#788: RLab: New York’s Publicly-Funded XR Center for Research, Entrepreneurship, and Education

justin-hendrixThe RLab is a publicly-Funded XR center for research, entrepreneurship, and education located in Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York. It’s being managed under NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering in collaboration with Columbia, CUNY, & New School. The RLab was funded by a grant from the New York Center Economic Development Corporation, and it’s goal is to become New York’s center of the spatial technology research & innovation by building classrooms, hosting VR studios, creating a co-working space for entrepreneurs and researchers to collaborate on projects together.

I had a brief visit to the RLab on June 19th, and then had a chance to catch up with the RLab Executive Director / NYU Media Lab Executive Director Justin Hendrix and RLab Director of the Technology Todd Bryant at SIGGRAPH on Tuesday, August 30th. We talked about how the RLab came about, how they’re facilitating collaborations between industry and academia, the challenges of XR education, and their future plans for helping to cultivate the XR ecosystem in New York City.


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Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. So for the past four days, I've been in Los Angeles covering SIGGRAPH. I ended up doing about 25 interviews and about 12 hours worth of coverage. Saw a whole lot of different experiences, and I'll be unpacking a lot of my insights on the Voices of VR Podcast over the next days and weeks and months. But I wanted to start with this interview that I did with the founder and technical director of the R-Lab. So the R-Lab is a new space in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. They got this grant from the New York Center Economic Development Corporation. They're going to be doing a lot of different meetups there and classrooms. It's a co-working space. They're going to have entrepreneurs working out of there. Lots of students from NYU and Columbia and CUNY and a new school. It's basically going to be like this epicenter in New York City for immersive technologies and a lot of experimentation and research that's going to be happening there. It's this publicly funded space for virtual and augmented reality. So I first heard about this at the XR for Change and the Games for Change where I ran into the Simpsorium's Matthew Niedenhouser and John Fitzgerald and they have been working out of that as a co-working space and there's really not a lot there yet. It's still pretty bare bones and feels like a big giant empty warehouse space and construction still has to happen, but they're meeting up there, they're having different classes, and they're getting rolling already. And so, I had a chance to talk to the founder and the director, Justin Hendrix, as well as the technical director, Todd Bryant, and we just talked about a little bit of the context and the history of the R Lab, where they're at, and where they're going in the future. So, that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Justin and Todd happened on Tuesday, August 30th, 2019 at the SIGGRAPH conference in Los Angeles, California. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:02:07.788] Justin Hendrix: So my name is Justin Hendrix. I'm the executive director of RLAB, which is a new space in New York City in the Brooklyn Navy Yard that's focused on virtual augmented reality spatial computing and all things tech.

[00:02:20.497] Todd Bryant: I'm Todd Bryant. I'm the director of technology there. I also teach motion capture and virtual reality at NYU.

[00:02:28.189] Kent Bye: So maybe give me a bit more context as to each of your backgrounds and your journey into these immersive technologies.

[00:02:35.210] Justin Hendrix: So I've been working in media for my entire career for 20 years. I previously worked long ago in publishing. I was at The Economist for many years, where I ended up doing a bunch of digital product development, innovation, corporate strategy. Then I got really interested in tech, especially in entrepreneurship and university tech commercialization. Got a degree in that. Started working at this thing called New York City Media Lab, which I've run for the last seven years. which is a consortium of universities, media, and communications companies. And in the course of working in the Media Lab, obviously got exposed to virtual and augmented reality and related technologies. And then a couple years ago, we submitted to operate a new center that the New York City Economic Development Corporation wanted to create, devoted to thinking about these future interface technologies. And so that's what our lab is. It sort of came out of my experience with the Media Lab and out of the relationship between the universities that we have in the Media Lab.

[00:03:30.187] Todd Bryant: Yeah, I went to ITP, Interactive Telecommunications Program, over at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and I graduated in 2014 and started working as a technical director, working in game engine technology, did a motion capture piece at the Met Museum, where we brought a statue of Adam to Life, the biblical Adam to Life. And then from there, they asked me, the school asked me to come back and teach and kind of reveal the secrets behind. And then around the time the consumer headsets came out the following year, I was poised with a motion capture studio or two where I was able to use a lot of the knowledge I learned making this project to bring stories to life inside of, you know, narrative VR projects. So I quickly expanded teaching VR as well. That's where I met Justin. We used to do a lot of demos for people to just help explain what we were doing to a lot of people. It was a great, really fertile exploration space and we had a lot of really interesting demos out of there. And so when Justin started working on the grant for what became our lab, he asked me to participate and help out with like tech writers. So I made the first manifest of equipment and more of the technical components for that and then applied for the position to be a technical director and I got the job.

