A Q&A with TurboSquid’s VR Experts

Kate Voisin Real-Time, Site, VR

Last week, TurboSquid attended the 2016 Collision Conference, hosted in our very own city of New Orleans. Between hosting some great events and getting a look at some exciting new start-ups, we attended several talks about future technology and the role of Virtual Reality within that future. I sat down with Matt Hales (TurboSquid’s VP of Creative) and Beau Perschall (VP of Business Development) to talk about some of the promises we heard from the Collision panelists, as well as what they think VR means for TurboSquid and the consumer market as a whole. We also discussed the all-important question: so I have a VR headset– what do I do with it?

  • Colliding with VR

    What’s happening now in VR, and what did we learn at Collision? - Read -

  • Predicting the Future of VR

    What’s coming up in VR and where TurboSquid belongs in that future. - Read -

  • Wreck This Headset: Problems in VR

    Realtalk about some of the issues with VR and tales from the TurboSquid VR Lab. - Read -

Colliding with VR

What excited you the most at Collision? Were you excited about how forward-thinking they were in including so many talks about VR?

Matt Hales: It’s always exciting when there’s that energy in the room where people have FOMO, right? A lot of people in a lot of different industries that weren’t necessarily obvious fits for VR were all kind of grappling with what VR is going to mean for them at some point. Clearly, this was a lot of people’s first shot at really getting a sense of what VR is today– not just what it sounds like in articles— and what they can do with it in the future. But their minds seemed largely open, as opposed to like having some kind of preconceived idea.

Beau Perschall: The number of different companies and different types of things going on at Collision was kind of amazing. Meeting people from Guatemala, from Ireland, from Spain, and from Ukraine– these guys came from far and wide, so there was a huge amount of energy.

Some of the startups were amazed by the fact that we (TurboSquid) have been around for sixteen years and were kind of blown away by that. We go to a fair amount of trade shows and they know us there, because we’re going to 3D trade shows. So I was impressed at how many people that were interested in VR had, of course, not heard of us, because VR was going to be the first time their entire industry had been introduced to 3D.

MH: These were industries that had nothing to do with 3D a month ago. And now, because of VR and the possibilities of a show, not tell, approach to communicating with their users and their customers… all of a sudden, 3D was really valuable to them.

BP: That’s the thing. You’ve got VR Storytelling and different things like that, which were all film based. So, 3D hasn’t necessarily permeated every corner of what VR can be… but it seems like at some level, it has to be involved, somewhere.

Several talks mentioned the “democratization” of VR— in that it’s very much a user’s game right now, where they’re the ones digging in and figuring out how to utilize VR tech to create an experience. Do you think this is true?

MH: I think it’s true, because it can’t NOT be. This is a brand new platform. The cost of a major company to completely reorient their ship toward creating content for a platform that is in very few households… that just doesn’t make sense for them right now, especially when they wouldn’t know how to go about doing it, and nobody does.

So yes, three indie developer roommates that are sharing rent in the Tenderloin are always going to be better at really cracking the code [of VR] and really kind of establishing what the rules are going to be. They have less risk on their end, and they’re super passionate about it. And there’s no question that the HMD [Head-Mounted Display] manufacturers know this and they— from the get-go— have made sure that engaging those indies was core to their development.

BP: Considering they are so small and very nimble, they don’t care if they fail. Because the upside is, if they get it right, it could be huge.

MH: They can fail this week, and try again next week, and try something else the week after that. I can’t tell you how difficult that is for a company of six hundred people.

Have you seen any really compelling VR content yet? What do you think is the optimal VR experience right now?

MH: I can guarantee you the ideal has yet to be developed, but right now, I can tell you what my favorites are and what’s working. Valve, predictably, are doing some of the best work in VR. The narrative [of VR] pretty much tells you that Palmer Lucky and Oculus kicked all this off, but Valve was one of the others that was developing this tech in parallel, and it shows. The lab demo they have is fantastic, there’s not a bad experience in there.

