The V.R. Renaissance: Will Smith Interviewed

2016 will be the first year of modern consumer Virtual Reality. With many unknowns about how this will effect the way we consume media, we spoke to Will Smith, former editor at Tested.com, about creating VR experiences and his new virtual reality company.

Feature by Connel Soutar | 12 Feb 2016
  • Will Smith

Virtual Reality has been explored through novels and pop culture since the 1950s, now we are lucky enough to be around on the dawn of it becoming a reality. 2016 looks like it could be the first year of Virtual Reality, using headsets that provide a three-dimensional experience as well as tracking your movement, these systems promise to be the most immersive experiences consumers will have ever had. With a number of these systems to be released this year, there has been no better time to talk about and develop ideas that take advantage of this revolutionary technology.

        In late 2015 the editor of Tested.com, Will Smith, left his position and storied career in technology writing, crossing the threshold and starting his own company. From writing for Ars Technica in late 1998, to nearly a decade at Maximum PC before his move to launch Tested with cohort Norman Chan, Will Smith has a writing career many would envy, spanning the biggest tech trends and changes for the better part of the last 20 years. Now, Will has moved from covering to creating, with his own VR company. I got the chance to ask Will a few questions about this move, as well as his opinions on various aspects of Virtual Reality and what about VR made him switch sides.

Being a seasoned tech writer, you will have seen countless tech trends come and go. What is it about VR that's different?

I was part of the freshman class that started college in the fall of 1993, which meant that I was among the first students to be issued an email address and Internet login as part of fall orientation. I don't recall exactly when I first logged on, but I remember being a bit underwhelmed with Archie, gopher, Usenet, and IRC. It wasn't until someone showed me Mosaic rendering early websites that I had a glimpse of the full potential on the Internet and realized it was going to be something special, something that had the potential to reshape the world.

I've gotten that feeling a few other times in the last 20+ years: when I saw what 3D acceleration unlocked in the late 90s, when I realized that having an always-connected computer in your pocket was a superpower, and when I first turned bits on a computer into a physical object using a 3D printer. VR includes bits and pieces of all of these moments--but more than anything it represents an entirely new, more direct way for humans to interact with computers (and through the computers, other people). This is huge.

Why did you feel that you needed to get involved developing with this technology rather than covering it?

My career to date has left me at the intersection of technologists and content creators. I've evaluated hundreds or even thousands of products during my time at Tested, Maximum PC, and Ars Technica, and also worked in a production environment where a small team produced hours of content every week. This leaves me uniquely suited to build in this new medium.

What's aspects of VR do you want to explore that you feel are currently under-appreciated, that you think will be important to VR experiences?

I'm specifically looking at experiences that live outside of gaming. While gaming is going to be the early driver for virtual reality, I know that as the early, cumbersome VR goggles evolve into ubiquitous augmented reality glasses, I firmly believe that this new medium will begin to absorb everything from productivity applications to film and TV.

With the release of the Oculus Rift looming, there has been many new methods for allowing players to move around. These systems track your movement and translate it into in-game controls, however it is unknown how successful these peripherals will be.

There's a good amount of discussion on the different mobility peripherals, such as the Virtuix Omni, do you think these current solutions are a feasible option for developers and consumers?

As the market for VR takes off, we'll see a wide variety of peripherals. For the time being, I'm focusing on the default options.

What aspect of VR are you interested in playing around with through games?

For me, the addition of hand analogues is enormous for games. Games are all about verbs, and with traditional gamepad a and even the mouse and keyboard, you're limited to things that are easy to map to buttons, triggers, and joysticks: moving, shooting, hitting, etc. Adding hands to VR adds an infinite number of verbs, you can throw and catch, push, pull, lift, drop, hug, poke, and much much more. Adding more verbs to games makes gamepad-only games feel thin. In that way, it's similar to the shift between silent films and talkies.

Many of the upcoming VR systems will support hand and finger tracking, allowing users to interact with their computers and programs without the use of a physical controller.

