Sam Watts, Director of Immersive Technologies of Make Real talks to Cristian Anton, CEO of MeetinVR about what inspired him to work in VR, what are the current challenges and opportunities for enterprise VR and how can you ensure a good 1st time experience in VR. The “Future of Work” series brings you close to trailblazers in enterprise VR, who share their story and outlook on how the contemporary workplace is transforming.
See the rest of the interviews from The Future of Work Series here.
Cristian Anton: Today as our guest, we have Sam Watts. He’s the Director of Immersive Technologies at Make Real, a leading VR studio in the UK, developing experiences for companies such as Vodafone, McDonald’s and EDF Energy. Hi Sam, it’s a pleasure to have you with us.
Sam Watts: Hi, how’re you doing? Thank you for having me.
Cristian Anton: So where are you calling us from?
Sam Watts: We’re down at Brighton in the UK. It’s about an hour South of London on the sunshine coast. But it means we get to finish work and go and sit on the beach and have a beer rather than the London commute.
Cristian Anton: I’m based in Copenhagen, so it’s a pretty good feeling to shake hands across such a big distance.
Sam Watts: That’s the power of VR.
Cristian Anton: Yes, definitely. So I’m going to start by asking you, where did you start with your journey? So what inspired you to choose to work with this technology?
Sam Watts: Well, I’m actually quite old, so, I mean, I’m over 40. I was a young teenager when, in the early ’90s, the first VR headsets were coming of age, and they were available in location based places, with the virtuality machine. There was a place in London called Trocadero Center at a number of them. And it gave you that taste of what the possibilities of the hardware could be, but just highlighted, at the time the computational power was quite basic, quite slow. The geometry was very, very simple and un-textured, and the refresh and the latency was mostly headache inducing rather than what we come to understand as being VR today.
So that kind of put me on a slight journey in terms of, “Right, this stuff’s really cool, or will be really cool, how can I work with that in the future? Will it even be a future?” But as we know, VR in the ’90s crashed and burned and kind of went away, at least out of the public eye. But as we know, the military, and medical, and NASA were still working with VR. So they were making the advances in a certain way, but then all these other technologies crept up and improved alongside.
At university, I was working with cave systems, so we had projected cubes. And again showed the possibility, but ultimately gave me a headache, and I couldn’t wear my glasses, and the shutter goggles were quite nausea inducing. But again, it was … This is the alpha, or the pre-alpha … The technology will eventually get there.
So when Palmer Luckey and Oculus came along with the Kickstarter for the Oculus Rift DK1 back in 2012, then we knew, or I knew that was the opportunity where the technology had actually got to a stage where it could be something much more widespread. Obviously it’s taken a number of years to iterate upon that DK1, with positional tracking with the DK2, and then better sensors and a front facing room-scale with the Oculus Rift CV1 that launched in March, 2016.
Valve and HTC with the VIVE system allowing full 360 room scale. And then since then, we’ve seen all those friction barriers drop away. So now we have standalone, inside out, 6DOF, full VR systems, like the Quest. And now we can just put the headset on, you’re in VR within seconds, and it’s just so much easier.
Cristian Anton: Yeah, definitely. So what can you see in terms of changing demands from the ’90s and what we’re seeing today, and what you specifically are seeing today with your business?
Sam Watts: Many people, they try VR for the first time, and we’re still looking at seven or eight out of ten people, the first time they put a headset, it’s your experience. If they don’t like it, they would dismiss the technology completely. So that first experience has to be comfortable. It has to be immersive. It has to give them a sense of presence. It has to be effective. And it’s hard to create something that’s going to make every single person happy the first time, but it needs to ensure they’re not going to go, “I’ve tried VR. It was a gimmick. It’s not for me though.”
Cristian Anton: Unfortunately, we still see that a lot with people who try the rollercoaster on one of the earlier versions of the HMD. Whenever I ask them, “Hey, do you want to try out this VR experience?” They probably saying, “I’m not sure about it because I’ve had an experience before and I felt a little bit nauseous afterwards. So maybe VR isn’t really for me.” So that’s a little bit of a shame because the technology has improved a lot. And at least what we’re seeing is that there’s almost … There’s very few people nowadays who have these problems anymore.
