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Interview With Jason Jerald, NextGen Interactions

By June 10, 2015Interviews

The Immersive Technology Alliance is a proud media partner for SIGGRAPH 2015. Held annually, the SIGGRAPH conference offers the most comprehensive program for computer graphics and interactive techniques. This year’s showcase is at the forefront of cutting-edge technology and methodology, including Virtual Reality.

To exemplify their efforts, they shared this article which features an interview with Dr. Jason Jerald, the Co-Founder and Principal Consultant at NextGen Interactions. Jason is also Chief Scientist at Digital ArtForms, serves on multiple advisory boards of companies focusing on VR technologies, and speaks about VR at various events all over the world.

Jason has been involved in over 60 VR-related projects across more than 30 organizations including Valve, Oculus, Virtuix, Sixense Entertainment, NASA, General Motors, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, three U.S. national laboratories, and five universities. Jason’s work has been featured on ABC’s Shark Tank, on the Discovery Channel, in the New York Times, and on the cover of the MIT Press Journal Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments. He has held various technical and leadership positions including building and leading a team of approximately 300 individuals, and has served on the ACM SIGGRAPH, IEEE Virtual Reality, and IEEE 3D User Interface Committees.

Most recently, Jason is the author of the upcoming title, The VR Book: Perception and Interaction Design for Virtual Reality. Jason is offering The Immersive Technology Alliance membership a sneak-peak at his book, to be published in August 2015.

Jason Jerald, NextGen Interactions

Jason Jerald, NextGen Interactions

You’ve been involved with virtual reality/alternate reality for 20 years now. How did you get started? What was it about your first experience that made you get involved with this medium?

I was fortunate to be accepted to the 1995 SIGGRAPH Student Volunteer Program in Los Angeles where I first experienced VR and have been fully hooked ever since. Having never attended a conference up to that point that I was passionate about, I was completely blown away by its people and its magnitude. I was no longer alone in this world—I had finally “found my people”. Shortly after that I found my first VR mentor—Richard May—and helped him build one of the world’s first immersive medical environments at Battelle Pacific Northwest National Laboratories.

With your experience in VR/AR over the last 20 years, what are your thoughts about how the industry has evolved? Where do you see it going in the next 20 years?

The last 20 years of pursuing VR has truly been a dream. Whereas I considered starting my own company devoted to VR, it was never feasible until recently. Now it is more a real fantasy than a simple dream where VR technology is delivering upon its promise of the 90s. Describing the feeling is like trying to describe a VR experience—words cannot describe what it is like to being a part of and contributing to the VR revolution.

As a consulting and contracting firm, NextGen Interactions has the privilege of working with some of the best companies in the world that are able to do things that could only previously be imagined. VR is unlike any technology devised to date and has the potential to not only change the fictional synthetic worlds we make up, but to change the real world as we know it. I can’t wait to see where the next 20 years takes us!

Virtual Reality never really went away, but it’s been making a huge surge or comeback in the last couple of years. Why do you think this is? What do you think was the tipping point that brought it back to the forefront of people’s minds?

It was around 2011 that more people started asking me about VR. I remember having lunch with Amir Rubin, CEO of Sixense Entertainment. He was asking about consumer-level head-mounted displays. I told him he was crazy—we can barely do VR well in a lab and he wanted to put it in people’s living rooms! Mark Bolas and his team at USC Institute for Creative Technologies were also showing low-cost systems using cell phones around that time. As a forum moderator, Palmer Luckey started sharing his prototypes on Meant to be Seen ( which was also the community where he first met John Carmack, and the new era of virtual reality was born.

Jason Jerald and Palmer Luckey

Jason Jerald and Palmer Luckey

Palmer was the right person at the right time and I’ve been very impressed with the way he evangelizes VR with how he paints the vision and relates to his audience. As everyone knows, it is the low cost and quality of technology that makes VR possible today. But it is also about the right people taking it mainstream.

In business, technology is only part of the equation—you can have the best technology but if nobody knows about it or what it can be used for then it won’t move beyond the research lab or some niche applications. I believe it took someone like Palmer, and his company Oculus, who did not come from traditional academic/industry VR to be able to apply the technology to gamers at a low cost. Without Oculus and the collaborative community at MTBS, consumer VR would have still happened, but not at the pace that it is now growing.

Immersive Technology Alliance logo

The collaboration with great people is why I’m a proud member of the non-profit Immersive Technology Alliance and their Immersed Access program. It’s where the industry works together to build the market by jointly learning, sharing, and delivering the best virtual reality possible. Kind of like how MTBS was a catalyst for Oculus, but for professionals and a wide industry.

