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/ 28.02.2018

A Chat With Sol Rogers and Bay Raitt – Part 1

Sol Rogers is CEO and Founder of REWIND. Sol is also a BAFTA VR Advisory Group Executive and an advisor to globally recognised conferences. Sol’s passion for VR has led him to set up VRLO; the UK’s most popular VR meetup, and VR Together; a platform to help create VR for good. Prior to founding REWIND, Sol was a university lecturer for 15 years in Digital Animation, VFX & Emerging Technology.

Bay Leaf Raitt is an American digital modeler and animator. He has worked for Image Comics, providing computer-image modeling for Steve Oliff to use with “Spawn”, “The Pitt”, and “The Maxx”. He later worked at Protozoa, providing 3D animation computer effects. In 1999 Raitt emigrated to New Zealand to work for Weta Digital where he was responsible for creating the computer-generated face for Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Bay is now CEO of the Spiraloid Workshop making VR comics.

Sol and Bay have become good friends over the years; their regular chats offer interesting insights and perspectives on technology and immersive content creation…

Part 1

Sol: We’ve had many chats and it’s clear that the stuff you have done in the past has led you to having a very different view, than I do, on how to run a business, but also on where the technology can go.  We’ve been creating content for brands, whereas you’ve been dealing directly with the consumer. We’re making one person happy (our client), you’re making a hundred million people happy! Why do you think that’s so important?

Bay: I think getting creators close to customers and close to audiences is important. Putting on a show for the public is ultimately what we are here to do. You talk about making cool stuff for brands, but on the other side of those brands is the consumer, so ultimately you are reaching the consumer. It’s easy to get distracted by the mechanism of making entertainment, you can forget that it’s entertainment. You’ve got to tell a great story to hook people in.

I remember the first movie I ever worked on, and I nearly killed myself doing it. I went to the premiere and sat in the theatre and realised I’d put all this time in just in service of people’s Friday night. I was like ‘oh right, I’m just a very small piece of this’. I am just a street performer. No matter how many bells and whistles you add or how much money goes in, ultimately we are not very far from the busker on the street. You need to pay deference to the craft that we are in, this business of ‘show’.

Sol: For the projects with Jaguar, Red Bull etc, we’ve been putting on a one weekend show, or a run of weekends around the world for a small group of people but the PR and buzz around it brought awareness to many more. And because what we do is really good quality, the client may, at some point, release it onto the stores, where more people could view it. But VR is still such a small, niche area that creating content is tricky. We are at this chicken and egg point.

Bay: I remember thinking how happy Red Bull must have been because the project (Red Bull Air Race VR flight simulator) was awesome and the general public were like ‘that’s cool’.

Sol: The advertising industry has been struggling with TV ads, print ads etc, they are always trying to change so they can reach the audience in unique ways. One of the things that I think has been great for us in the past four years, is the fact we use ‘disruptive’ or innovative technology. We can play in a new space and it’s valuable to our clients because the people they want to talk to are in that space.  

Bay: But you need to put a voice to it. You can be disruptive by setting off a stink bomb!

Sol: Yeah, the man in a furry suit on the street is still pretty disruptive, and way cheaper!

Bay: There are plenty of super expensive projects out there, that ultimately are not exciting to people. Humans love to be excited about the hopeful future, technology is the representation of progress. When you are playing in the future space it’s important to capture the hopeful, aspirational part of it. We can draw a lot from the history of entertainment and craftsmanship, but people want new, sparkly things. Right now, there are a lot of new things out there for people to get their heads round.

Sol: Recently, I was talking at an event in San Francisco and I said mixed reality was the future of humanity, but it’s also going to create a bigger divide – those that have access to it and those that don’t.  Someone said ‘isn’t that a bad thing for humanity’. I replied, ‘most people are good and won’t do bad things with the tech, but we’ve got to be aware that it’s a possibility.’