Sam Watts: No, I mean, the technology has got to a point where most people will feel comfortable in the headset. And now a lot of it comes down to the actual design of the experience to ensure that the movement, or the locomotion, or the performance, the technical performance is comfortable and capable to operate at that hertz or that refresh rate perfectly.
Cristian Anton: You could still make people sick if you had a poor design?
Sam Watts: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Or if it’s part of a training package. I mean, our first game, we made Radial-G, which was a high-speed racing game a bit like F-Zero. So for us, that was learning what were the limits of comfortable, fast movement in VR? Our second game, Loco Dojo, I’ve got a trailer I’ll show in a minute, was all about all the different hand interactions with tracked controllers.
Cristian Anton: That sounds very interesting. I would love to see some of your projects. If there’s anything you can show us.
Sam Watts: Sure. So turn the volume down. So this is a 30 second trailer. This is vehicle reversing just using your hands. A bit of Loco Dojo.
Cristian Anton: It looks fantastic.
Sam Watts: So that’s some of our earlier work where it’s very traditional, stereotypical assumptions of what VR can do, in terms of it’s very good at putting people in a hazardous environment, either because the very nature of the environment, or because it’s dangerous to be in that environment when you’re not fully trained, or hazardous to operations if … Construction sites or operations yards where work has to carry on whilst people are being trained.
And by creating virtual representations of those and allowing people to learn virtually to get to a base level of understanding, then they can spend less time in a dangerous environment in the real world, or less time whilst potentially creating other issues. Therefore it’s about learning, and interactions, and maintenance, and very hands-on muscle memory. So a lot of things that people associate VR with.
So more of what we’ve been doing now is actually this kind of thing where it’s about soft skills training, and it’s about interpersonal skills. Because I mean, we’re British, and traditionally British people, we’re very polite, we don’t like causing a fuss, we don’t like doing role-play and having to pretend to be something that we’re not. So there’s a lot of awkward office training where you and I would go into a room and we would have to take on a persona and pretend to role play this scenario that we wouldn’t necessarily be taking seriously. We would be feeling really awkward about it, and that awkwardness would be stopping us from actually learning or benefiting from it.
Cristian Anton: I would love to check it out.
Sam Watts: I don’t have an actual video, but if I cast this … This is just a photo. So here we just have, this is for Lloyds Banking Group. And this is based upon one of their break rooms. And a scenario is there’s rumours of a redundancy, or maybe restructuring, or some people being let go. And it’s all about interacting with characters and having dialogue choices that best reflect how to react, and spot, and take into consideration other people’s emotive states and behaviours.
So you can respond empathically, or you can respond slightly cold or jokingly, and then everybody will then respond accordingly. But at the moment these use very, very complex dialogue trees of how that one particular training session plays out. The prototype had about 30 lines of dialogue. The second version, what this is, had about 300.
Cristian Anton: Tell us what’s happening here?
Sam Watts: So this is from the viewpoint of the user, and this is the three characters you’re talking with. I didn’t actually … I chose an image of just the scene rather than the actual UI. So you’d have four dialogue choices. So the idea is that we can give your feedback based upon where they’re looking, and how they interact, and which choices of dialogue that they’re making. And at the end, it shows the emotive state of the characters.
And there’s a little storyline that shows a number of scenes. You’re in the break room, one particular character has a breakdown, and it’s how you deal with that person. They then come and talk to you later to apologize for their breakdown, but then it carries on, how do you speak to them? How do you talk to them in terms of … Do you dismiss them? Do you answer your phone instead of talking to them, do you do some emails instead of talking to them, or do you give them the attention that they need to feel listened to, no matter whether it actually benefits the outcome of their day? But it’s all about personal vitality and resilience to ensure that we’re all better at coping with day-to-day scenarios within our working life.
And the next one has something like 3,000 lines of dialogue, which is all recorded by voice actors. And we have a system where using the iPhone depth camera, we’re recording facial expressions live onto the 3D avatars. And so as the voiceover is being recorded, the 3D model is replicating it and we can record and play that back just to make it a much more realistic representation. But not too realistic because then we get into Uncanny Valley, and people get more distracted by the human representation than the actual learning.