You’ve been in the VR/AR industry for many years, seeing it from basic conception to execution. So, what are you excited about with today’s developers? What makes you excited about this medium?

I get excited about other people’s excitement. Many developers are doing VR in their spare time without compensation just because they are so in love with the idea of VR. It was tough up until a few years ago when most of those people outside of VR thought it was some sort of joke. I remember talking with a random lady in an elevator once and when she asked what I do I said “I work with virtual reality, doesn’t that sound cool!” She looked at me funny and said “Uhhh yeah, back in 1996.” DOH! That is certainly no longer the case.

I’m excited about VR because so much is unknown and it is ripe for innovation. Even though I’ve been doing VR for a while when I talk to developers I often hear of ideas they are trying that I haven’t thought about yet or at least not in much detail. With so many developers, there are innovative ideas emerging on a regular basis.

How do you see getting the general population more excited about VR/AR? Is it with hardware? Software? A combination of both?

Definitely a combination of both. Actually, one way to think about VR is by breaking it up into three components: the system (hardware), the design (the software), and the user. If any one of these do not exist then there is no VR experience. Or what is worse than no VR experience is a bad VR experience.

I’ve seen some amazing content but often the experience is completely destroyed by a low frame rate or a badly calibrated system. I recommend if your hardware can’t handle something then don’t show it publicly—that destroys what can otherwise might be great content and ruins your company’s reputation. I’ve heard people say make excuses that their system they are demoing with isn’t high-end so can’t maintain a solid frame rate. How can you expect your customers to afford a system that maintains a high frame rate if you can’t afford it yourself? Instead optimize or don’t show it. It’s quite difficult to get excited about a system that gets users sick.

Your new book, The VR Book: Perception and Interaction Design for Virtual Reality, is coming out soon. How did you get started on the book? Did you have a specific inspiration that prompted you to write about your experiences? Why now?

I’ve known for a while now that I wanted to write a book on VR. However, I did not just want to write another VR book similar to what others have written for the sake of writing a book. Then insight hit during Oculus Connect in the fall of 2014. After experiencing the Oculus Crescent Bay demo, I realized the hardware is getting to be really good. Not by accident, but as a result of some of the world’s leading engineers diligently working on the technical challenges with great success.

What the community now desperately needs is for content developers to understand human perception as it applies to VR, designs that are comfortable (i.e., do not make you sick), and how to intuitively interact within their immersive creations. That insight led to the realization that I need to stop focusing largely on technical implementation and start focusing on the high-level challenges of VR and its design. That is where I believe I can offer the most value to the VR community and the world.

I knew this book was my next step and my plan was to self-publish instead of spending valuable time on pitching to publishers which I know can be a very long, arduous, disappointing path. Then one of the most serendipitous things occurred. A few days after catching the insight for the book and committing to make it happen, my former undergraduate advisor John Hart, now Professor of Computer Science and Associate Dean of the Graduate College at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign as well as Editor of the Computer Graphics Series of ACM books, contacted me after I somehow lost contact with him many years ago. He informed me Michael Morgan of Morgan-Claypool Publishers was looking to publish the book on VR content creation and John thought I was the person to make it happen. It didn’t take much time to enthusiastically accept as their vision for the book was the same as mine.

What is the one piece of advice you’d give your younger self about stepping into the world of VR/AR development?

Explore, collect feedback, and iterate. Don’t expect to get it right the first time and be prepared to give up on ideas that sound great but don’t work in practice. Whereas guidelines and design processes do exist (these are two of the primary points of my book), nobody knows all the answers. Of course there are certainly some things VR creators should be careful of and it is good to listen to those with experience. However, if you encounter a “VR guru” who claims to know all the answers then run the other way! There are just too many unknowns and every project is unique. The future of VR is wide open for those willing to try new things.

About Jason Jerald:

Jason earned a Bachelor of Computer Science degree with an emphasis in Computer Graphics and Minors in Mathematics and Electrical Engineering from Washington State University. He earned a Master and a Doctorate degree in Computer Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a focus on perception of motion and latency in VR. Jason holds over 20 publications and patents directly related to VR.

The 2015 SIGGRAPH conference will be held at the Los Angeles Convention Center, from 9-13 August 2015, in Los Angeles, CA. For more information, visit the SIGGRAPH 2015 website.

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