David Lui

David Liu: Virtual Realities, Virtual Futures

May 1, 2017
Having worked extensively in both game design and film, David Liu seems uniquely positioned to navigate the uncharted waters of Virtual Reality - and that's exactly what he's doing as Creative Director of Virtual Reality at Viacom NEXT. Before he appears at the Convergence Film Festival and Conference this week, we were lucky enough to be able to fire a few questions at him.

What is the exact nature of your role at Viacom?

We are Viacom NEXT, an R&D group within Viacom who are creating, producing, and exploring Virtual Reality (VR) 1 as it pertains to entertainment. We’re the guys who are being tasked to see where the industry as a whole is headed, to go to where the puck is going and not where it is, to mangle a famous Wayne Gretzky quote.

It’s clear to us that a new medium is being invented, complete with all the requisite uncertainty and chaos. My team and I rapidly-prototype through the affordances of VR to find out what it can uniquely do best, and not just to simply project what the industry is currently doing with film, music and games into a 3D space. One of the first things we’ve discovered is that all of us in this space – the so-called pioneers of VR – are all completely clueless when it comes to this new medium, and by extension there is a need for us to be hyper-inclusive in thinking about working across disciplines. That also means that we seek as many interesting collaborators from outside the company as possible.

This medium doesn’t just beget the illusion of an abstract world like in previous mediums; you are now actively creating an actual digital world with similar affordances to the real world. Guests may now step into an artificially created constructs, and not just theme-parks or museums – in this one you can bend the laws of time and physics.

Think about that for a minute. We now have a medium where creators can play god to guests. It’s a fair bit of responsibility. Our job is figure all this out as reasonably as possible. And for us it means making and producing as much good work as we can, making the mistakes now, and growing the language of this medium alongside our peers in other companies. It’s an incredible community – together, we’re all learning very quickly what works and what doesn’t.

No other medium in the history of man, we’ve discovered for instance, is as efficient at getting one to hurl out their breakfast.

It seems that your work now combines your background in games design and filmmaking – can you elaborate on that?

The short answer is that having such a background was the result of pushing for an interdisciplinary approach to understanding what makes us entertained – it didn’t happen by accident. I’ve enjoyed both mediums as artifacts of art and human expression, and wondered about ways for them to work together. It is serendipitous that virtual reality rests so much on these two prior mediums.

The long answer is, well, a little longer. I have a lot to say about this, so bear with me…

Fundamentally, whether it’s making a music video with dancers in fluorescent geometric shapes, a feature film about Amy Adams deciphering alien coffee stains, a game about disconnection set in the Wyoming wilderness, or a popular musical about an underrated founding father – we are in the business of sculpting moments. We have been in the business of sculpting moments every since we scrawled pigment in caves, or huddled around a burning fire listening to the matriarch of our tribe tell us about why the mountain goddesses are giving us less fruit this year.

My thesis is that what drives good entertainment isn’t just the pursuit of a satisfying ‘story’ – but the pursuit of moments. Where games and story align are that they are both sequences of moments. As an enterprising species, we have gotten especially good at telling stories and designing games (which designs behavior) that we’ve constructed different rules and parameters for each separate discipline. Where stories cater to the listener, who follows moments (conflict! drama! resolution!) through empathy developed through the journey of the protagonist; games cater to the participant, where they are often the protagonist, sculpting their moments (conflict! drama! resolution!) via a system which drives their actions and motivations.

With virtual reality, what is especially interesting is that we’re seeing the need to incorporate both filmmaking (storytelling) and game (behavioral) design paradigms in our work. Fiction only needed the progress of time to drive the story forward. Now when you present a world for the guest to watch, explore, and interact, you need to drive attention and agency as well.

We often get asked what the biggest barriers to entry to getting into virtual reality is. My favorite answer comes in three words: a closed mind. Never have we needed a more inclusive, holistic approach towards content creation. Never has it been as exciting (and uncertain) as well.

To what do you ascribe VR’s sudden explosion in popularity? Have we simply reached a technological tipping point, or are there underlying cultural considerations too?

It certainly felt like it happened overnight, didn’t it? If I had to point to a tipping point for this current wave, it would have to be when Facebook acquired a small start-up that a pudgy white kid kickstarted. The $2 billion Oculus acquisition was a strong sign that very rich, very powerful people believed in the technology – there was now some genuine legitimization that the medium might actually take off.

It helps that the technology is finally, actually pretty good. And with all that money they have, it’s only going to get better and faster from here, in these exponential times.

Culturally, my suspicion is that people have always wanted to believe in Virtual Reality. Especially for some of us cinephiles, it certainly seemed like it was when Brett Leonard dreamed up Lawnmower Man from a Flowers for Algernon-type Stephen King short story. Wasn’t that a terrible movie? No one cared – the dreams about entering a virtual space were forever implanted in our heads.

