Tailoring Reality with Jackson Alexander
Jackson Alexander is an Austin filmmaker and motion graphics artist, and he works as a VR production specialist at SubVRsive, a local XR company that specializes in VR content. Jackson and I met during our first year at the University of Texas at Austin, and since I’ve known him, he’s always been ahead of the curve when it comes to new media technologies.
How did you get noticed by SubVRsive?
I know I definitely wasn't the only UT graduated person who was looking at applying for [their] internship. I was digging around some files at one point, and I saw one of my other classmates’ VR projects that they had submitted. I had worked with Charles (SubVRsive’s producer) before on a few projects, a feature and a short here and there, when I was back in school. Charles is very well known in Austin and by far one of the best producers out there. I mean, he does all sorts of commercials, and he produces the majority of SubVRsive shoots, mainly because they're done with very high-profile clients, and he's just the go to guy.
The funny story about it was he recommended to me to apply for the internship because, when I was about to walk during graduation, I had the idea. Everybody decorates their caps, but I was like, you know what? Let me just stick one of these Gear 360 VR cameras on my cap while I walk, and it would be funny. I just got one of those GoPro sticky tripod adapters . . . and I stuck it on my cap, I took a picture, and I posted it to Facebook. And we were friends on Facebook, and as I was sitting in the crowd, waiting to go up to get my degree, I get a text message from Charles, and he was saying, hey, I'm working with this VR company. You want to apply for the internship there? And I was like, yeah, totally. And so, then I got in there.
I was only working roughly about 24 hours per week, but they always said that there was room for overtime, so that I could come in more days. And I tried to take every single day I could to come in extra if I was needed. I'd always ask. If we could go out for shoots, I'd definitely be out there for more time. And I just tried to further my skills and just kind of soaked everything up like a sponge. I was going to give it the same attitude that I'd kind of always given it, but with a little bit extra more behind it. It paid off.
Thinking about how VR and film can intertwine, are there any examples of projects you’ve done at SubVRsive where you’ve been able to include a narrative element in a VR or AR project that’s something more than 360 but isn’t just a virtual environment?
We crafted these two stories about this woman and man who both run small businesses, and through Capital One and a credit system, they kind of described how it made running their business easier for them. We filmed these two people on traditional green screen. We found some background to put them on, and basically our interactive team created this AR application. You would hold it up to this poster, and this poster would be placed in a trade show where these kinds of companies and businesses get together. You'd open the app on an iPad. You would hold it out, and then it would activate what we call a living label. And that would trigger the video to play. The background would be playing, too, but it would track completely in 3D space, so you could move all around it, and it would track against the poster, but it would overlay on top of it the video of these people talking about it. And it would tell them how Capital One's flexibility and access to the users allowed them to do their business better.
It would be kind of an entertaining thing for them to see, but it's really kind of surreal. Because you start watching it through the iPad, and you start looking at it, and then you look up, and you expect it to be there. And so, it was kind of one of those things that even when you're building it, even when you see it created, even if you shoot the video, you can still kind of get tricked.
Is that ever a problem with VR or AR, where people don’t like breaking that fourth wall and entering the uncanny valley?
I don't think I've ever run into anybody that has a problem with it, or who wants to keep that barrier. We are all addicted to whatever media we want to watch, you know? We love these stories. We want to be inside the stories. And I think one of the whole appeals of games, video games in general, is that, not only are they challenging, but they allow you, the person, to be Link or be the adventurer and to wander around and to make your own choices, whether that be good or bad. And being able to put on a headset [takes] that to the next level.
Okay, now the person, when they look at me whenever I move my head, they're making direct eye contact and following me. Or, you know, if I use my own hand, and as it translates to the virtual world, slap somebody or use a sword or something, it makes the extra layer even deeper. And it's really comical, because for years you saw in media these kinds of versions. Ready Player One is the easy example, and that's the funny thing, that reality is that much better. Being in the real world, we can be whoever we want as long as somebody makes a 3D model of them.
Video games seem to be making such big strides with VR, and it’s obvious - games are already interactive, so of course VR is the next logical step. But do you see VR and film converging so that maybe one day we’ll see a feature length VR film?