BP: It seems like right now, the Vive has kind of an edge, not only because they don’t have problems getting physical units to people, but also, you’re not suffering from the motion sickness, because you’re able to move around.

MH: Tilt Brush— that was breathtaking. That really was something where I fell into it for two hours and didn’t come out, and when I did, I missed it already. It was really an incredible experience.

BP: Tilt Brush is one of those things where you have to wrap your head around what it means to draw in a 3D space… as opposed to, [coming into it, saying,] “We’ve done 3D, we know what 3D is…” (laughs) My first efforts were drawing on a floating canvas, and I went, “Oh, no, I can actually move AROUND this!” And it takes awhile to adjust to that.

MH: That’s what I find fascinating. The the tools you’re given are the conventional tools of 2D art. But what you’re doing, really, is sculpture. So there’s that weird disconnect between the tools that you’re given and the action you’re performing, and it takes awhile for you to integrate all that.

BP: Yeah, it really does. They’ve recorded some of the artists and you can watch the playbacks. You start watching them early on you’re like, I have no idea what you’re building, and then suddenly it’s a jaguar and you’re like, Holy crap.

Ed.: There’s a video of Glen Keane, who was a Disney animator, using Tilt Brush. Did you see that?

BP: Yeah, he drew the Beast at full scale! He got it right away, too. You could just tell that after awhile, everyone kind of clicks in, like, “Ok! Now I get it!”

Ed.: And he seemed really excited about it, which seemed interesting to me, because he’s very much a traditional artist.

MH: Google’s got a great team working on that. It really shows you the difference between the completely thorough and well-backed product and what that can deliver. As much as the sort of spaghetti-throwing RND that you’re seeing from the indies is incredible and insightful… there is something to be said about what can happen when you get the kind of wood-behind-the-arrow that Valve or Google, or any of these companies, can deliver. I can’t wait for the second round when a lot of those companies actually do show up at the table and there is enough of an install base to produce those kinds of titles. Because when you do see a polished title tumble out, like Tilt Brush, man—it’s different.

Predicting the Future of VR

What do you think TurboSquid’s role is in the future of VR?

MH: I think there are kind of two streams there. One is the consumer end, and I think our contribution there is going to be enormous.

There are a lot of components to building any 3D experience, right? And one of the most complicated happens to be the one we’ve specialized in, and that’s actually creating the content itself and getting it into the hands of the people who want to create experiences.

You’ve got some of the most talented people that are kind of tumbling into 3D for the first time, and they’ll want to create VR experiences. And these people almost universally have very little interest or ability to make 3D objects, but want to arrange them, they want to create a whole world with them. And I think we are going to be a tremendous resource for people.

So far, VR does not have a lot of great tools to do 3D modeling. There’s, I think, some promise long term for some of that, but a lot of the fine-tuned, delicate kind of work frankly is better off right now on a flat screen because of VR’s arrangement. And that’s something we’ve noticed through our own internal experiences. I found myself getting everything to where I was sure it was just right on a flat screen… I put on the HMD, and nothing feels right, like, until you’re standing in that world, you can’t judge it. And the first thing you want to do is just… take something in your hand and nudge it.

BP: What’s interesting is that we’re also starting to see our own artists using Oculus or the Vive to validate their own models. I just saw a thread [on our artists’ forum] where someone was building a spaceship interior and he was like, “I just wanted to see what it would look like in my Vive, so I threw it into Unity opened it up and realized— oh my god— all my panels are at eye level, and they’re supposed to be waist-height.” So he’s now making design decisions based on that.

Just building in 3D doesn’t necessarily guarantee that it’s going to be right when you’re looking at it in VR. So, we’re going to be the ones helping bridge the gap in teaching the artists how to go from building standard 3D models to building things that work and have value in VR.

How far away are we from getting really good VR experiences? There were a lot of promises that were made at Collision about how we’re soon going to get much clearer screens, things like that.

