motion platform where you feel the run by two plates that are giving that motion of the runner. with a surround sound helmet pull-down of the stadium. And it took six months, you know, designing the pod itself, of which there were four in the installation, and something like 30,000 people went through that game time experience. And also at that time, that was when I was aware of the Samsung Gear VR. And to me, I really like the Oculus a lot. I like Vive, I like Morpheus, they're all really beautiful. But Samsung Gear VR had the ability to put it in the hands of multiple users without a tether, which was very important, knowing the mass attack on that material had to be robust and easily changed out. So we started working pretty heavily with the Samsung Gear VR. And actually, I think, in Samsung's mind, helped them to get a lot of notoriety at the same time. But anyway, so we did the NFL. So, we have two big sports properties under our belt, and we were asked to do NBA All-Stars for Samsung, the NBA, and we shot from the vantage point of six superstar players on the court doing pick and rolls and warm-ups and around the world and shot practice for All-Star 2015. With every project we built a new camera, a new helmet, a new technology, a new way to get what we were after. And what we were after is that first-person experience inside the game. And I think we're all getting a little tired of what's it like to be a, you know, after a while that kind of story has its limitations in terms of advancing story structure forward in VR. But when you're talking about sports and what athletes do, it's still pretty dramatic. Live sports is still one of the only live events where people really attend, along with music. And the action and activity of those incredible athletes is stunning to see in VR. The incredible athleticism and strategic play of sports is a really fascinating thing to render and to try and drop someone in. And immediately following the NBA, we did a series for the United States Olympic Committee and Samsung. We followed several athletes who, several of them, had gotten gold medals in 2012. Gymnastics and 10-meter platform diving, pole vaulting, and beach volleyball. And we built tech to do that. A tram cam to go across the net and beach volleyball, pole-mounted cameras for the pole vault to go flying over the hurdles, you know, fun stuff. Then took a breather and technical regroup, and now we have many, many projects in the pipeline. Some original content, really delving into interaction and playing with AR, VR, certainly audio. I'm very interested in audio and its impact on presence of the experience.
[00:07:17.558] Kent Bye: So it seems like you're certainly in this realm of the digital out-of-home entertainment, which you're kind of giving people these experiences that have a lot of very specific technology to be able to even go through. So from your perspective, what would be the intended best outcome for somebody to go through one of these experiences?
[00:07:35.470] Nancy Bennett: I think the best outcome is that there's an aha moment of some form, joy, certainly understanding of something that you didn't know as well before and only had a surface scratch on in terms of insight. I'm very tired of the word empathy because I don't think it's quite empathetic. I think it's more in the heart of the action, calling the plays for the individual user. I think striking a chord of memory, something really profound, whether it's funny or serious, makes you remember it, like most great visual experiences, cinematic experiences or pieces of art, where you reflect on yourself and your place in time and what's happening with you. and it transforms it, gives you some node of change that moves you forward and makes you want to share that with others. So the out-of-home experience I think is a very important one to us because we want to socialize technology. Technology is there to serve ideas and also to fuel the pioneer spirit which I think provides for invention and inspiration for people to do better things in the world. There's a lot of technology that's had some problems. Sure, the atom bomb. But there's a lot of technology that's done a lot to help further people's lives and improve them. And improvement can come across in many, many ways. So with the work we do, I want that aha, oh my god, I remember that. That was so cool. That changed my perception of X. I think all of those things are top of my list. Over time, it would be great to go from that little moment of aha to expanding upon character development and story arc, of course. But I think story and narrative come under some scrutiny in terms of their definitions in this medium, and I think that vernacular is still evolving. One can say the narrative is something like what a brand would talk about when they describe what their motto is. Whereas story is what's happening to the person and there can be many things happening to persons in a virtual reality space and there's something happening to you as the driver of the experience and the choices that you make within that atmosphere. So I think it's a complicated vernacular that's evolving and I'm really interested in exploring it. And it can make your head spin when you write for this medium and for the different mixed media that you can use in it. because you want to think about branching and what happens if someone doesn't trigger something and what happens if a sound occurs at my two o'clock versus my five and all those fun things. And then all the technology that is in the way but also moving so quickly. yet making it all possible to play with so it's a very very rich environment to do Discovery and I think for me to speak of what kind of narrative we're gonna make at this very moment I can just tell you that I'm swinging for something that is memorable and much more to tell you later.