There's a lot of games coming up in the news that are going to be VR exclusives. Do you think we'll see VR exclusives become more common than experiences that are built for both VR and traditional screens? Do you think hybrid games will fall behind once VR is more fully adopted?

Because of the technical limitations of VR (high frame rate and low latency) the best experiences will be the ones that are exclusive to VR.

There's some debate to yet be had about whether VR is feasible for third person or isometric games. Do you think that VR experiences will have to be inherently first person?

Many of the launch titles for the Rift are going to be 3rd person or isometric. First person is actually trickier if you need the player to move in virtual space without matching that movement in the real world. One of the reasons I'm most excited about VR is that it's a creative clean slate, we understand a few of the basic rules of the medium, but we still have to figure out the visual language of the medium.

Earlier in the month the Oculus Rift, the most well known virtual reality headset years in the making, announced the price of its first consumer model. The launch price will be $600, higher than many expectations, on top of requiring a $1500 computer to use it. This created a torrent of conversation on social media as well as outrage as many felt they had been priced out of the future.

What's your opinion on the price reveal for the Oculus Rift? Is the price what you expected? Some people are somewhat upset and feel they've priced consumers out. Do you think these people are justified or that was this always going to be the case, with early adopters paying more?

The price for the Rift is what I'd expect for a first-generation product. The first iPhone was around this price, and was unsubsidized by the carriers in the US. The first flat panel monitor I bought was tiny and incredibly expensive. No matter what the price was, someone was going to be upset. By their own admission, Oculus did a poor job messaging the potential price range for the product as its capabilities expanded though.
At the end of the day, the important thing is that the early hardware gets out to people who are going to put the headset on and use it at every opportunity. A higher price point encourages that, despite the unfortunate side-effect of pricing people who don't have $600+ of disposable income to buy the headset (not to mention an expensive, high-end gaming PC).

I fully expect that we'll see inexpensive headset accessories for most smartphones within the next year or two, which will help bring VR to a more mainstream audience.

Across generations, VR seems to bring out the inner-child in people who try it. This sort of genuine excitement and fun has arguably been lacking in a number of mediums in the last few years. With VR bringing this childlike wonder back to video games for many people , do you think this could be implemented effectively for other mediums like film or music?

Absolutely. Everyone I've introduce to VR has walked away a believer. Once you show people an interactive VR experience, other forms of linear entertainment feel thin in comparison. Once you show them tools that let them manipulate virtual space in ways that would be impossible in the real world, traditional tools feel limited.

There will always be a place for people to tell incredible stories in film or TV, but the way we experience those stories may shift from a screen in the living room or a theater to a set of goggles that you clip your phone into.

Through his time at Tested.com, Will also covered a lot of new coffee-based technologies from modern coffee makers like the Aeropress to the unique delights of civet coffee.

I was wondering, what coffee technology are you enjoying at the moment? Do you think there's space for a coffee-based VR experience?

Hah, I currently use a Baratza grinder, an Able Kone 3.0, a Chemex, and an inexpensive scale with 0.1g resolution to make my coffee. The one format I'm not sure fits in with VR is the food show though. I'm sure someone will come up with something clever though.

2016 may be the beginning of the VR future. With ideas exploding out of creative minds on how to utilise virtual reality, the way we access entertainment may rapidly change. With certain platforms, mostly online, supporting VR already we may have already started down a road that will lead to experiences unlike any we've yet had. Although in many ways the idea is daunting in terms of cost and using VR to its best abilities, this may be the injection of wonder that many technologies and mediums of entertainment have been missing. We may see cinemas decline further, television channels changing, music videos designed for VR, all as VR becomes a more immersive and easily accessible product. Over the next few years its very possible and somewhat likely that the way we ingest our entertainment at home will change dramatically. Luckily, we have people like Will Smith, ready to create content to provide us with the future.

You can find will at @willsmith on twitter and his updates and thoughts on Virtual Reality at https://medium.com/@willsmith

http://www.notthatwillsmith.com