I think there are certain characteristics that will carry over from both, as well as new characteristics that spawn from that. But one of the things you can't get past when being in VR and experiencing it is fatigue. And I mean physical fatigue. And I think one of the characteristics that [a] new type of medium [takes] from games [is] to be able to pause and stop, and be like, okay, I've done my hour. Let me stretch my legs. I think anybody who designs that [new medium] . . . needs to take that into consideration as well. It kind of comes behind an ethics sort of thing, of how do you build the best version, but can you do it ethically? And all media is there to gain your attention and keep you strapped in, but games do it in such a way that it gives the user complete control at the end of the day on when to stop and start.
But you have BioWare games, Mass Effect specifically is the one I'm thinking of, that are so long but so story driven. I hear a lot of people complain about the combat or the tiring this and that, and if you ever heard my roommate Victor talk about Mass Effect, he probably doesn't remember a single minute of combat, but he knows each storyline that he played. People remember that. And that's the most important thing that you can take away when thinking about this new medium and thinking about how the two (film and video games) combine . . . the stories are obviously the most important part. And if games already have such wide, branching narratives that are told well enough for people to care, then fully immersing that person in it and making them feel like they are actually Shepard, that they get to put their name in or whatever. They're no longer having to play through this avatar. The whole reason we have character creation screens and this and that is because it's your fantasy version. But if it just gets replaced with you, at the end of the day, that's what matters, and that's what people are really going to care about.
What has been, in your opinion, the most impressive or impactful development in the VR industry?
I can definitely say the one thing that made VR even possible is our cell phones. Being able to get gyros that are able to accurately predict and have almost zero latency of where you're looking was it. Being able to get a compass in your phone was it. Because, all of a sudden, people realized, and you see it with the Galaxy phones, now your phone is a screen, and all you've got to do is put it up to your face, and wham, you've got yourself VR. You know, the things that go along with that are obviously processing power, the actual display of your phone. Can it handle 30 frames, 60 frames? How detailed can you get with it? Is it going to sound good? There are all sorts of little things to that, but that is what made it even possible in the first place. And then the other thing, I think, that will really make it explode here within the next few years is resolution size. There's a difference between what you can produce and a difference between what you can display. In a regular headset, like between the HTC Vive and the Oculus, I think it hovers somewhere in the 2K, maybe a little bit below that range.
If you had to guess, where do you think you’ll see VR spreading to in the coming years?
The gaming industry is definitely going to keep growing it. But I only see it growing as our technology grows. It's going to grow in tandem.
But education, I think, is one of the primary places that it's really going to grow. There are people trying to come out with plenty of educational uses for VR - classroom kit sets that you can send out and have individual lesson plans for kids. A big place I see that being taken advantage of is in science. Because it's one thing to learn about physics on a piece of paper, but if schools are going to keep getting their budgets cut, so much so that they can't even do real experiments anymore or can't physically demonstrate what the rules and properties of physics are, expanding into the digital space [makes] logical sense. Because you can do anything in there.
Things obviously stick way better in people's memories when they feel like they're doing it or when they feel like they're there experiencing it. If you could see a ball being thrown, and right there in front of you, you are able to get the, say, arc, velocity, how far it went, all you need of something was time. You know, solve for T or whatever. The virtual world allows you to extract all that information, leave out whatever you want, and have a student solve it, and they will remember throwing that ball.
For people who are looking to get into the VR industry but don’t know where to start, or how to break in, or how to learn what they need to, where would you start?
I will say that, with VR, there are some technical boundaries that you do have to overcome that are a little bit more difficult. But as far as where you would start, I would start online and start looking through YouTube tutorials and YouTube best practices, as well as Facebook groups. There's a specific Facebook group online, 360 Video for Professionals, I believe it is. It's a closed group, but it's not very hard to join. You can search the history and find answers to questions that you already had that you may not find when you Google [them]. You can find all sorts of tips and tricks and just people bantering around with one another, and it kind of gets you involved and makes you feel a part of something.