[00:10:34.457] Kent Bye: One of the things that Eric from Baobab Studios told me is that some people tell you a story of an experience and we're kind of moving towards giving an experience to someone where they can generate their own stories from that.
[00:10:48.662] Nancy Bennett: Well, as John Gata shared in the panel we just did together, you're in a limitless city with millions of doors where things are going on behind those doors that you have no idea about, you can only imagine or go and explore. So, absolutely. And it's an n-factorial choice, depending on how much time you have to create content for behind those doors. and there's technology that can generate experiences that occur behind those doors. It's like a crazy advent calendar, maybe not religious. So yeah, the possibilities are endless and it is about the user driving the possibilities they want to have, those experiences they want to have.
[00:11:30.522] Kent Bye: We just came from a Power of Storytelling panel, so what were some of the highlights from that panel for you?
[00:11:36.888] Nancy Bennett: Being with a group of incredibly smart people who are fun and creative and collaborative and all doing very exciting things. Lynette Walworth did a film called Collisions, which is a documentary about the Mori people, a guy named Neary. When he was a kid, there were nuclear tests in the outback. He was a witness to that and the cause and effect and a dream that he had about them. And it's a really beautiful piece, very touching. And she did some really magnificent work. And we had just come from Davos in Switzerland, where we triggered that film for groups of 15 every half hour, and then 86 for a big forum at the end on Gear VR. So Lynette, very interesting person and an installation artist who knows a lot about projection and presence. And then Reggie Watts, who's an incredible musician and improv funny man. who, you know, when you think about music and what he does, sampling music and creating a piece on the fly, on his own, with his voice and the tools of his body, his artistic gifts, is, in a sense, a kind of VR experience. And sampling is a very interesting thing in the virtual space. You're going to see a lot more of that, I would imagine, because you can do it digitally. And certainly John Underkoffler who is a futurist with incredible technological vision and the Oblong Industries tool that he demoed in his film is magnificent. It's kind of breathtaking what he's created. Which gives you the ability to take multiple screens and objects and film and stills and people and live telepresence conversation across continents. and move objects around and make media within that realm and share information. It's kind of breathtaking. It's Minority Report on steroids. And then John Gaeta, who is the visual effects creator of Matrix experiences, but also Bullet Time and the current ILM Star Wars experience, which is a holodeck, and it's fantastic. He's great with holography, he's great with AR. He, again, to quote him on his limitless world of many doors, he's doing it. You can see the arc of his experience and his interest informing this moment for him. So the conversation was lively and fun and improvisational and collaborative and risky. So that was very fun. And then following that we triggered 200 people to watch collisions with Gear VRs. So I wish that Kevin Slevin could have made it, because he's pretty incredible. And I'm very interested in AI and algorithms. And I'm interested in how math and AI really start to talk.
[00:14:18.337] Kent Bye: It's funny. This is the first time I had a shared social VR experience like that. I was in the audience with the 200 people. And I'd seen the piece before, and I watched it again. And as I was watching it the second time, I was like, I don't know if I could tell I'm watching it in a theater full of people. perhaps if it was comedy or some sort of feedback from the audience or something, but because I couldn't see them as well, I still kind of felt like it was my own world. It wasn't until the very end when the credits showed, when everybody clapped, I was like, oh, all right, I'm sort of watching this in a group. And I had that moment of like, oh, that was really cool to kind of like all be seeing the same thing at this moment. But where do you see like the really strengths of this synced social VR experiences? Because, you know, for me, I kind of felt isolated and oddly.
[00:15:02.050] Nancy Bennett: Sure. Well, I think the strength, there are two. One is a baby step to get towards a screening social experience. But the reason why we built the tech to do that was because we were activating for multiple users in out of home experiences. If you have to worry about throughput and crowds, and you've got a 17-minute film, you're not going to want to do one at a time. You want to get people to see things, and that's why we create, is to share. So it allows us to share en masse. So this is just a baby step, but it was the tech that we built to facilitate throughput, so that the consumer, the user, would have a good time and not be waiting in line for hours on end.
