Colum Slevin is Head of Media for AR/VR Experiences at Facebook/Oculus. He was part of the international jury for Virtual Worlds and gave the keynote at the professional day.
You say that William Gibson’s science fiction novel “Neuromancer” got you hooked on VR. Can you tell me why?
It was the poetry of his language. The novel plays in a universe that has much in common with “Blade Runner” and other dystopian future narratives. It’s 35 years old this year but I find it really timeless. He also introduced the concept of “consensual hallucination” which resonated with me.
In the novel this describes the cyberspace. What inspires you about the idea of a “consensual hallucination”?
I thought it was a subversive and revolutionary notion to buy into a synthetic reality and enter this alternate dimension. I like the idea of it being a hallucination because it’s not really there, it’s being generated by a computer and projected to you. With the advance of VR technology, this fantasy of being able to willingly enter an hallucinatory state has become a reality.
As part of the international jury of Virtual Worlds it is your job to judge the quality of these hallucinations. What makes a VR experience stand out?
What’s challenging is that the experiences are so diverse and so varied that it’s difficult to draw categorisations or commonalities between them. But at a basic level we look for something that evokes a sense of presence, a sense of place and immersion. And sometimes, depending on the subject matter, a strong sense of empathy. If I embody a creature that is not me, how well does that work? And I also look for creators who use all of the infinite spatial potential of the medium and not just techniques that are obvious and familiar from filmmaking.
How important is the technical aspect when you judge VR? Does an interactive perspective have better chances to win a prize than a 360-degree-movie?
No, I don’t think so. I think the technical aspect is important to some extent. The experience needs to be running at a frame rate that is comfortable, the resolution has to be good quality. The basics have to be there - unless there is some intention for them not to be there. Meaning, you can have a low poly experience that can still be very compelling because of the way it’s executed. So, I don’t think an interactive experience has an edge on a simpler experience. Because actually to do create really good interactive experience is really hard. If you attempt an interactive mechanic and it’s clunky or difficult, it will probably work against you more than anything else. The mistake you want to avoid as a creator is trying to be too ambitious. You need to ask yourself instead: Why am I making this in VR? What do I need to tell my story?
Your job at Facebook/Oculus is to support creators to tell their stories in VR. How do you help them?
We start with the notion that storytelling is necessary on a very fundamental level for the human experience. We support storytellers technically. If you enter VR for the first time as a filmmaker there are many hurdles and pitfalls. We have a team of very brilliant experts who help creators with what they need to know for example about the capture workflow, about working with real-time technology and to help them avoid basic errors. Then we also give advice and input throughout the production. In certain cases, we even co-produce or support with funding, especially if a producer is working on an experience that we think solves a particular and interesting problem in VR.
You have a professional background in animation and in gaming. As a new medium, VR is often compared to these two genres. But are there any special rules in VR that you can’t find elsewhere?
To a large extent the rulebook for VR is not yet written. So what we try to do is help people navigate their creative ambitions without trying to force them in a box. We try to support creators through iteration and experimentation.
With Oculus providing the VR hardware for the mass market how do you take the needs of artists into account when developing these devices?
It’s a team effort. The hardware, the platform, and the experiences all work as parts of an ecosystem. We match the demands of creators with our roadmap to develop the hardware. If something new is suggested it usually has to reach a certain critical mass before we would consider altering our roadmap. Sometimes an idea sounds interesting and unique, but isn’t sufficiently necessary to the whole developer community. It has to be something that needs to be technically possible and also fit the business reality that we’re dealing with. Every medium carries fundamental constraints with it and I think those constraints are also very important for artists because they stimulate creativity.
In VR, a lot of arts and crafts merge together. This medium consists of elements that filmmakers are more familiar with, other aspects are the territory of game designers. But it also has performative and sculptural aspects. Are we seeing a revival of the old concept of a “Gesamtkunstwerk”, a synthesis of the arts?
I do think that VR is a convergent medium. We’ve been talking about the promise of convergence in digital media for 30 years. And I think that VR is the venue where that convergence will happen because it combines real-time technology, interactivity and storytelling in a new way.
As somebody working for a company that’s pioneering VR technology: what do you think will change in the next years?
I think untethered headsets, standalone six-degrees of freedom headsets such as the Oculus Quest, are a significant watershed for creators and consumers. They will continue to become lighter, more powerful and cheaper as the years advance. So, the barrier for entry will continue to drop. Ultimately down the road, I think it’s likely that the technologies will converge. We will stop describing Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality and Mixed Reality as different disciplines and they will all become one new hybrid. But I can’t predict how long it will take to get there.