20 Q with Jason Jerald of NextGen Interaction

Posted December 15, 2014 by David in 20 Q

Welcome to our weekly feature where we ask some of the industry’s leading developers and personalities 20 questions.

This week we chat to Jason Jerald VR industry veteran.

Jason Jerald

Jason Jerald

State Your Name:

Jason Jerald

What is your current Job / Role ?

I am principal consultant at NextGen Interactions and primarily focus on helping various organizations with VR ranging from development to high-level strategic planning.

What are you most famous for ?

I’m more typically the person behind the scenes rather than being in the Spotlight.  I’ve worked on VR Projects with organizations ranging from the game industry (e.g., Oculus VR, Valve, Burnout Game Ventures) to Universities (UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Maryland, Waterford Institute of Technology) to National Labs (NASA Ames, Argonne National Labs, Batelle Pacific Northwest National Laboratories) to  Military (Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Naval Research Laboratories) to conferences (ACM SIGGRAPH, IEEE VR, 3D User Interfaces).  Some recent work includes building a game with Virtuix that was shown on ABC’s Shark Tank.  That’s over 7 million viewers who have no idea who I am!

What is currently on the desk in front of you ?

A bunch of junk everywhere!  I just moved into my new office and haven’t had a chance to get situated yet.  This interview has priority over a new office!

SIGGRAPH 1996

SIGGRAPH 1996

What was your first VR experience ?

One of the first times I witnessed the power of VR was at the SIGGRAPH 1996 Conference in New Orleans.  That was at the height of the VR boom of the 90s and the better systems were actually quite impressive contrary to the horror stories we hear about how bad VR was back then.  Of course it wasn’t as good as it is now but there was some quite impressive stuff.  The biggest difference is that it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.   There were a couple of demos at that conference that changed my life where I made a conscious decision to dedicate my life to VR:

  • One was a course where Dr. Fred Brooks and Mark Mine were teaching about interaction metaphors for VR. Some of those concepts would still be considered innovative today as most current demos are very basic as far as interaction goes.  Since that time I eventually made it to the University of North Carolina to study under Dr. Brooks where he became my PhD advisor.  Then a few years ago I somehow got to know Mark and he invited me to see the secret Disney VR Research lab where they have one of the best VR systems in the world.
  • Another VR demo was a virtual Legoland where you could construct a virtual neighborhood with your hands. I could try to describe this but that is like trying to explain VR to someone that has never experienced it before.   All I can say is it is still one of the best VR demos I have seen until this day.  While finishing my PhD I was interviewing with a little know VR company called Digital ArtForms that was doing some amazing work.  After talking for a while with Digital ArtForms President Paul Mlyniec and reminiscing with him about VR in the 90s I said “wait a second, did you demo that Lego demo back in the 90s?”  Sure enough he was lead on that Legoland demo and I am deeply honored to be still working with Paul today.  Paul is a VR legend that somehow had his hand involved in many of the things that make what VR is today including playing a crucial role in the early days of Sixense Entertainment and more recently MakeVR.  We’re currently working together with Sixense on an educational brain game funded by NIH and hope to have a video out soon.

Did you feel any sim sickness or do you ever feel any sim sickness ?

Yes, I definitely feel sim sickness, specifically when a VR system is not calibrated well or when the navigation metaphors are not designed well.

What’s the longest amount of time you have spent in VR in one play session ?

I’d say about an hour.  I spend a lot more time developing for VR than I actually spend in VR.

Doh

Doh

What’s the strangest experience you have had with VR ?

I remember experimenting in graduate school with what I called “virtualators” which were just virtual moving sidewalks.  We had a lab where you could physically walk around in a large tracked space but it wasn’t large enough where you could walk as far as you wanted so we still needed the ability to navigate larger distances.  It felt very strange when you stepped on the “virtualator” even though there was no motion platform—you simply stepped one step forward so nothing physical beyond stepping forward was happening.  Yet there was a sort of jolt sensation that you get when stepping onto a real moving sidewalk because the scene suddenly started moving you forward on the moving sidewalk—perhaps more of a confusing surprise than anything but somehow felt surprisingly similar to the real thing.

What’s the funniest experience you have had with VR ?

