Christina Heller on Immersive Reality
Christina Heller on Immersive Reality
Christina Heller is the Chief Development Officer and co-founder of VR Playhouse, a virtual reality creation and production company based in Los Angeles. One of the most accomplished women in the immersive tech field, Heller—formerly a radio and broadcast journalist—is deeply concerned with the myriad ways technology and business are reshaping and impacting society. Heller has produced and directed two feature-length documentaries, Libertopia and Reversing the Mississippi, which premiered on PBS’s “America Reframed” in 2016. She currently serves on the Board of Advisors for SH//FT, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting diversity in virtual reality storytelling. Christina spoke with Enter editor Jeff Greenwald about the perils and potentials of the revivified VR industry.
Jeff Greenwald for Enter - Let me start with a technical question. Aside from obvious issues like bandwidth, cost, and headset technology, what are some of the big challenges to bringing immersive virtual experiences into the mainstream?
Christina Heller - I honestly think it has to do with more with cultural adoption than with technology. A VR headset covers our eyes, which are a crucial part of how we experience the world. Television and computers - at the end of the day it’s still us, gathering around and getting our content from a framed screen. Taking away the screen and immersing ourselves in the content is a huge leap. It'll obviously take time for people to become comfortable with that.
That being said, once you go inside the VR headset you can experience some other incredible worlds—things you could never do in real life. There's a lot of magic inside that headset.
Enter: How do you personally reconcile your deep sense of empathy and community, working with a technology that isolates people?
CH: I think that I've reconciled with the fact that technology is an unstoppable force, and that we should be as community conscious as possible with it. But to suppress technology is a futile endeavor.
When we first discovered the latest incarnation of VR —which for me was in January 2014, when I tried the Oculus Rift DK1—I recognized its power and potential. And the things that were the most interesting about it haven't fully come into fruition yet. You said it was isolating, but we're just at the beginning of social VR—which will be interesting for its therapeutic benefits, its medical benefits, and the social benefits that will come from having a virtual avatar and being able to connect with people anywhere, at any time.
But we're still at the very beginning of that. For example, if I do a first person shooter game in a VR headset right now, it's not interesting to me. I go in, I shoot zombies, I'm bored. This isn’t a reality I would choose to inhabit. But if I do a game with another person, where we're both in a virtual world shooting zombies together, suddenly I'm on an amazing, crazy mission with a person I've never met, and there's a camaraderie between us. When the game is over, we’ve gone through something epic together.
So where VR is now, Christina Heller, the average person and consumer, wouldn't be doing it a lot in her free time. But I see where we're heading. Once headsets become more functional, lighter, easier, the social technology will develop. That's when someone like me would be more inclined to play with it.
Enter: Where do you think VR will first make a substantial landfall in terms of its greatest utility?
CH: If we are to see this version of virtual reality succeed, we need to focus on the practical applications of this tool. That's what it is: a tool. It does things that no other tool before it could do.
People aren't going to say, “I want to escape my real life, so I'm going to install a big headset at my house and go into VR for hours at a time.” What they're going to do is start to use the tool in ways that benefit their actual real life or business life.
Enter: But that's the opposite of what's happened in online gaming and virtual worlds. Why do you think VR is going to be different?
CH: I think that mass adoption will be what eventually happens when the public becomes more comfortable with the interface. Also over time, the VR content library will expand, and so will it's functionality as a tool. But it all takes time. I guess that's my argument - That people aren't going to just automatically adopt it because it's new and supposedly cool. It has to prove it's real value to their lives, their actual reality. And you're going to have to convince them it is superior to their current forms of entertainment! Both are tall orders that VR has the potential to meet, but overhyping or underestimating it has been detrimental to the industry every time it tries to establish itself.
As a community, we have to have conversations about how this tool improves people's actual lives—allowing them to do something in a more efficient manner, in a more cost effective manner, in a way that improves results. Travel and real estate are no brainers. There's also a lot of compelling evidence that it already has health and therapeutic benefits. It’s in those practical applications where we will start to see VR being used. And I'm optimistic that we will see it take hold in location-based entertainment spaces, like VR arcades.
Enter: Which of your own VR projects are you proud of at this point?
CH: We've done over fifty pieces at VR playhouse since 2014—and they all hold a special place in our hearts, because each one tackles a creative or technical challenge we hadn't encountered before. We did a piece called Defying the Nazis with Ken Burns and PBS. That was a real standout, because we were able to make a piece that had cultural significance. We were able to show the piece to a Holocaust survivor and get her feedback, and that was really beautiful.
Another piece we're working on now, which I’m writing, is a full VR Playhouse production, almost like a play. I was a documentary filmmaker and a journalist before this, and when I made something, it lives on forever. But with theater, people put all their energy into something and, almost like a sand mandala, it disappears after it closes. To be able to take that artistry and make it [an immersive VR experience] that can be experienced over and over again, worldwide, is exciting.
Enter: How might VR impact society in the sense of work that people do? Or is it too soon to answer?
CH: It's not too soon to answer. I had the opportunity to spend some time with a colleague of mine in San Francisco named Ryan Holmes, who is currently making a robot that uses a VR360 camera as a head. He imagines a world where workers anywhere can be operating physical plants and machinery using VR. So imagine a worker in Mexico who has a VR headset and controllers, operating in a plant based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. That's a use of this tool and technology that I hadn't really considered until I saw Ryan actually making a taco remotely, using a VR headset. I thought, oh my gosh, this is taking the need to be physically present completely out of the equation. That's extremely disruptive, and will definitely affect a lot of sectors. Once the technology evolves and becomes more mainstream, I think it will affect almost every sector of business in some way or another. Which is both exciting and also terrifying—a bit of a double- edged sword.