[00:15:43.738] Kent Bye: Yeah, I gotta say that the New Frontiers section could really use that for a number of the experiences, especially considering that, you know, it's a really frustrating experience for people who are kind of dropping in expecting to see something and then they find out there's two or three hour wait to be able to see just one experience, let alone, like, all of them. And perhaps there could be some specific challenges with doing room scale at a mass scale like that. But certainly the sit-down experiences I could foresee maybe a year or two down the line of having an entire theater full of just VR as opposed to a film.
[00:16:14.465] Nancy Bennett: Well, it was almost that, so it will be happening. Much like 3D glasses, you know, there are things you have to worry about. Hygienic concerns, you want to make sure that people have a clean experience. And then technology is certainly, you know, it's hard to hand out 200 Gear VRs with headphones. and then make sure that they're all triggered on time. Somebody unplugged the router right before we started, which was a bit of a debacle, but it still worked and that was great. I think watching everybody watch it is really interesting. It was like being in a church. It was a moment of prayer for all because it was very quiet as everybody was moving their heads in consort like some synchronized swimming event. That's a beautiful thing to see happen. It's a baby step. And I think I said this on the panel, we're in that very first early node of all the things that are to come from the emotional impact to the technical capability to the en masse experience to distribution of the experience of VR to the masses in more than 350,000 headset increments.
[00:17:17.008] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you see as kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?
[00:17:23.852] Nancy Bennett: It's a very tough one. I kind of want to jog back and think about remember the fax machine or your voicemail machine and remember those things and how they set you free to get rid of them. What about virtual reality, mixed reality, AR will set us free? I do believe that technology has the potential for global human good. like the internet providing education to the masses. It's accessible and free. The ability to experience things around the world that you wouldn't be able to afford to experience, or the imaginations of others, or the educational offerings that many have to solve problems, medically or otherwise. For example, open-heart surgery. You know, watch one, do one, teach one. We are monkey-see-monkey-do people. And if you look at even the dance world, many of the kids today are learning how to dance by watching on YouTube. And some of the best dancers who are breaking out doing juking and are setting high bars for great evolution of that art form by watching. So I think that art could be evolved quickly and be shared in a greater way, giving the magic wand to many to express themselves or teach, and I think do some greater good. I think the idea of violating someone's space, I hope would vanish. You know, politeness, respect for one another might be something that's part of it. And everything we see and do and listen to and read and talk to one another about, we spark ideas. So the ideas that we see in VR and AR and Holodex and Magic Leap will be things that foment new ideas. And I am not prescient enough to predict what that is, but I think it'll be exponentially interesting and complex. yet with merged lines. You know, one of the things that I have seen quite clearly in the past 30 years of being in film and television and tech is the dissolving lines between disciplines, which is magical because you always got stuck, you know, what is it you do? And engineers are as artistic as directors are cinematic and capable of cinematography or editorial art. And I think the more we have the ability to speak with all of the tools and the languages that are in our universe, the more interesting the conversation will be. And I think technology's advances have evaporated those lines. So I think that's pretty interesting. If you think back on using Photoshop in the late 80s, understanding compositing was really intuitive and natural after playing with layers. And then you think about something like code and how it drives a program like that, and you're really peeling away the wall of the matrix. because behind everything is code, behind everything is math, and the sooner that people embrace the sciences and technology and math as art, the more understanding we'll have in the world, I think. That sounds really altruistic, I can't even believe I heard myself say that, but that's kind of where I go. It's inspiring, and there isn't an hour that goes by at Tewit Circus where one of my colleagues has not said something to me that changes my perception of something. And I can say, without a doubt, it's the most exciting time of my life. And I've had a lot of exciting times. I can say I've had wonderful opportunities, wonderful jobs, working with incredible people. But this moment is spectacularly interesting. So there you are.
[00:21:09.823] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much. Thank you. And thank you for listening. If you'd like to support the Voices of VR podcast, then please consider becoming a patron at patreon.com slash Voices of VR.