From George Lucas to Ryan Coogler, many famous filmmakers got their start at USC Cinematic Arts.
Located within the University of Southern California, it still offers a classical curriculum that combines film theory with practical hands-on experience. But on the last Wednesday of each month, Dev Night, held in the MxR Studio, has something of a different flavor to it.
Dev Night is hosted by VRSC, a partnership between USC engineering and cinema students founded in 2015. It’s developed into a campus-wide after-hours hangout for geeks and creatives who enjoy experimenting with the boundaries of the unreal.
PCMag went along to meet Kacey Weiniger, VRSC President and a USC student studying communications and computer programming, and Brenda Chen, a fellow undergrad and VRSC member majoring in animation and digital arts, as well as video game programming.
“We encourage a sense of community, and provide education and resources for everyone here who is focused on, or curious to learn more about, the future of immersive technology and its inherent impact,” Weiniger explained.
As we spoke, the MxR Lab filled up with students holding Oculus, Vive, and HoloLens headsets, who gathered in small groups, talking intently. That night, Dev Night was hosting an “office hours” event, where the VRSC leadership team answers student questions “about immersive technology, whether it be technical help, or insight about the industry,” Weiniger said.
About 20 to 30 people show up on any given Dev Night, but its newsletter goes out to more than 1,000 people. “We also have a full membership, so students can get access to equipment, receive VRSC swag,and attend special events,” said Weiniger, a junior who has been involved since her freshman year.
“I heard about VRSC and came along to one of the first demo nights of the semester. It not only blew my mind, trying a real VR experience for the first time, but basically changed my trajectory, persuading me to get more into technology and understand its possibilities for my own future.”
Pixel Puppy on the Loose
Not long after joining VRSC, Weiniger became Creative Director on ARnold, an augmented reality short film for HoloLens and Apple’s ARKit. It became an industry showcase for the club, winning “Best in AR” at last year’s VRSC Student Festival, and is now available on the App Store.
It was also a professional launch pad for its director, Greg Feingold (below), a USC alum who snagged a job at Felix & Paul Studios, which recently collaborated with Wes Anderson on Isle of Dogs.
With ARnold, “we wanted to use spatial mapping and understanding of empathetic narrative styles to pioneer ‘dynamic storytelling,'” said Weiniger. “So ARnold changes based on the surroundings, and physical location of the viewer wearing the headset.
“We noted how people reacted to a virtual pet that appears inside their own ‘real-world’ environment. People have such strong attachments to pets and it was noticeable how swiftly they responded to our virtual one, instantly crouching down to pet Arnold as he explored their world,” she said.
Which is exactly what I did inside a HoloLens. It’s pretty instinctive to pet a puppy, and psychologically irrelevant whether it’s “real” or not. What counts as real anymore anyway, when something responds to your eye gaze and physical presence?
Bring on the Synthetic Sea Creatures
Brenda Chen then guided me through her mixed reality experience, Santiago, which features a physical sculpture alongside the virtual world; players interact with both to create visual and auditory feedback.
“I’m a junior in animation and have been enamored by VR ever since I accidentally wandered into the MxR Studio freshman year,” she said, handing me an HTC Vive. “I tried my first VR demo there and fell in love with the medium for its immersive quality. It has inspired me to refocus my animation work towards mixed reality.”
Chen is the creative director and technical artist for this project but collaborated with a team of 10 programmers, designers, and musicians.
“With Santiago we really wanted to create a truly tactile MR experience,” she explained. “So we incorporated Leap Motion so that players can use their hands rather than controllers to interact with the physical environment.
“While this project started as an experiment in tactile VR, it eventually evolved into a full-blown art piece that incorporates a variety of mediums, including 2D and 3D animation, music composition, sculpture, and painting,” she said, pointing at a strange fish sculpture on a neck-high, raised stand.
I suddenly realized this piece had nothing to do with the capital of Chile.
“Santiago is a fictional fish god,” confirmed Chen.
It sounded cool, but I didn’t quite get it—until I went under with the Vive. You’re immersed in a multi-sensory environment and surrounded by gelatinous, technicolored bubbles inside a trippy underwater world. Ahead of you is a 3D replica of Santiago the fish god, and you can see ghostly representations of your own hands.
Touch the fish—inside the virtual world and, IRL (i.e. the sculpture)—and musical notes emanate from within the water waves. It’s very odd at first, because, of course, you can physically feel the sculpture while your head is freaking out wondering why you’re underwater, with no wetsuit, or breathing apparatus.
The computer graphics alone were highly imaginative and beautifully rendered, but it was the use of mixed reality that really sets this piece apart.
From Virtual Fish to Social Good
Chen, a big fan of Tim Burton, is definitely into the artistic and entertainment aspects of mixed reality, but is also firmly focused on what these new technologies can do to improve lives.
“I’m really interested in exploring the potential of virtual and augmented reality in mental health care,” she explained, packing up the Santiago kit. “I want people to have a positive response to the art and technology we’re building here at VRSC.”
Weiniger agreed. “I feel VR, AR, and MR are powerful tools that will help democratize education and travel, if they’re developed correctly. I have both a utopian and a dystopian feeling about all this, which is why I want to work in the field, to ensure it’s used in a way that enhances people’s experience.”
Picking up her phone, she said: “For example, the architecture these are built on keep us in a dopamine-based feedback reward loop. What happens when we’re wearing AR glasses, and they’re built in a similar way, but on our faces all day, every day? It’s going to affect us very deeply.”
So do the VRSC projects improve your outlook on life? I definitely felt upbeat after hanging out with the fictional fish god Santiago, and the pixel-based puppy gave my neurons a pleasant buzz. It wouldn’t be hard to make a viable business case for mood-enhancing mixed reality, if manufacturers improve the wearability of the headsets.
Perhaps ARnold is also paving the way for future digital pets. It’s easy to see how coming home from a hard day and hanging out with Arnold would be beneficial in reducing cortisol levels. And let’s face it, you’d get the neuro-benefits of puppy play, without any of the clean-up issues or steep vet bills. Plus, he’d live forever, or as long as the code holds up. Ditto with Santiago; although the fictional fish god sculpture would be hard to merge with most people’s decor.
If you want to learn more about VRSC, and are in LA on April 13, members will be showcasing new work to industry players, including sponsors such as Disney and Nvidia, at the VRSC Student Festival.