[00:04:39.620] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, when I was at the XR for Change, which is a part of the Games for Change in New York City just a few weeks ago, I ran into Matt and John from Sensorium, and they invited me over to come check out the R Lab, which is this big, giant warehouse space in like a naval yard. Maybe you could set a little bit more of a context of this space and how it came about and what the intention is.

[00:05:02.364] Justin Hendrix: Yeah, so one of the things the city really wanted when it put this bid out was to locate this center on some kind of public ground in New York City. And so the Brooklyn Navy Yard is a really peculiar place because it formerly was a Navy Yard. It was used by the United States Navy to build our fleet for World War II and well on into the 70s and 80s. even today has some active shipyard, but it's slowly kind of undergoing this transformation where various entities that are pushing tech commercialization or startup incubation or generally advanced technology are kind of moving in, taking advantage of some of these spaces. And so the space we have in Building 22, 16,000 square feet, it used to be an old telecom lab for the Navy. It was variously used for different things. Most recently, they were manufacturing sugar in the space, a company called Cumberland Sugar. and we're just slowly taking it over. We're about to begin construction. It'll be a mix of classrooms, studios, and co-working space for entrepreneurs and researchers.

[00:06:04.406] Todd Bryant: The Navy Yard is changing considerably in the next couple of years. There'll be grocery stores and an entire food court, and WeWork is opening up. We have our own East River Ferry stop, so you can get to Manhattan, 34th Street in 15 minutes, which is an amazing ride. And yeah, it's like a weird maritime Hollywood backlot right now. And it's like you can see sardines and also see self-driving cars. And it's really changing less of the sardines, more of the self-driving cars. And well, actually, we have a Russendotter, so there's plenty of sardines. Yeah. Yeah.

[00:06:35.175] Justin Hendrix: And there is actually a giant film studio at the other end of the yard, Steiner Studios, where they make a lot of episodic television and film.

[00:06:43.058] Todd Bryant: Yep. We have Steiner. And then, of course, B&H is there. They just won't let us grab the equipment from their doorsteps, unfortunately. We have to ship it somewhere and then it comes back to the Navy Yard.

[00:06:51.906] Kent Bye: So yeah, what I was really struck with was there's just a lot of space that you could start to expand and do motion capture, these different offices and looking at what's happening in the visual effects industry right now, there seems to be like a whole virtualization of a lot of the production. Like if you look at something like The Lion King, that's something that could really be shot anywhere in the world. They just need to have the people in the right place. And so it seems like New York City has had a lot of people in the film industry and in the entertainment industry in general. And then you have Los Angeles, and so you have a lot of production that's been happening out of LA. But do you see that eventually with the virtualization, a lot of the production tools, you're going to see a lot more of trying to pull in the entertainment industry from New York into the R Lab, into being kind of like this epicenter of the emerging technologies.

[00:07:40.261] Todd Bryant: Definitely. I mean, everything is running towards or moving towards a real time right now, and the tools are becoming more and more prosumer and consumer grade. And so that's been great to be able to put the stuff inside the students' hands and see how intuitive it is and how it does facilitate rapid prototyping and, you know, you can do storyboarding within an hour. You have an animatic with just some stock assets from a marketplace for characters and scenes and, you know, being able to do camera work or be inside a VR headset that's looking at a character that is being driven by a live performer in a motion capture suit. These are great ways to just be able to reframe ideas and to do, you know, what people love is the happy accident. People have to be so meticulous with older styles and you have to plot things so much in advance. This is a way of really trying to stumble into this new cinematic language of spatial computing and a way to explore in R&D and all that kind of stuff. Hopefully this facility will give enough tools where we'll really be able to stamp out what the New York scene really can say inside these mediums.

[00:08:39.234] Justin Hendrix: Yeah, and I add too that we're not just focused on media and entertainment and gaming. A big aspect of what we're looking at is applications of virtual and augmented reality in other areas, chiefly health, medicine, wellness, and then in industry and enterprise. And there's a huge amount of opportunity there. So New York's a really great place to explore all of those areas because we have, obviously, a massive media and entertainment industry and a lot of employment in that sector, but also these other sectors that are just as rapacious in their desire to test these new technologies.

[00:09:13.234] Kent Bye: Yeah, I'm curious to hear a little bit more of the programs at NYU and how they're kind of tied into what type of things that were existing before this and like how it's kind of feeding into maybe a consolidation or a focus of what this new space is going to enable in terms of this relationship to NYU and these other colleges.