Bay: Everything I have ever seen that’s been really negative or corrupt or stupid has always had the most capable people look at it and say ‘I don’t want to lend my shoulder to that’ and in a way, the stupid stuff collapses under its own weight. Nobody wants to add their name to a really dumb idea. People want to be part of something cool, something they can be proud of and show their friends. When new worlds open up, you have to take the good and the bad. For us, we’re at that place in life and time where we can run at a changing landscape without being afraid of it. We run into it like we are in a candy store, whilst others flee.

Sol: We run into it all the time – companies that are so scared of change. They’ve spent 12 years making a really good pipeline to sell a thing and then you put VR alongside it and it replaces half of their employees. There’s a whole bunch of tech doing that right now. We are living in dog years at the moment – it’s seven years in one in the tech industry.

Bay: Right, it accelerates.

Sol: In the time it takes to raise my foot and put it back down again, sands will shift. This even applies to us. We work right on the edge of tech, but even now when we take a job on we tell the client, ‘well, we might deliver it on this platform, but there might be a new one. We might do it with this tech, but there might be new tech.’

Bay: I think we’ve also been culturally prepared for it, because we work on different versions of software; we’re constantly adapting to change. Retooling for people in visual effects, commercials and games is just par for the course. It’s a normal activity. I think for more brick and mortar businesses the idea of change is scary.

Sol: That thing that used to take you three days manually is now a button. I don’t find that a frustration, it’s great! It means I can do something else with my time.

Bay: I agree. I’ve been teaching myself a bunch of machine learning stuff in my own time and I’m totally excited by this idea: you build like a Rube Goldberg contraption and then you use a bunch of training data to make it really really fast and then when you’re done you have these little strings that magically do the right thing, I’m like ‘what can i build with that!? I realise that when most people see machine learning as this abstract scary monster, I’m like nah, it’s just another light switch, another version of the wheel, and you can vilify the wheel as much as you want but I think it’s no different than the caveman’s’ issue… ‘wait wait what about this plough, it’s going to change things.’

Sol: I feel very lucky, and I think you do too, that I’ve gone through a pipeline where change is good, where it makes you better. I always say that we are hardware and software agnostic and I say ‘if we can think it, we can do it’. We used to be a animation visualisation company doing TV commercials, then we were an experiential OHH company, but now I say we create content through creative tech. Content is always changing and creative tech is always changing but that’s OK.

We talked about AI and machine learning to replace 3D artists just the other day. In the studio we have a bunch of really good 3D artists, but if the object already exists we should purchase it, there is no point in remodelling it. Those asset databases of objects in photo realistic style are getting bigger and bigger, so the need for artists to do a lot of the manual work is getting less and less.

Bay: But you are basing that on one assumption, that photorealism is the most dramatic thing we can make. That my home video is my entertainment, but it’s only one small slice of what you can offer the public. Once you go into a stylised world, that has a particular voice, that feels like a new artist or your favourite artist; I think that’s where you get the general public interested.

Sol: Crafting reality, getting artists to be artists not just tracers –  3D tracing really drives me up the wall.

Bay: AI is going to totally own mimicking the real world.  An AI-assisted volumetric real world camera is coming and as soon as it comes I think most people that working in VFX and gaming are going to find themselves obsolete with their skillset instantaneously.

Sol: I would agree with that, but I also think that a huge amount of what the visual effects world does is re-crafting of reality – I may have captured something in reality but I need to make it better.

Bay: But a lot of it is making the realistic unrealistic, the special effects part of it. Here’s the streets of NYC, perfect, but one thing is different: Spider Man is flying through it. Or Godzilla kicked over the building. The Godzilla sculpt and the kicking over the building part, those are all so automatible and every year the tools are getting better. You want to do a face replacement on a person? Just feed me the training data of the person you’d like to be in and just let the AI do it. I’m a guy who can build faces manually, but I haven’t done that in 15 years because it’s not that valuable to focus all my energy on that when a machine can do it.

Sol: Yeah, but when you were doing it, it was hard.  When you were doing it you were doing it for the first time. Gollum was one of the first photo real creatures that people believed in.

Bay: But when I think about the most valuable part of what I got out of that…

Sol: All your friends.

