This week’s Champions Spotlight installment takes us back to VR, where Shauna Heller of Clay Park VR explains how VR is moving past toys and gaming and into the future of technology.
Tell us about your experience in developing VR apps. How long have you been working with the technology, and what are you/your company currently working on?
I’ve been involved with virtual reality since late 2012, when the Oculus Rift Developer Kit just began to grab the attention of the developer community. I took the kit to several creative technology companies for whom I was working as an independent business development exec. Like everyone else with early exposure to the prototype hardware, I was immediately drawn to the DK1’s immersive power and saw the potential for entertainment, enterprise and education. I encouraged the companies in my purview to become VR content creators and the rest is history: It became part of my personal and professional mandate to become a member of the community and by May of 2014, I was working for Oculus. There, I had a flexible role that evolved to become the developer relations specialist managing non-gaming/non-entertainment developers working with Rift and Gear technology. It was an incredible year and a half with Oculus, and I exited in October of 2015 to focus more deeply on advising corporations and institutions on how to make a meaningful entrance to the VR ecosystem. Also, I have the pleasure of serving as an executive on several Boards of Advisors for VR developers who are doing something particularly compelling in virtual reality. Beyond those duties, the company I established, Clay Park VR, has been contracted to help guide special VR applications and initiatives that benefit from my type of platform experience.
What application or project are you most proud of, and why?
Because my role for 18 months was to support the virtual reality developer community, I would say that any pride I can claim is in seeing the VR developers thriving. From the Mobile Game Jam winners of 2015 — so many of whom were indie devs putting their hearts into their submissions and who are now successfully publishing their VR apps to the Oculus Store on Gear VR — to the professional devs, who’ve been creating amazing enterprise and science-related apps. I’m very proud of their accomplishments.
What do you find most exciting about working with VR?
What I find so exciting about working with VR is its ability to function as something beyond a toy — something beyond a medium or gaming platform. As all of the various uses for VR in the home and workplace are developed, people will be able to use virtual reality to solve problems, seed minds and save lives. Recording and storing history for people to access anytime they want to step into their past. Visualizing and managing complex data sets into easy-to-understand apps for tracking global trends in finance, health or weather. Giving doctors more detailed patient images in a stereo 3D environment where they can actually see every last detail of a pathology to reduce surgery risks and optimize surgery plans. Creating highly immersive curriculums for the subjects students find most difficult to learn and retain, such as math and science, so that every student can become an accomplished scholar. There are so many areas where VR will have a positive impact on our daily lives that it’s difficult to name so few of the areas I find exciting in the space.
What do you see as the biggest challenge that developers who work in VR face?
There are many challenges for developers working on virtual realty. They face a multitude of platforms that have different peripherals and authoring requirements for distribution. Optimized toolsets for creating VR content are being created concurrently with the content itself, which can impact a developer’s ability to push out apps. Creating a comfortable user experience is also a challenge — having infinite depth is a new concept for UX and developing a natural experience is something that is constantly vexing design teams. With so many challenges out there, what’s great to see is the hardware, software, GPU and CPU manufacturers all working to connect with the developer community and provide knowledge and information as they themselves learn and discover new methodologies and processes for creating and experiencing virtual reality.
What’s your advice for handling these challenges?
The best advice I can give developers facing challenges in VR is to communicate. Talk to other devs on the public forums and share knowledge. Be persistent in communicating with the platforms and hardware/software providers through their forums. They’re listening and trying to find pathways to support you. And the ones who could be listening a little more attentively will be incentivized to pull out more resources as they see success from developers on other platforms. Keep experimenting and sharing those early prototypes with the VR community — and embrace the feedback you receive. We’re still in the very early days of VR and the best is yet to come, so developers should feel empowered to be bold.
Look into your crystal ball to five years in the future. What does the VR experience look like?
Five years is a long way away. With the tremendous advancements in computations and tracking in the past three years alone, it’s 100 percent possible that none of us can predict what five years from now will look like. That said, I’ll give it a try. So… sixty months from now, context and content will likely be more clearly defined. Meaning: The questions of “How will we be using VR?” and “What will we be experiencing in VR?” will hopefully be answered. In five years, we should also have a better sense of what’s working in VR. From my experience working with non-gaming developers, I’m prone to being bullish on VR having a very large footprint in enterprise, being a standalone one-use immersive headset most commonly used for employee training, task simulation, design and data visualization and communications. Ideally the headset will be wireless by this point and have the features and benefits of mobile with the robust computing power of a PC. The headset will be smaller in size, but not yet a sleek and chic form factor — i.e., not something that could be mistaken for actual sunglasses. Hopefully there will be voice command and control associated with these headsets (please!?) and robust hand tracking. You can do it, smart people in labs in far-off places. We’re all cheering for you!