[00:09:32.254] Justin Hendrix: So NYU Tandon School of Engineering is the administrator of the program, so we operate out of the School of Engineering at NYU, but we have relationships across the School of Engineering, and then of course with Columbia, with CUNY, and with the New School, and with other New York City universities as well. So we're developing a kind of peculiar set of education programs at our lab that take advantage, heavily rely on our relationship to NYU, but also to other partners across the city. And Todd's been very busy helping to develop the curriculum for many of the master classes, technical education, the online programs we're about to launch, which you'll hear about more soon, as well as some of the more strategic classes we're planning to do for executives.

[00:10:16.120] Todd Bryant: So a lot of the online classes are those intro level. They're being administered by a company called Emeritus, which is highly interactive. It's extremely scalable, and it's our way for everyone to dive in initially with like intro to game engines, intro to the UX of XR. So those are our online offerings. And then at the R Lab, we do master classes where we'll bring in A lot of the people who are both excellent teachers and also working in the field and doing great projects and they'll kind of break down some projects and do these themed one to two to three day boot camps, sharing code samples and really just kind of making a conversational educational space to really dive in and transfer your current skill set and augment it to have these new skills.

[00:11:00.410] Kent Bye: Yeah, one of the themes that I see in spatial computing is that it's breaking down these different silos of different disciplines. And to me, I compare it to architecture or game design, where it's really interdisciplinary and trying to pull in all these different perspectives. And also, there seems to be a shift in education from more didactic lecture to more project-based learning or people actually building stuff. It sounds like that you're also breaking down the silos of even between the different universities of having lots of people come together and be able to work on projects together. So do you imagine that's going to be the case of interfacing with industry and students from all different colleges all collaborating on similar projects?

[00:11:37.933] Justin Hendrix: Absolutely, I mean that is the entire idea. It's really to create this sort of petri dish where lots of free radicals sort of, you know, encounter one another. Education programs that are capstone and project-based maybe mix with entrepreneurs who might see an opportunity for that project or a big company that might see an opportunity or another entity that might. And I'll just add one thing because, you know, your session here at SIGGRAPH is fresh on my mind. Another big part of what we're trying to do, and we've made it actually part of our areas of strategic focus, is to think about the impact of these technologies and to think about the ethics and the implications of them. So I hope that we're able to create a situation where we're thinking about these use cases, we're connecting talent, we're connecting problems with opportunity, but we're also doing it in a context where we're being self-critical.

[00:12:27.567] Todd Bryant: Yeah, we're just trying to create a literacy so we can just discuss, and we're giving many opportunities to discuss. We have meetups constantly. We do a large amount of space, so we are trying to offer that to all the meetups, all the different groups who want to utilize the space to congregate, to discuss, to explore, and it's proving to be very successful. We'll have at least one, if not two or three in a week.

[00:12:49.298] Kent Bye: Yeah, the session that I hosted here was the ethical and privacy implications of mixed reality. And one of my big takeaways was in listening to different people talk about it, there's a lot of open questions philosophically of what privacy is, what the ethics are. But yet, once you start to have a specific application, then you have a focused context that allows you to evaluate those decisions that you have to make. there's this interesting blend between like not having theoretical frameworks to be able to help describe either experiential design or a comprehensive framework for privacy or ethics, but yet we feel the transgressions that are happening in society and there's a need to at least at some point make a decision on every level of the stack and have those different kind of interdisciplinary philosophical ethical perspectives embedded into that process. But yet, it's almost like because the contexts are so broad, it's still going to be context dependent. So having specific projects, I think you start to collapse a lot of that complexity. And so that was one of the big takeaways that I had in talking to different philosophers about these issues is that become so unbounded that it's difficult for them to really talk about. But when I talk to people from industry about how they're solving a very real problem, that they have to actually make a decision. They can't make a perfect decision, but they just have to make some decision. I think it's interesting to see how there's going to be a continual blend between the more theoretic perspectives and the actual practice-based.

[00:14:12.141] Justin Hendrix: Yeah, I mean, I think there was a word that was used in the panel yesterday, dignity. And just how do we kind of design technologies that reinforce our sense of human dignity and don't detract from that? And that that seems to me to be on some level, the real challenge. But when you break that down, it begins to get extremely complicated. There was a lot of talk about regulation yesterday. And, you know, I thought it was actually laudable that most of the people on the panel seem to think This is fundamentally not a problem that we can solve. Collectively, society is going to have to set some bounds. But I think that is important because these technologies aren't coming of age 10 years ago, they're coming of age now. And now there is a different sensibility about tech and its role in our lives for obvious reasons.

[00:15:02.702] Todd Bryant: Yeah, just to add to that, there's a complexity to trying to define something as it's quickly evolving quicker than you can define it. So that's why you just have to be mindful as we experiment and create and continue to engage with one another.