Bay: Yeah, all my friends. When I think about the tech side of it, I think about the real guts of it  – the actual maths that runs in Gollum’s face, which is this combination logic, it’s a neural network, it’s exactly the structure of a tensorflow AI algorithm. I know how to manually make like an optimised tensorflow neural network and I’ve built tools for it!

I’m like, this old thing is applicable in this new way. What can I build now? I start thinking I am James Halliday building the oasis, I start to think I can build anything! And I think what gets me really excited, is when I think about this world that I know – this virtual 3D universe of creating stuff –  is breaking loose out of the box.

Maybe the simulated world of entertainment and the world of robotics are going to be competing with each other? All those pieces are going to be changing, and all those pipelines are going to be expensive to build, and they’re not really applicable. There’s a small team of people who believe that if you can think it, it can be done, who understand how to learn quickly and duct tape the things that have changed, and they can quickly adapt. Those are the people who are going to be in that space first.

Bay: If you look at the intersection of the technologies that are at play at the moment, from a software point of view, AI and XR is going to come from all the places that people don’t expect. It’s a new landscape.

Sol: It’s moving too fast, we’ve survived because we keep changing shape. We’ve seen people coming into the area, seeing the hype, with a couple of million bucks of investment, they’ve been told to burn bright and become the best, create the world’s best ‘insert app name here’, and the industry has shifted gears when they weren’t paying attention, so they’ve gone kaput.

Bay: I’m guess you’re talking about people expecting that big bang right out the block. I think slow and steady wins the race, which is a weird thing to say when everything shifts under your feet every time you take a step.

Sol: For us, it’s not so slow and steady. The industry itself is in flux, the VR industry is changing shape and it’s great to see it happen but it’s also really sad when you see great companies set off in the wrong direction and then find a dead end and have to restart. They use the investment money to burn brightly and hire some talented people, but in the wrong direction. So our passion has been service, that’s how we’ve got to the size we are, and we are now shifting gears into some longer form things and into our own IP.

You’ve had massive success at Valve and you’ve taken three years off to reshape your brain and come back with the tiniest but super high quality different medium – the 3D comic book. Why is that your passion now?  

Bay: I’m trying to build the craziest thing I could think of doing and I’m starting with the absolute smallest piece of it. It’s kind of like saying ‘I’m going to build the biggest theme park, and i’m going to start by building the menu,’ but the menus going to look like a comic book and I’m going to hide everything else inside it.

I can start to build little experiments and make this tiny sandbox for myself, get ideas in front of an audience, watch the audience and see which parts they like, then I can go ‘ok’, and I can emphasise that. Do more of it. I might find a thing that suddenly has the shimmer, the glow, and I know from experience that I have the editorial talent and taste to recognise it, to know what will have the public screaming for more. These 3D graphic novels can exist in VR, in AR, on your phone, on a tablet. I chose 16:9 because it fits on every device, but normal comics are 9:16, and you can’t watch those on your HDTV from your couch. I saw an opportunity to build a new format. There are 3D movies, like Pixar and Lord of the Rings, 3D games on Xbox, Steam and everything else. There aren’t 3D comics, there aren’t 3D graphic novels. For me, I don’t want to take my fun game prototype and spend six years turning it into a AAA title, only to to find out that it isn’t that fun. I want to actually start tiny, really tiny, and I want to make it in a way that’s fun for not only for me to make, but for other people to play. If you manage to attract them with that bang, that pop, and they go ‘oh that’s kinda cool, I wanna go find out more’ and then you hand them that digital crayon, then suddenly that kid starts drawing comics.

That’s what the heart of comics is all about, you get kids who are so inspired that they draw on their math homework instead of doing it. Those drawings could become tomorrow’s hits, that’s what I think should exist. Thinking of it as my own personal passion project, it’s also the thing I want to hand to the kids that come after me. That makes me cackle. I think it’ll make other people cackle too. I’m basically walking towards the danger, while everyone else runs the opposite way, which is weird!

Looking for part 2? Click here!

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