I was at the IEEE VR conference back in 2009 when VR was still a bad word.  A lady joined me on the elevator and asked me what I was here for.  I remember thinking I need to be more proud of VR—after all it is about the coolest thing on the planet so who cares that others think it is a joke.  So I enthusiastically said “I’m here for a VR conference—doesn’t that sound cool!?!”.  She looked at me funny and said “uhh—yeah back in 1998.”  DOH!

What game or hardware device are you currently working on ?

My primary focus now is not a game or device.  I’m writing a book titled “Perceptual and Interaction Design for Virtual Reality” to be published by Morgan & Claypool in collaboration with ACM Press.  The idea is to take decades of academic research as well as my own experience building about 80 VR systems/applications in an easy-to-understand format that anyone that is new to VR can understand.  I really want to see the new genre of VR developers to take VR to beyond the obvious steps of porting an existing game or simply placing a user in a virtual world.  Of course, I can’t claim to know all the answers—the book simply gives a background on VR/perception/interaction and gives some examples.  What I really want to see is for developers to take this information as a starting point and then innovate and come up with new experiences that I would have never thought of myself.

Do you have a release date in mind for your project ?

We will be launching the book at the SIGGRAPH Book Store at the conference on August 9th in Los Angeles.  That’s for the hardcopy of the book.  We will also be giving away the e-book for free to all ACM SIGGRAPH members.

What is the biggest surprise you have had since you started to work in VR ?

I am always continuously surprised at new concepts that different groups come up with.  One example are the new passive omnidirectional treadmills like the Virtuix Omni or the Cyberith Virtualizer.  We have had VR omnidirectional treadmills for a while but they have been bulky and extremely expensive as they were made of moving parts.  There were only a few of them around because they were so expensive.  Now that the passive omnidirectional treadmills have been made, it seems obvious in hindsight yet nobody had built anything like them over the last five decades that VR has been around.

Ultima IV

Ultima IV

If you could only choose one game from your childhood to be remade for VR what would it be ? 

Ultima IV really messed me up because one of the values that game taught was humility LOL.  For the longest time I thought being proud of your accomplishments was a sin.  Perhaps a VR game teaching me the virtues of Pride could rehabilitate me LOL!

Besides games what do you think will be the most useful application for VR ?

Education is going to be huge.  Traditional classroom education as we know it is in big trouble if it doesn’t change.  Students have the same access to information as teachers so we really need to get better at teaching those concepts that is more than just feeding information.  If we can take the power of games and social media that education is competing with and embrace these technologies then there is hope that there will be a renewed interest and passion for learning.

What advice would you give to people on how to get into VR development ?

I suggest to start with Unity.  I resisted Unity for the longest time because I didn’t think I could get close enough to the hardware.  Since I’ve moved to Unity I’ve found Unity. does almost everything I need to do and have increased my development efficiency by an order of magnitude.  It’s so easy compared to raw C++ that it almost feels like cheating!  You can literally get a VR experience running in five minutes.  At that point your stomach might tell you just because something is easy doesn’t necessarily mean that you can do it well in five minutes (i.e., you may have the opportunity to experience sim sickness).  For doing content development well, read my book!  Oh you have to wait until next summer for that—sorry! A great place to start is with the Oculus guidelines.  Take those guidelines seriously and if you are going to occasionally break those rules then understand how breaking those rules will affect users.

What is your favorite VR related movie ?

The Lawn Mower Man!

If you had a crystal ball and could see 10 years into the future what developments in VR do you think will have happened?

I think AR and VR are going to come together until they are considered the same technology (currently, AR and VR are very different experiences and have different requirements).

 Outside of VR what do you do to relax ?

HAH—now is not the time to relax!

Time Rifters

Time Rifters

What’s your current favorite VR experience that you have not developed your self ?

I was extremely impressed with Time Rifters.  Not only is the concept and gameplay great but they do a really job of using a technique similar to what I do to reduce simulator sickness. DarkNet is also quite good and proves that you don’t need photorealistic graphics to make a great VR game.  I’m sure there are plenty of other really great VR experiences out there but unfortunately I don’t have time to try them all.

Sum up how you feel about Virtual Reality in 6 words or less ?

Let’s change the world!

Visit NextGen Interactions

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About the Author

David

David Whelan a professional web developer has been a serial early adopter of the latest technology. From an early age playing on a C64 he always dreamt of entering virtual worlds and exploring the endless possibilities that could be offered up by the platform.

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