MH: As far as fidelity, I wouldn’t expect a major update to the HMDs for… two years? The wild card there is Sony, who keeps it very close to the chest; they could upgrade on a one-year basis because they can actually stand to have some more resolution, because these are things that they know about.

BP: Considering they’re the last one to market, I’m sure that they are sitting back and observing very closely… Here are all the mistakes that all these other guys are making, so that we don’t fall into that same kind of trap. I can’t wait for October. I’ve already pre-ordered mine.

We have no idea what Apple’s working on either, at this point. They’re definitely going to get in, in a big way.

Wreck This Headset: Problems in VR

You’ve had a lot of time in the TurboSquid VR Lab to find problems and issues with VR as it is now. What’s standing in the way of having consistently great VR experiences?

MH: If you’re just talking about the hardware, screen door effect is a problem. I think that we’re probably two years away from solving that.

The form factor issues… I think that’s a tougher nut to crack because the biggest thing that’s hurting the form factor right now, is its dependence on a wire hanging off your back. [But] there are people working on that. It certainly sounds like Google is. I think it sounds pretty clearly like they’re looking to use the room tracking technology, Google Tango, to replace the need for tracking.

Just like every other awesome technology in the last few years, it’s all eventually going to get stuck behind the same 8-ball with battery power.

BP: Even the processing power in phones are melting down and destroying your battery, it’s like, This thing is too hot, take it out now, so it doesn’t burst into flames!

MH: Right, and I think the ideal VR displays need to be HDR as well, and that’s another energy suck. So, those are the big factors that are keeping us from what we imagine VR should be, and what we want it to be. Most people see the same thing and those are the big blockers.

Ed.: Returning to what Hales said about having a wire on your back… I think that was my main point of contention with VR, at first– having to wear a thing on my face. I wonder how exciting VR is for people who are going to have to wear a thing on their face every time they want to experience it.

MH: The burden is on the experience to make you forgive having the thing on your face. There’s no question that there are people who are years away from a form factor that they’ll tolerate.

BP: It’ll come.

MH: It’ll come, but we’re talking about a form factor blocker for the market, right?

Ed.: Right.

MH: You can’t deny that there’s been quite a lot of success. Ongoing and forever, they always say [new technology] is doomed, but there’s ongoing success for PC gaming, for example. And PC gaming, I think, is abhorrent to a lot of people, for different reasons, you know? As are the kind of form factor problems for VR. VR might be a niche for a while, but it’ll be a big niche.

BP: At some point, somebody will whittle it down to the point where it’s like snow ski goggles, and people put those on every day to go snow skiing. And they’ll be like, Great, if it’s that light and comfortable…

MH: It’ll eventually look like Oculus’s original Kickstarter illustration. (laughs) They kind of lead with their vision of what it would be, and it looked like ski goggles. And then of course, Magic Leap and all those guys are certainly looking to leapfrog that with direct retinal projection.

So, which headset should I buy?

What did our experts recommend for a quick entry into the world of VR?

Looking for a quick entry into the world of VR, but don’t want to wait on next-gen releases?

Matt suggests that second-hand versions of the Oculus DK2 are a more affordable way for developers to dip their toes into the VR pool. With their easy pipeline to Unreal and Unity, developers can experience their projects in VR with the click of a button.

When you hear people talk about VR, is there anything in the conversation that annoys you because you know it’s not true?

MH: A thousand times yes!

Ed.: If you want to play VR Mythbusters, now’s your chance.

MH: I think– and I don’t blame the individuals for this because there’s so much confusion out there– but not every thing you strap to your face is VR. To some degree, we’re all kind of defining it together as it moves, but I think there are certain things that are pretty well agreed upon that are really integral to VR, and one of those things is stereoscopy. Your brain will not buy it unless it’s stereoscopic. If it’s monoscopic but tracked, you’re just a dude in a painted bubble.

BP: I was going to say, you’re watching a really close, small tv screen.