And then the other thing would be to just start shooting. Look for anything, anyone that may want 360 photography, 360 video. I'd say your easiest bet, if video production isn't your thing or if there's some sort of aspect of VR you want to get into but aren't sure what, go download Unity and Unreal right now, because even if you don't have a headset, those programs are free. There's a ton of free resources out there. And I know because I've sat on my computer, and I look for them and use them if I need to. Download Unity and Unreal. Pick your poison.
Which headset would you recommend purchasing for a first-time user?
If you want to go the more affordable and more consumer-based option and you just want to consume VR initially, the Oculus Go headset, I think, is only $300, $400 right now? But it has full access to the Oculus store. You can watch any content. While it doesn't have full environmental tracking of your head, it does do regular 360, and it's an all-in-one headset that connects to the internet. It's really comfortable. I've been using it in the office since it's come out, and I really like it.
If you want a more robust headset that you're going to be testing on and playing on and all that, [the] Oculus is still a good headset right now. I think that one, right now, is $600, but that includes touch controllers and all that, so that's the full package.
Me personally, I think I'm waiting for one or two more headsets to come out, and then I will probably get one of those personally. I think there are only one or two more features needed until headsets really explode and are something super impressive. I think those two things being eye tracking . . . [and] just display technology in general. Just getting the display resolution of the headsets . . . where you're no longer seeing pixels at all, it's just clear glass. [Then] you will see a real explosion.
What has been your general experience in the larger Austin VR community?
At the end of the day, everybody really does want to help each other. We're obviously all in the same market. We're all competing for the same business, but there's just been countless times [where] we've needed to borrow something and somebody else - another company - has had it. Or somebody else has wanted to borrow something of ours, and we've had it. So generally, it's very inclusive and very friendly, even in competition.
In Austin specifically, go to the VR meetups. Shout out to Ricky Holm, Chocolate Milk & Donuts, who, I think still organizes those together. And they happen I think every 3 to 6 months? People get to chat and network and talk about what they're doing and what projects are coming up or people who are new who want to get in. It lets you talk to people. You know, you're never going to have a lack of friendly people and companies who need help that, if you're willing to learn, you're willing to come out on a Saturday or for a test shoot or whatever, or learn how to stitch for somebody, you can find them here. The VR scene is pretty big here. The only other competing places would be LA and New York, and if it's video production and those are your competitors, then you're doing pretty good.
Are there any fun, personal VR projects that you’re hoping to take a shot at in the near future?
So, I wouldn't say it's one that I personally thought up, but it is one that I have been developing with our team. If you are not within the local Austin area and you're unaware, there is the HOPE Gallery Graffiti Park that is actually on its way to being torn down. Tourist or not you've gone there at least once or twice, if not made your mark there, and so, one of our coworkers, Nathan Woodburn, who is an amazing 3D artist, he came up with the idea to photogrammetry the entire park. And basically, build a level out of it in Unreal and allow people to be able to go in and be able to tour the park and see what it was when it was in the Castle Hill location, where it is now.
For those who don't know, photogrammetry is the process of taking a series of photographs of any particular object or environment and having software that basically pieces all those together, so that it creates a 3D model of all those photographs combined. And so last month, we went out for a full day where they closed down the park for us, and in the blistering hot Texas heat, there [were] 4 of us that went up, and I helped direct the capture of the park.
That's kind of our current VR endeavor, and it's been really rewarding and challenging. Photogrammetry is an area that I never really thought of or thought that I would be into, but it does make sense in the realm of VR and AR, to take real things and make them into accurate models.
Besides VR, what else are you doing in the Austin film community?
Motion graphic artist meetups that I will go to from time to time. Those are a lot of fun. And also, my other love of my life, “Hall Monitors,” which is an animated series that I've been working on for the past year and a half with my main animator, Victor Maestas. It's a kind of buddy cop, high school comedy, action, you know? It's got a little bit of everything for everybody. A pair of hall monitors team up, and they just try to maintain order in the hallways and justice. But, you know, the modern school environment is crafty and shifty, and they've got to adapt to survive. So, we've been working on that. That's getting really close to wrapping up here. We're in the final days of animation. Almost on a complete opposite spectrum of VR and AR, 2D animation. We [just] need Y and X. There's no Z-axis.