And then I think I have one more image of the actual office where you’ve got some of the examples of the distractions here. So you’ve got the laptop and your email, and then we have Jonathan, and that’s just one of the dialogue is visible there. And Jonathan has become a very much loved character within Lloyds. And he’s kind of made a cameo within the third application. So you speak to him on the phone about something else. But this is all driving non-standard or non-expected use cases of VR for training to allow much wider adoption. And this is having a much more positive impact at a greater number of users than just mechanics, or construction, or whatever.
Cristian Anton: I think that’s very interesting. I completely agree with you that VR is a really amazing medium to train soft skills. So what do you think needs to happen in the future so companies will start adopting VR technologies at a larger scale?
Sam Watts: Well, I think there’s a number of things really. I mean, we’re still dealing with big black boxes on our faces. The standalone headsets, whilst they are removing friction points and barriers to entry with … They no longer have the tether and they don’t need the PC anymore. The cost is coming down. That’s one aspect, but they haven’t really gotten any smaller because they still have the compute, and the battery, and everything else they need to operate.
As the other technologies bubble up around the side. I think once we see super low latency, 5G, 6G Wi-Fi, higher data rates, we’ll be able to do more remote rendering and then streaming of content to headsets so the headset is more of just the transceiver and a screen, rather than having to do all of the heavy lifting. Then they can get smaller and lighter, and they can look more like something you’d want to wear for extended periods of time.
But then people often compare, is VR going to be more successful than AR? I think ultimately they’ll both converge into maybe a single device, but they’ve got their very … They’ve got their own specific use cases. And I don’t think AR is ever going to replace VR. I just think they compliment each other and some of the things you want to do in AR, like if you’re on the factory floor and you’re having guidance and need to see your real world hands. But VR for when you need to have complete immersion and be present somewhere else, then that is still very much necessary to be able to take somebody somewhere else.
Cristian Anton: Rather than competing technologies, they’re just complimenting each other?
Sam Watts: Yeah, very much so. And I think we’re probably still a few years away from that, but if you look at the sort of adoption curve, I think we’re going from early adopters towards late adopters, or early mass market. But people talk about the chasm, so we’re just sort of jumping over the chasm at the moment, I think. And I think devices like Oculus Quest, the VIVE Focus Plus, the Pico Neo 2, the standalone full VR systems are accelerating the jump over the chasm so that the next devices will be much more easier to use, will be smaller, will be supported by the surrounding technologies.
But it’s still a lot of work with enterprise to get IT and procurement departments on board to allow them to have the safety and sort of acceptance of these new systems coming into line, having the enterprise MDM solutions behind to support those, and roll them out at scale, and control them, and lock them down so they’re not a consumer headset, they’re an enterprise headset. People can’t just go on the internet willy nilly or install games.
And things like the VIVE Advantage Program, the Oculus for Business Enterprise Solutions, these will all help accelerate that. And we’re seeing people, especially with Quest, we’re seeing a wider adoption at home via enterprise and people trying it and having it at work, they use it for training, and then they’re, “What else can I do with it?” And then they go and buy the consumer version for home.
But then, yesterday or overnight Valve announced Half-Life Alyx, which is their first VR foray using the Half-Life universe, which will probably likely drive a lot of home adoption, like the original Half-Life, Half-Life 2 did, will it be that killer app? I bought an X-Box to play Halo, will people buy a VR headset to play Half-Life Alyx because that’s the only way that they can?
Cristian Anton: Exactly. All right. So before we end, I’d like to have us do a small exercise with you. We’re going to use some sticky notes from our tablet, and we’re going to try to brainstorm together. I mean, we’ll do it both on our own tablets and then brainstorm three, four ideas of what we think will happen in the next 20 years in VR. So how will the VR world look in 20 years from now?
Sam Watts: Okay.
Cristian Anton: Shall we do it?
Sam Watts: Yep.
Cristian Anton: Sound good. [crosstalk 00:19:27] And you use your keyboard, or you can use speech to text. So if you press this microphone button here and then you can just use your voice and I won’t hear while you are recording.
Sam Watts: Okay.
Cristian Anton: Cool. I think we’re good.