MH: The painted sphere approach actually works quite well on a flat screen, like when you’re zinging around in Google Street View, you feel like that’s kind of working, and that’s fine, because that’s a monoscopic medium. But when you put on a stereoscopic HMD, especially one that you have had for a little while, your brain has certain expectations of what it’s going to get fed when you strap that thing on. When you get a monoscopic-captured, low res version of something, it’s not VR. And I wish people would stop selling it like VR.

I think that as technology gets better, you already see capture-able stereoscopic video. These are very expensive rigs, but they exist. But even they are still just three degrees of freedom. They’re not going to give you any kind of parallax when you move from the waist, but they can at least give you a really compelling, seated experience… I’ll kind of accept that as calling itself VR.

But non-head-mounted technologies are also I think kind of skirting it. They’re not quite VR, and this when you see like, cell phones and tablets where you can kind of move around and see things superimposed, and usually pretty primitively. Again, I think we’re seeing the same kind of thing that we saw when they came out with HD. Within a month you had HD sunglasses and HD toothpaste. And you know, it was used as a marketing term to an uneducated public, and I think we’re certainly already seeing that with VR.

BP: Everyone interprets VR as something different. Just in general, people think it’s all VR movie making, and it’s all going to be Cirque du Soleil, and you’re going to be an acrobat in there, and it’s like… (sighs)

Let’s consider the fact that it’s hard to do any kind of storytelling that way right now, without revealing where the camera is at some level. There is a lot of confusion around just what is going to constitute a VR experience.

What’s going on in the TurboSquid VR Lab?

MH: We’ve had to opportunity here with the VR Lab to give a lot of people their first experience in VR, ever. And most of the misconceptions they bring to the table, I do not find annoying… I find them charming and fascinating, and really interesting. I’ve seen right off the bat where they really often, fundamentally buy into the physicality of what they’re seeing. We’ve already… one of our co-workers took a tumble.

BP: We hit our first VR crater.

MH: This was the Valve Lab demo, and some of the things they have are different photogrammetry environments that they’ve captured that are very, very photoreal.

BP: Gorgeous.

MH: You’re out there, standing in nature, throwing sticks to your robot dog.

BP: On top of a mountain.

MH: And Robot Dog is adorable. And this co-worker, there’s nothing she can do when an adorable robot dog comes up to her… the belly’s getting scratched. And so it was. So she got down on all fours and is scratching the belly of Robot Dog, who is gleeful, just delighted, and then when it came time for her to stand back up, there was a huge boulder right next to her, so she just planted her hand on the boulder to get up… and there was no boulder. And she just completely tumbled.

And again, it’s the kind of adjustment we’re going to find ourselves making, like best practices. Even within just the experiential aspect of this thing. That’s now a standard warning anytime somebody’s doing this for the first time.

BP: Don’t put the controllers on the virtual table!

MH: Yeah, straps required. So we’re seeing that kind of stuff over and over again. I think there’s gold to mine as far as knowledge when you see people actually react to things like this. So those aren’t annoying misconceptions, but more fascinating ones, and there are lots of them. And that’s something we’ll certainly be documenting a lot of too.

HalesMatthew Hales is VP of Creative and a founding member of TurboSquid, the world’s largest provider of 3D content. Matthew has been focussed on stereoscopic 3D for twenty-five years, and currently heads TurboSquid’s VR Lab, in which best practices and standards for VR asset production are developed for use with the latest VR/AR hardware, including Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PlayStation VR, Microsoft Hololens, Meta 2, and a variety of mobile HMDs. He has been sharing his more recent research surrounding VR hardware, content, and more on Medium.

BeauBeau Perschall has been deeply involved in the 3D world for the last 23 years; first as a 3D modeler and animator, then as a 3D plug-in development manager, and for the last 14 years as the VP of Business Development for TurboSquid. He has cultivated solid business relationships with all of the major software development companies like Autodesk and Adobe, and also acts as the evangelist for the CheckMate modeling standard that has been embraced by global studios including Weta Digital, Blur, Electronic Arts, CNN and IKEA among others.