I’d venture that it goes deeper than that. I don’t doubt that since we’ve played in the playgrounds as children, when we tapped on the television screen as toddlers crawling on our fours, when we close our eyes every night and drift off into our dreams – that there was a yearning to be transported into another world. Not one merely where we watched from behind a screen, but one where we were in the space itself, touching the ground, affecting the world.

Virtual Reality is the closest we’ll come to lucid dreaming, and it just so happens that the technology is finally good enough to make that happen.

Oculus Rift VR Headset

What will you be doing at Convergence? What are you bringing to show us?

I believe we’re still trying to make it work but I really want to show off the wonderfully giddy, chrome-kitten musical experience that is Chocolate by Tyler Hurd; as well as The Melody of Dust, a constantly-surprising deliberative melody experiment which we created alongside musician Hot Sugar. Together they represent two ways in which music may be experienced in virtual reality. One where the music happens around you; the other where you directly affect the music and soundscape being created.

Mike took a gamble asking me to speak at Convergence (what will this crazy person say next?!) but I’ll be sharing a few war-stories, our mistakes, as well as our wins. I’ll be giving two talks tackling two of the bigger frustrations the industry is wriggling through right now. One will be catered to development executives and content investors, where I share strategies on where to put money where it counts the most. The other will be for creatives who have been struggling to marry agency and story in virtual reality experiences – I will posit an approach we’ve been using to tackle content creation, using techniques borrowed from both filmmaking and game design.

We aren’t experts, we’ve just been doing this a little bit longer than most folks. I’m not sure that it gives us any more legitimacy, but we feel that sharing our knowledge early and often can only benefit the greater industry. It’s too early for competition, it’s a little too early to count revenue numbers – it’s a young industry and we’re all in this together.

The Melody of Dust

As the VR field rapidly develops and mutates, are we seeing the development of a VR “grammar” already across different projects, or is that still some time away?

I’d say the medium is young enough that there have been numerous efforts at establishing this ‘grammar’, but there are certainly more akin to being best practices than an actual language. Most of what we’re seeing are technical standards (eg. 90 fps, 6 degrees of freedom) and techniques (eg. no acceleration in camera movement, keep the horizon level) aimed at keeping the guest as comfortable as possible.

Like I mentioned earlier, no other medium does a faster job at getting the guest to throw up!

There’s also the question of who’s writing and defining the ‘grammar’, and for what sort of an experience. FilmInk is a film magazine, so I’m sure you’d empathize with the filmmakers taking the leap into virtual reality, their vision of a ‘VR film’ being one like normal flat movies… but better! What does that mean? Yes, now the story world is all around you, and the characters are right next to you… but what does that mean? Is this a ‘new version of a close-up?’ And since VR is a spatial medium, shouldn’t you decide when you want to be close to a character or not? Are you a character in the experience? Can you affect the world? Many filmmakers I talk to shudder at the thought – how dare you touch the world I’ve lovingly created for you. How dare you look where I don’t want you to be looking. Stop goofing around, and come back to this story I worked desperately to tell you!

Then on the other side you have the video game development folks who are scoffing because they’ve already figured out this grammar of agency and story, because they have already been doing it for over 30 years! Unlike film though, and despite advances in recent years where the larger games community have finally presented games as an art form, games carry so much baggage, and carry undertones of an alienating subculture that makes it impossible for mainstream audiences to fold it into their daily lives. Instead, all they hear from the press are stories of GTA breeding violence and social decay, or that someone in South Korea died in a LAN shop because he had been playing Overwatch for close to 60 hours straight. There’s perhaps a struggle to be ‘mainstream-art’ that video games will never be able to win, at least not in its current form. As such, ‘grammar’ being written by game developers for games that might be applicable to VR are still being ignored by filmmakers, whose language consists of shots and beats, acts and scenes.

It might be that entertainment content in VR will converge, and there might be a need for a shared grammar one day, the same way we’re all thankful that Eisenstein convinced all of us that editing works so darn well for film. It’s more likely, however, that as VR matures, that it will act more like a platform of a plethora of all types of experiences; than just being merely a medium. Where there will be content which are primarily lean-back, stories similar to the form as we know it now; and likely also emergent worlds where we join friends and create stories together via active participation, not unlike HBO’s Westworld.

 * Generally speaking, I’m going to use ‘VR’ as a catch-all term being fully aware that there are several other ‘realities’ being segmented by various people in the industry (AR/MR/XR etc). We feel that they will all converge eventually, but that Virtual Reality will be the first medium with consumer devices, and that skills will transfer fairly easily to the rest.

The Convergence Film Festival and Conference takes place at Event Cinemas, George St, this Wednesday, May 3, from 12 noon. For information and tickets, head to the official site.

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