[00:15:17.065] Kent Bye: And you were mentioning to me yesterday that you were a part of this program that was incubating a lot of different artists, and maybe could you give a little bit more context of that program that you were involved with?

[00:15:26.134] Todd Bryant: The New Museum Incubator, which has been a fantastic place to meet people and to really be a part of some fundamentally great early artistic and just important projects. I've worked there Since 2016 or 2015, I've worked with New Reality Company. I've worked on a project with Hyphen Labs. I met Eliza McNitt and helped stage 5,000 people simultaneously in VR in Prospect Park one summer. So it was just been a great... Every time I walk in the doors, something happens and it's electric. And I've really appreciated a spot like that existing in New York City. how much it just provides everyone. And I encourage all my students who are working in that field, as soon as they graduate, to say, go to the New Museum Incubator. Go to New Ink. Go to New Ink. That's the place that will help you get your start and really see this project come to fruition because it happens over and over and over again.

[00:16:16.228] Kent Bye: Great. And so for each of you, what are some of the either biggest open questions you're trying to answer or open problems you're trying to solve?

[00:16:25.403] Justin Hendrix: You know, clearly we're at SIGGRAPH and here it's not hard to see people using virtual and augmented reality in incredible ways. People who are at the absolute height of their game, they're installed in some of the pinnacles of industry giants here, but that's not the case across the country. You know, the vast majority of people have never experienced these technologies, touched these technologies, certainly they don't have much bearing on their lives. So for me, I think the next five or ten years is about seeing through the commercialization and the application of these technologies in ways that really affect people, not just in an entertainment context, but in their daily lives. And I do think that's going to happen. I think we've achieved a kind of escape velocity at this point with these technologies, and that's bound to happen. But there's still a lot of challenges in front of us, and I think we're making a lot of assumptions that are wrong. Likely about what's going to happen. And so I think it's for me This is like a unique opportunity a real perch to be able to see how this next chapter plays out For me, it's a very myopic thing.

[00:17:28.566] Todd Bryant: I'm just looking at curriculum on how do you teach this information? How do you make it register? How do you create an appreciation? How do you create a drive for something that is so interdisciplinary that requires large teams without documentation, oftentimes, on how to do these things? And it's creating a willingness to continue to learn and to make mistakes, to create a safe place for people to iterate and fail quick, fail quick, because there's so much experimentation at play. Because again, we're creating a language with this. It took us 60 years to create Citizen Kane after the train entered the station. you know, where are we going to continue to evolve this and where can this go? And it's super exciting to see this cinematic or language or this spatial language come about. But for me, that's directly what I'm thinking about is how do I create modules that fit together to create different courses that are digestible, that people can own it and not just feel like they learned something, but feel motivated. They continue to teach themselves these things from entry levels to master level to people in undergrad, people to master's programs. That's all I think about right now is I'm really diving deep into the curriculum.

[00:18:32.949] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of immersive technologies are and what they might be able to enable?

[00:18:41.893] Todd Bryant: I mean, I think they facilitate just smarter decisions and hopefully they'll be able to help educate everyone and create some sort of utopian sense of the world. But for me right now, I just know that they are the way of the future. I know that's what society is going to integrate them. People are going to continue to work on smaller and smaller electronics and implants. These things will be around. And so I just want it to be as thoughtful as possible as we go into that. I think it's inevitable that these things will be utilized. And I just want to make sure that we're doing it as well as we can.

[00:19:15.388] Justin Hendrix: It's five minutes to eight o'clock in the morning here at SIGGRAPH. So it may be a little early to say things like this, but I mean, I think I've always come back to why do I work in media and in technology? And I do believe that we collectively, all the people who've gathered here and who work in this space, on some level, we all agree what we're trying to do is advance human understanding and creativity. And that collectively, we're going to be able to do that. I think these technologies represent a massive leap forward in our ability to engage with the world around us, to share information, to share understanding, and certainly to unlock creativity. And we've seen a lot of that here at this conference just in the last 24 hours. And I hope that's the case, because we're kind of in a race to do that.

[00:20:02.819] Kent Bye: Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the immersive community?

[00:20:08.441] Justin Hendrix: Hey, go to rlab.nyc. We've got a bunch of programs. We run a weekly newsletter, which will give you a lot of detail about what's going on in the New York scene and elsewhere. And yeah, we've got an accelerator program that's starting this fall. I don't know when this will hit your podcast, but applications are still open till August 1st, but there'll be another one, another cohort open for the spring. Please, everybody, just check it out and let us know if we can help.

