The dawn of virtual reality as a viable medium has given rise to one tangible reality: a skills shortage.
Finding developers and or artists who can design a VR environment using one of the two main programs — Unity or Unreal — is hard work. Here in Portland, with its strong design community and up-and-coming VR sector, the time is right if you have the right art/computer science chops.
Michael Hill, 31, is Portland's VR golden boy. He is booked back to back, with a tight schedule that would put most executives to shame. And yet, by choice, he prefers to work 40 hours a week if he can get away with it, and spend time with his girlfriend in their 1920s duplex near Laurelhurst.
Hill fell into VR at the perfect time. He had some advance knowledge of the HTC Vive, the $800 goggles-and-laser-cube combo that is emerging as the most user-friendly system.
The HTC Vive was launched at CES in January 2016 and made available to the public in April 2016. The Vive is a joint venture between phone maker HTC and the Valve Corporation, which also came up with the Steam gaming platform. Gamers, not educators or advertisers were the target market, but its appeal has rippled outward to those people.
Come for the fishing, stay for the rendering
Hill was part of the Great Portlandia Migration in 2015, heading here from Green Bay Wisconsin. He stopped along the way at the Eyeo Festival in Minneapolis, a cool showcase for arts-focused technology. He hit it off with some people from Portland creative agency dotdotdash and they invited him to visit them when he arrived.
They soon asked him be an artist in residence at their office.
"They gave me desk space to do my own work, then I got hired out to work with their clients," Hill told the Business Tribune recently. He was standing in the offices of Oregon Story Board in Old Town, a tidy space with room for a couple of dozen bodies. There are freshly unboxed Oculus Rifts and Vives everywhere. Hill has been working in a tiny room with a whiteboard, a standup desk, and a humming tower PC. In fact, almost all the personal computers are PCs. Hill explains that Windows computers are still the number one format for heavy game play, ahead of consoles, and that Apple seems to have lost its edge in computer graphics and horsepower machines in recent years by focusing on consumer products such as iPhones.
One early piece of work Hill did for dotdotdash was to write some software for a laser cutter to cut different shapes into wood veneer. When the pieces were stacked together into a quarter inch pile, they formed a stiff card containing different shapes, including the client company's logo.
"They needed a software developer, and they saw a big benefit having someone in the office who could work in Unity and Unreal."
Hill was familiar with Unity because he had used it in designing touch screen environments for museum exhibits.
Right before the Vive debuted, some developers had been selected to work with it in advance. One of those had a connection to Mountain Dew, and they brought in dotdotdash, and dotdotdash brought in Hill.
There was a scramble to get something ready for the NBA all-star game in Toronto in 2016. "They had a brand rep who wanted to do something with VR. But they wanted to make sure it worked, the frame rate was smooth and they didn't want anyone getting sick."
As well as being the only guy in the room who knew what could be built in the given time frame, and then working on the coding and hardware, Hill also attended the game and advised on such things as where the public should stand as they lined up to the headset, how to keep them interested in line, and how to recalibrate the lighthouses for the reflections from a glossy hard-court.
Hill isn't just a software developer however. "I quite like building custom hardware," he says.
The Vive Tracker was launched in April 2016. It's a way of attaching sensors to other objects — not just goggles or hand-held clickers — so that someone can hold, for example, a realistic-feeling gun in the virtual world.
Taking a Bluetooth Arduino and sensors normally found in a Playstation Portable gaming console, Hill mounted them inside a camera body specially designed for use in VR. So a person wearing a headset felt as if he or she were underwater looking at a squid-like fantastic sea creature. Holding a plastic camera with Hill's custom hardware on the front, they could virtually photograph the creature and then print the results out on paper. (The camera body was 3D printed in plastic, although Hill's "ring" was properly injection molded, which is far sturdier. The viewfinder was just a sheet of glass, but to the viewer wearing goggles it functioned as a screen.) He worked with another Portland VR maven, toy maker Jeff Lawber.
"We wanted to make something that wasn't just for pointing and grabbing, but a physical representation of a camera reflected in a virtual place."
Hill's first degree was in art, where he focused on a software package called Processing and on early systems for activating art by waving hands over light sensors.
At Carnegie Mellon he did a masters in Entertainment Technology. With focus on infotainment in the automotive industry, and CGI graphics infiltrating all manner of screens around us, this degree is highly applicable to the job market.
"Basically, if Disney has done it, I've probably studied it. It's about the psychology of what makes things entertaining, about what does and doesn't work from an interaction standpoint. How do we keep people interested" Graduates have gone on to work at triple A game companies such as Electronic Arts, and as imagineers at the Walt Disney Company. "And to Lockheed Martin. Places where they push the technology a little further."
Having just come off a project for Second Story that had him working on six large screens at once, Hill knows its best to work on the studio's hardware. He just built an unbranded Windows PC for working from home (he rattles off the seven elements that comprised it), but prefers to work in the office. VR programmers get excited by backpack machines. They are a laptop with a big processor and graphics card and a huge battery. The user can design environments and test them out by walking around, untethered.