Sam Watts: Okay.
Cristian Anton: So let’s see. Okay, I can already see that we have a couple of things which seem to be in common. What do you mean when you say virtual twins?
Sam Watts: Well, I thought digital twins, a full online representation that is consistently correlated to your real world persona. And that could be through blockchain to ensure that that digital representation cannot be copied, and is only you, and it’s only tied to your ID. What does that say on it?
Cristian Anton: Okay. What I have here is fully replicated humans. By this I mean that our looks will be possible to be exactly like in real life, and our facial expressions as avatars will be replicated completely. So basically we will be like a hologram versions of ourselves in virtual reality.
Sam Watts: That’d be useful for enterprise and business, and virtual Christmas with their family, but there are still use cases where I just want to be a lobster.
Cristian Anton: No, completely. I completely agree with that. Definitely. But I just think that this will be a technical possibility. I focused a little bit more on the technical side. I really liked that you wrote positive collaboration.
Sam Watts: Well, I think anything that we do together can have a positive and a negative side, and we very much try and focus on the positive outcomes of the uses, the technology. I mean every sci-fi that focuses on the future or VR is generally fairly dystopian, and I think it’s up to creators and those driving the space to ensure that that just remains a story as opposed to reality.
Cristian Anton: Yeah. So that’s why it’s good that we have people like you contributing to the industry.
Sam Watts: We try, we try.
Cristian Anton: Faster, lighter, stronger.
Sam Watts: Well, that was more of a reference just to Daft Punk, just talking about the technology getting smaller, and lighter, and easier, and more manageable, and less cumbersome for me, because as I wear glasses, I have to buy a prescriptive insert for some headsets to be able to see anything. But if it’s all just built into my glasses, then I don’t have to take any headset off or worry about anything, I can just tap and it’s there, and tap and I can make it go away again.
Cristian Anton: What I also think that what happened in the future is that we will be able to control a lot of experiences just by thinking. I think that’s something which is already in the works, and it’s something Mark Zuckerberg was talking about recently as well. So I think that in 20 years it will be something feasible. What do you think?
Sam Watts: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. I think, obviously, the brain … I can’t remember the specific term, neurological links, et cetera. I think it’s certainly a possibility, and they’re certainly showing with some researchers where by following certain patterns of the brain, they can determine whether it’s a picture of a dog, or a man, or white, or black, or whatever. I think, yeah, it would be a lot easier for a lot of work, and it would speed a lot of things up, and it would certainly enable more accessibility because we don’t have to worry about input, physical input.
It’ll be interesting, for example, if that would work on people in comas. But also the dystopian … The other side of me, I think lots of nonsense every day. I would need to ensure .. It’s like, “No, no, no, no. You don’t need to make that. I wasn’t thinking that.” Here is my start listening word, or thought to then go. But I assume that’d be part of it.
Cristian Anton: So I mean, I’m quite confident that the experience which we’ll be able to have in VR will reach extreme levels of fidelity. It’s going to be almost like a real life experience. So with improvements in the resolution, in the field of view, and then through all these aspects of the innovation, it will feel like the real world when you’re in VR.
Sam Watts: Yeah. And I think something like that is going to be needed as well, especially if you look at the realms of tourism where there’s so many people trying to go to these key locations, mostly to appear in a selfie for Snapchat, or Instagram, or whatever. But these ancient sites can’t cope with the footfall and the constant wear and tear. So they’re being closed off to access. I mean, the people with the most money can afford to go, or go to visit. So to have photogrammetry, life like representations, so you can still visit it or we can see how it was when it was complete before humans trampling over it destroyed it, then that’s certainly one aspect.
Cristian Anton: Will drive the evolution of VR.
Sam Watts: Maybe, maybe. It’s usually pornography drives technology, but with VR so far, it doesn’t seem to be.
Cristian Anton: Yeah, exactly. Which is very strange.
Sam Watts: Yeah. Well, probably a good thing.
Cristian Anton: Yeah. All right, Sam, thank you so much for joining us. I think we learned some really cool things from you, and also it was really nice to hear some of the work you’ve been doing. So yeah, thank you so much.
Sam Watts: Thank you very much. Thank you very much, Cristian.