[00:20:31.874] Todd Bryant: Yeah. And all the classes are forthcoming. We do have a Unity versus Unreal class next week for Narrative VR, which we finally will be bringing in Yigal from Superbright, who is a true great educator and a great developer. And a lot of special guests will be joining us. We'll be doing a UX for VR class in September. And then we'll be diving into a very, very interesting health care two-day boot camp sometime at the end of the fall.

[00:21:00.198] Kent Bye: Awesome. Great. Well, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast. So thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much. So that was Justin Hendricks. He's the executive director of our lab, as well as the New York city media lab and Todd Bryant. He's the director of technology at the our lab. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, well, just being at SIGGRAPH over the last four days, one of my big takeaways is that these immersive technologies are integrated into the workflows of Hollywood and the game engines and, this whole entertainment industry that is becoming more and more virtualized in its production, whether it's motion capture or volumetric capture or artificial intelligence being integrated into that process. But computer graphics is kind of like at the center of so many of these different aspects of the future of spatial computing. And if you look at it from that abstract perspective, then there's not only like entertainment and gaming and storytelling that is going to be at the epicenter of this, but it's also Enterprise applications and medicine and communication platforms immersive technologies are like the new computing platform and it's starting this paradigm shift from Rendered spatial computing into like real-time spatial computing which has been happening in the game engines starting from the games industry but like merging with what's happening in Hollywood and kind of having these two worlds come together and so I There's going to be a lot of experimentation in this space, which is funded by the New York Center Economic Development Corporation. And so, essentially, the nation's first city-funded center for research, entrepreneurship, and education in VR and AR, and all the various other emergent technologies. So I'm excited to see where this goes, especially because it's a physical location. It's in Brooklyn. It's got this ferry that you can get to it. And so I think people that I talked to who were commuting there were just super excited just because it's going to be a little bit of the epicenter of immersive space within New York City. And they're having a lot of different education and this kind of fusion between industry and the students because I think there's this interesting place where VR and AR are right now is that it's changing and moving so quickly that there isn't a lot of textbooks and like the best thing you can do is like this oral tradition of being able to talk to each other and to go to these conferences and you know a place like this is going to be a little bit of this melting pot with all these free radicals as Justin Hendricks said where they're going to be able to have a lot of different serendipitous collisions and a lot of collaboration between industry and academia on these project-based learnings and a little bit agnostic in terms of who's actually running the program because this is a collaboration between NYU and Columbia and CUNY and New School and all these different startup companies and entrepreneurs and VR companies like sensorium, they're likely going to have an office there as well. So you just have like this melting pot of all these different people and Todd Bryant was saying that you know part of the challenge with teaching people about virtual reality is that it is very interdisciplinary and you do need to build these projects. The best way to learn is to do this project-based learning and to actually build stuff but there's no guidebook and there's not a way to understand how to best design and make these different experiences. And so I'm excited to see what happens because this is to me a really great indicator that there's going to be space for a lot of this technological innovation and still pushing forward the industry because the industry is going to grow one project at a time. And so it's a big open question right now in the larger VR and AR industry in terms of like the distribution models and how to get funding and there's a bit of a a lull in the sense of like you know the people who are still involved in the VR and AR are not necessarily in it to make a whole lot of money just because anybody that's in this space right now kind of has to scrap around into Struggle to find ways to get financing and funding and to make ends meet but at the same time There's a lot of indicators that there's so many different compelling applications out in the world and there's so many technical problems And what is the language of storytelling within this medium that I think a lot of creators who want to experiment? It's the time to get in now. There's no rule book you can really help define what this spatial storytelling and symbolic language is actually going to look like and so I When I go around and talk to a lot of creators, I think they're motivated by the exciting nature of this wild west where there's a lot of possibilities to do a lot of innovation. So there's going to be a lot of different courses and classes and there's still a lot of construction that they need to do. Like when I went there, it was still just kind of a bare bones warehouse space just with a lot of potential. So I'm looking forward to seeing how it continues to grow and evolve. It seems like there's already a lot of different meetups within the New York City that are meeting there. So if you happen to be in New York City, I'd suggest looking to see if there happens to be something going on and to definitely drop by and check it out and to start to get connected to more of what's happening within the VR scene within New York City. So that's all that I have for today. And I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast and to thank my Patreons for supporting me and the work that I'm doing here. This is a listener supported podcast. And so almost all of my funding comes from listener support. And so if you enjoy the podcast and you want to hear more of this, I've got lots of different content that I want to dive into. So please do consider becoming a member of my Patreon. Just $5 a month makes a huge difference and allows me to continue to bring this work not only to you but to the entire XR community. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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