"The Vive is $800 but I tell everyone if you want to start from scratch in VR, with a computer, you need to spend around $2,400."
As he talks, Hill's whiteboard room is suddenly in demand so he agrees to move to another PC in the break room. This one hums even louder than the last one as the fan cools the graphics card and processor. He has to find Unity on the network and reinstall it, then open a blank environment to show how he works. It looks like sky. He adds the ground underfoot. It has that Minecraft feeling of blundering around in infinite space. Then he creates an object to throw — a sphere with a cube stuck in it.
He opens up the command line interface and shows how the physics apply. After a lot of nulls and if-this-then-thats it's pretty clear you have to be a fluent coder to do the right brain part of his job. But he is just as adept at left-brain work.
"My mom's first degree was in art so she gave me my practical training, she was able to guide me. And the first software I wrote was copied off of the back of a magazine called 321 Contact. It was in QBasic, on a Windows 3.1 Packard Bell."
His mother is a psychologist in a school district in North Carolina, his home state, and his father is a nurse. He remembers being wowed by seeing his father install a CD ROM drive in that Packard Bell, taking the back off, plugging in the wires and rebooting the machine. The seeds of a love of building computer hardware were sown that day, and were watered by his parents' constant encouragement to tear things apart and fix them.
Nowadays he backs everything to the cloud using Version Control, and he searches for answers on Stackoverflow.
Another client whom he met while volunteering at Oregon Story Board is called Shovels and Whisky. Hill ended up doing some work with them on an educational research project by the University of California at Riverside.
He worked on alpha testing, interaction design and layout design, using VR to figure out how VR can be used to encourage critical thinking in the classroom. He worked with a professor who teaches Caribbean and South American history.
In a unit about the Cuban revolution Hill helped build a model of a rural village from the 1950s. Students activate the radio and listen to a Fidel Castro speech and investigate different ways his policies would affect different people.
It sounds a lot like Myst, the 1990s CD ROM game in which people would click around on an island trying to solve a mystery.
"Yes! Myst was a big influence! It was static renders from 3D with animation on top. The second version was 3D animated videos that you could move around in. And later it went full 3D. What made it compelling was the fidelity of the graphics plus the puzzle solving aspects."
Virtual cranes, serious games
Another fad that has been building this last year are escape rooms: real analog puzzles you pay to escape from. There are VR versions of these now too.
Hill admits he was in the right place at the right time, and he came out of the starting blocks fast. There are other hubs of VR creativity — notably New York, Los Angeles San Francisco, and many universities — but he prefers Portland. He likes local podcasts such as Kent Bye's Voices of VR and Pinky Gonzales's New School VR.
He talks about Serious Games, a genre of simulators. One, for example, lets you play firefighter, training a hose on a virtual fire while wearing a jacket with heating elements that warms as you approach the blaze. Another, found at the Woodland Training Center in Woodland, Washington, lets construction workers train on a crane simulator.
Common VR titles include the games TiltBrush (painting), Ship It and Job Simulator (which was just bought by Google) as well as Google Earth, which he calls "beautiful."
And the future? As in the next 12 months.
"I feel mobile will really take off. Now it's not great but I see it as a strong market in the future because it's a device people already have (the smart phone)."
And the job competition?
"I got my break by cold calling, I knew someone who interned at Second Story and it took a year for that to come to fruition. I kept on doing my own thing, then showed at Kaleidoscope last October and that really got my work out."
He also did a collaborative piece at Hap Gallery with local artist Damien Gilley who is known for his line art at Little Big Burger.
"I expect to see more people coming up in VR, especially as fast as Portland is growing. I don't expect to have this market cornered for very long."
So he's working with a buddy, Sven Mesecke, on a startup called Rebel Camp, which is focused on VR hardware.
"I see so many failed Kickstarters because people don't know what they are doing. This is going to do that, with VR software and hardware, helping people who have an idea and finish it, and take it to market."
From digital to analog
Asked what he does to relax, Hill says in the evening, if his brother is awake on the east coast they play video games together. A favorite is Rocket League, a cooperative car-soccer game.
He also has a very analog side project called Grid Guides. Hill, like a lot of gamers, keeps a sketchbook for drawing characters and concepts. Sometimes he wants a square or triangular grid of dots to guide his drawing, dots which he can erase afterwards. Since there was nothing in the art shop he decided to design his own. Grid Guides are steel cards with a matrix of dots which are electro-etched into them. He tried the on-demand laser cutting/3D printing maker site Ponoko but found it cheaper to know someone or use a local source.
He has them made by a company in Washington called Aculine, which also makes metal business cards. ( http://www.aculineetch.com ).
He prices them at two for $12, but plans to scale the enterprise on Kickstarter. "It's all about getting a product to market. I could charge more but I want to get them in the hands of people who will use them."
Make your own virtual reality
OSB has classes covering a wide range of topics, including the design of an AR/VR experience, the production of 3D assets for such a program, and how to write your own software for VR: http://www.oregonstoryboard.org/vr-classes. All of the courses will be done in Unity.