This is taking the need to be physically present completely out of the equation.
Enter: Neither audio recordings nor even films can be relied upon as being indisputably true, do you see room for abuse in VR as well?
CH: Yes, that's the thing. It's technology. And technology is this weird thing that is both amazing and terrible. Immersive technology, in some ways, is the most exciting and terrifying of all. Because it does effect our neural pathways in a way that's very similar to real life experiences. When you recall a VR experience, you recall it as a memory you actually had. So the potential for abuse here, or for PTSD as a result of a VR experience, is high.
When you recall a VR experience, you recall it as a memory you actually had.
That being said, we are also seeing that it might be able to help cure people who've lost motor function. It might be able to help people with pain relief without pills. So it's both exhilarating and terrifying, and it's important that as professionals in this space we have conversations about how we're going to bring this out to the public, and the most responsible way to do so.
Enter: What are the first steps for someone who wants to make, say, a training VR video?
Well, the best thing to do is to partner with experts. You've got to get a VR expert on your team—whether that's VR Playhouse or one of our colleagues. Start with somebody who's been in the space for a number of years.
What we do right off the bat is outline the project. What are the goals, and does it make sense to do this in VR—or is it something that a “framed” experience will do just as well? If you can do it with a framed, traditional shoot, you should; because it's more accessible, and easier to produce. But some training is much more effective inside VR, without having to put someone in an actual environment with tangible real life objects. If that’s your case, start with simple things and build from that. Then you can become more familiar with this medium.
One thing I like to do is go to conferences in sectors that are niche-specific, but not VR specific. So I go to medical conferences or music conferences. I talk with the experts of those industries about VR, and how I think that it could be useful to them. Then, if we have the opportunity to collaborate on a small piece together, we get the benefit of brainstorming with people who have a deep knowledge of the ways that VR can help their industry.
Enter: Let's talk about cannabis and psychedelics. How do you see VR synergizing with this emerging economy?
CH: I've been an advocate for legalizing marijuana for a long time, and I'm also an advocate for the responsible use of psychedelics. I think it's really exciting to see these natural medicines start to gain legitimacy.
But I think they're very different. While inside the headset you're transported, you're feeling a loss of your default self, it's affecting your neural pathways. So you can have almost a psychedelic experience inside a VR headset— without putting anything in your body. I think what VR is offering is drugs without drugs. For a lot of people, that will be one of the more compelling reason to use VR.
Enter: Still, it’s inevitable there will eventually be a synergy there.
CH: Well that's true, I really haven’t thought about the idea of taking the therapeutic or mind expanding benefits of VR and amplifying them with psychedelics or marijuana. Certainly there are people who will always try to turn it up to 11! And VR will allow them to do that in a really interesting way. But I think that psychedelics, as we use them now, are already like a virtual experience. And VR offers (a psychedelic experience) without putting anything in your body.
Enter: Thinking as a policy person, what limitations might you think about putting on virtual reality?
CH: We need to figure out a way to communicate what kind of content somebody might be about to consume before they consume it. Once you're inside the headset, you can't unsee or inexperience what you're about to experience. I do worry that we could be causing some people mental pain and anguish. Particularly kids. I think kids – for kids, it'll be even less clear what was the real experience and what they experienced virtually, because they may not have the mental maturity to make the distinction.
Once you're inside the headset, you can't unsee or unexperience what you're about to experience.
But I'm not one of these people who thinks you should not put kids in VR, because there are really exciting applications for education, for virtual field trips—kids could go play in a virtual playroom, or do team building exercises with students in another country. It's super exciting from a cross-cultural communication perspective too. I'm big on VR education. But it's just about making sure that we don't put kids inside violent or pornographic experiences. Because it’s way more of a real experience than if you stumbled onto something on HBO.
So we need to have key markers: is it violent, how long is it, is there motion, that kind of thing. Making sure that people and parents have signed off on something before we go in.
Enter: The opportunities for cross-cultural understanding, for all kinds of potentially charged personal interactions, are infinite.
CH: It’s a safe simulated environment. I'm sure there are a lot of people who don't do online dating, because they're nervous about meeting strangers in real life. But when you're meeting them in a virtual space, it can feel like you're spending time together in a physical environment—without the risk of what could happen in a vulnerable physical environment.
Enter: On the other hand, will some people feel so safe inside these simulations that they will prefer them to real life contact?
CH: Definitely—and I don't think we need any more disconnection. I'm optimistic that what VR brings to the table is that it frees us from the frame. So we're not longer going to be connecting with people in a framed glowing box. We can start to encounter them in a more physical world and bring our physicality into it. But I do feel that we've become more disconnected from the real life community that our grandparents had in their world. Again, these are conversations that we need to have. When we see VR doing good stuff we should be giving thumbs up for that. If we see VR reinforcing bad behaviors or encouraging disconnection, I think we need to be vocal about monitoring that.
Enter: Is there a question you wish I had asked you?
CH: I’ve heard some recent proclamations that VR is dead, that consumers don’t want it, etc.
It’s true there were a lot of promises and expectations on how fast we could deliver on the dream of VR, and everything has taken a little bit longer than promised. But we're not dead; this is just the beginning. It took us three years to develop the tools and tech that we needed to make it cool.
So if you're looking at it and you're thinking, “Oh, the resolution's not that good,” or “I don't think the stereoscopic depth is really that awesome,” remember: It's only going to get better from here. It's actually pretty good right now, and the tools to do things socially are becoming readily available. Everything is coming together.
It's only going to get better from here.
So it's not really if, but when. It could be next year, it could be in three years. But there's no question that once people see what this technology is capable of, they’re going to implement it more and more to into their lives and workflows. I just hope that as a community we can herald the right values, and give energy and support to those who are making the world a better place.
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