Director of Creative Development & Innovation at Cutting Edge, Benjamin Richards is on the forefront of a new era of storytelling. Having forged his career from primitive 3D software and award-winning animated shorts, Benjamin’s expertise in nearly all aspects of film and tv production has seen him work with some of the industry’s biggest names, from Pixar and Lucasfilm to Ubisoft and Sony. Benjamin is keenly interested in the future of entertainment and the possibilities of new technologies such as Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality enable. His passion for technological innovation has, more recently, seen him work with Cutting Edge to deliver a world-first VR theme park ride, Q-RIDE, creating a breath-taking underwater experience. Benjamin took time out of his packed schedule this month to chat with Ian Chapman, Founder and Director of VMP eLearning, about the future of Brisbane’s Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality scene, the benefits of gamified learning, and what’s next for everyday VR.
Ian: You’ve been working with VR/AR for some time now, and you’ve seen the technologies available shift and change. What’s your main focus of exploration in VR currently?
Benjamin: I am interested in all aspects of VR and have completed projects across a wide range of industries and whilst there are other companies out there that have done a lot more, we’ve been careful with the projects we’ve done – none of them have made a loss. There were times it was borderline in terms of making a profit, but it’s definitely been worth their weight in gold in terms of marketing. A perfect example of that is ‘Inside Manus’, which has premiered at Melbourne International Film Festival, had its international premiere at Future of Storytelling in New York, has hit a few European film festivals and South by Southwest in the states, and just played at Cannes Film Festival. This style of VR storytelling, room-scale narratives, are the most exciting area because you can literally walk around inside the film.
I: How can people in Brisbane see Inside Manus?
B: We put out an open invitation for people to come here to Cutting Edge and check it out, and after it’s done its run of the film fest circuit we’ll release it for free in the VR circuit. Of course, the limitation in the early days of this technology is that not everyone has a high-quality VR headset at home, so, unfortunately, the audience is rather limited – for now. However, I invite people to come to Cutting Edge to see it, especially if they have an idea for a project we could do together.
I: How big is the VR community in Brisbane?
B: I think it’s bigger than any of us know at the moment. This is what’s great about this VR group I’m involved with, Brisbane XR Hub – it’s brought all of these people out of the woodwork. There’s this guy from the CSIRO who’s doing amazing stuff. There’s another guy who’s doing wireless VR technology that’s more advanced than anywhere else in the world. In Brisbane itself, there’s absolute world leaders. When we started the group, there was maybe ten of us in the first meeting and the other week there was 35 people there – and these are only the ones that we know about. We’ve engaged state and local government and the Brisbane City Council has now started a program to try to find more VR companies!
I: So, what’s next?
B: I still hear this same criticism of ‘we’re waiting for this, the killer app to make VR/AR mainstream’. My wholehearted belief is that we’re not waiting for the killer app. There’s a lot of really compelling apps already out there – we’re waiting for the killer device. Magic Leap have been the first to have an AR headset which isn’t huge and ugly, but it’s still big and still going to be expensive. Moore’s Law means that it’s just a matter of time till you have small form factor glasses which are super powerful and can just overlay digital information onto the real world.
A lot of solid industry rumours from groups like Goldman Sachs and other reputable sources are saying that 2020 will be when Apple releases its first Apple Glasses. My firm belief is that, within a certain period of time which I think will probably be less than what people think, there’ll be an Apple Watch which will be the main processing centre to connect with your Apple Glasses. We’ll be able to do things like send our image to someone else through our glasses by pointing your watch at your face, transmitting it as if you’re in the same room together.
I: What’s involved in the process of stepping VR up from, say, a Samsung Gear 360 video to an HTC VIVE room-scale project?
B: The fundamental difference between a traditional CG or VFX workflow and a 360 video output, to an interactive AR/VR project is that it needs to be running in a game engine. The whole dynamic of being able to walk around, interact with or navigate a virtual world totally hinges on it being in a real-time game engine. There’s a growing trend of game engines breaking away from being used just for games – architecture, education, gamification’s in everything.
I: Is there a particular product of existing technology you would suggest would be the right price point for companies that are interested in employing some VR/AR into their business?
B: The thing for VR currently, with the costs of hardware and everything else, is that I think the actual hardware cost is negligible if you have the right application for it. You could look at all sorts of different ROI methods to see that the investment in terms of reward is huge.
Gamification of training and things like that – people’s retention of the information is so much higher, as well as their engagement with the training itself. If it’s self-regulated, people just tend to complete it more. Look at risk mitigation too – there’s millions of dangerous jobs out there and training on the job equals a much higher percentage of accidents than training virtually. I freely tell people that there’s a massive opportunity for companies with high-risk factors to look at how much they spend on insurance, pay-outs, etcetera at the moment and compare that to the relatively small cost of making all of their training safe and their staff qualified before entering their workplaces.
I: Do you think VR technology will get down to a cost where everybody can have it? It seems like a lot of technology to get down to a price point that 8 billion people can enjoy…
Yep, I do. The reason for that is just purely mass manufacturing. Once you can manufacture a billion units instead of a thousand, the cost per unit drops dramatically.
Look at one of the indicators/criticisms that’s happening for VR today – when you put on a headset, you can see the pixels. There’s a micro-display company that makes super dense pixel screens whose clients are the US military. They just doubled the number of stock in their company and LG, Apple, and Google all invested. That just signals to me that they’re going from manufacturing thousands of units to millions, billions, and that will just massively bring the price point down. I think it’s the same for any miniaturization efforts – it’s just a matter of making a billion as opposed to a thousand means you can make it affordably. Again, it’ll just keep following the principle of Moore’s Law.
I: How can people in Brisbane get involved in the AR/VR scene?
B: Brisbane XR Hub meets on the last Wednesday of every month at the Emporium Hotel, 6PM! VR professionals should feel free to come along and discuss all things VR, AR, and MR.
See Other Helpful Resources on VR and Gamification:
For more information on the powerful VR film released by SBS and Cutting Edge, Inside Manus,
For more information on the fully immersive VR experience, Q-Ride,
For more information on the benefits of gamification to your workplace training,
read this article by VMP eLearning (that’s us!)