Saad Alayyoubi: VR will dramatically change how humans live, socialize and work

This interview is with Saad Alayyoubi, Lead 3D Designer at Jaunt. A cinematic Virtual Reality startup that focuses on immersive 360° stereo video experiences for all platforms including ios, android, Gear VR, Oculus Rift, Vive, and LG. He will be speaking at the Uncharted Minds Design Gurus Summit on May 17th. Click here to get 20% off tickets to the event.

Q. Virtual reality has seen many incarnations over the past 20-years. Why is it different this time around?

A. We finally have the attained the perfect confluence of hardware and software necessary to create high quality immersive experiences at a price point consumers can afford. Powerful graphics chips, high-pixel-density displays, high fidelity visuals driven by game engine software that can render at 90 frames per second are essential for developing VR experiences that don’t make people nauseous.

Not only can we now achieve an amazing sense of presence on high-end PC’s, but it is even in everyone’s pocket. Current smartphones can run scaled-down versions of these VR experiences, thereby enabling a huge audience of consumers to at least get a taste of what’s to come.

Q. Can you explain what the vision is for Jaunt VR?

A. Jaunt wants to be the premier content distribution platform for high-quality VR content. When the company was founded over 3 years ago, there was very little content to speak of, and so we sought to create an ‘end-to-end’ VR pipeline solution. We created a production-ready stereo 360 camera, developed sophisticated 360 panoramic stitching algorithms, launched a content production studio and developed a multi-platform app to distribute the content.

Now in mid-2016, there are many more players in the market, many of whom are laser-focused on just one particular vertical within that ecosystem. The challenge for Jaunt is to leverage our extended capabilities across all parts of the pipeline.

Q. Can you name some of your clients?

A. We have been fortunate to have worked with the NFL, MLB, NHL, North Face, ABC News, Disney, Sky, and CBS News, just to name a few.

Q. What do you think is future of VR?

A. My 5 to 10-year outlook on VR is that it will dramatically change almost every aspect of how humans live, socialize and work. VR and AR will converge into a single technology, in the form of lightweight, unobtrusive devices that overlay the digital world on top of our physical world with varying degrees of opacity. We will be able to quickly switch between being fully immersed in a pure virtual construct, to being mostly present in the real world but with some small degree of virtual information displayed on top.

VR will amplify all that is good and bad in our civilization. We will have transformative, otherworldly experiences that alter the course of our lives, and conversely some will become so addicted to the escapist fantasy of their virtual lives that they will all but neglect their “real” lives.

We will no longer have to live and work tethered to ‘keyboards’ or ‘monitors’, or look down at ‘phones’. Every form of interaction will happen in a “Metaverse” (to use the now-ubiquitous term Neal Stephenson coined in his novel ‘Snowcrash’) that materializes just in front of our pupils, using our own body gestures as the input mechanism.

In the near term, however, the challenge will be to get over the inevitable “trough of disillusionment” as consumers get their hands on the first batch of content and it struggles to live up to the hype cycle of click-bait driven media hyperbole. Most of us who work in the industry believe in the potential of the technology, and know that we are still a couple of years away from the earth-shaking, paradigm-shifting experiences consumers are expecting.

For example, current VR experiences and headsets look substantially grainier and lower-quality than simply watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster or AAA videogame on a 4k display. Current VR games have significant technical limitations due to the effective doubling of render resolution and framerate needed for a comfortable experience. It will be a couple of years before VR content can visually compete with existing media and entertainment.

VR companies need to be in it for the long haul, until they (and the industry as a whole) reach a caliber of storytelling and visual impact that audiences will be interested in paying for on a consistent basis.

Q. How did you get into VR design as a career?

A. I started my career as an architect, doing conceptual design, 3d modeling, texturing and animation for large scale commercial skyscraper projects across the globe. My favorite part of being an architect was creating photorealistic 3d models and renderings of conceptual building projects, essentially selling clients on the dream which they would then find the means to develop and construct.

I then decided to focus more on pure 3d visualizations, moving into commercial 3d graphics which could be more abstract and further removed from the constraints and realities of building construction. As the VR industry began to emerge, it was a perfect crystallization of all of my early aspirations to design awe-inspiring virtual worlds unconstrained by the limitations of physics or money. I don’t think I have quite achieved that yet with my current work, but I do feel I am on the right path.

Q. What were some early influences on your career choice?

A. I have always been a fan of videogames, particularly narrative-driven, single player, visually beautiful and immersive experiences. To me, the best games really do take you to a believable alternate reality, even before VR enabled us to be ‘inside’ the world.

However, I’ve also always been turned off by the overall immaturity and crassness of the gaming industry as a whole. Besides a small number of outstanding developers, I was never attracted to working in the games industry, largely because of the culture. Now though there is a growing number of indie (and even AAA) developers working on more thoughtful, mature experiences that go beyond mere adolescent power fantasies.

Video games and VR go hand-in-hand. I think very soon there will no longer be a chasm between “movies” and “games”, and instead, we will just have interactive, immersive storytelling experiences.

Q. What did you study in college?

A. I have a Bachelor of Architecture from Pratt Institute, a Master of Science in Advanced Architecture from Columbia University, and an MBA from New York University.

Q. What did your parents do?

A. My parents are both medical doctors, neither of them has a single creative bone in their bodies. I can only assume I was adopted! (sorry mom)

Q. Tell me about your first design job.

A. During my junior year of architecture school, I worked for one of my professors named Dan Silver, who ran his own small architecture practice. I fondly remember the two of us working crazy 18 hour days on an architectural competition project to design a large hotel in China over the course of a cold New York winter because we were both just so into the design and excited about what we were doing. He was a great mentor and I learned a tremendous amount from Dan not just about architecture, but about the personal sacrifices necessary and dedication to the craft one has to have in order to attain the luxury of getting paid by discerning clients to do interesting, avant-garde work. Especially early in one’s creative career, it’s often the drudge, safe and mundane client work that pays for the interesting, frontier-crossing experiments that happen after rent gets paid!

Q. What were some early lessons you learned about design?

A. During my freshman and sophomore years of architecture school, everyone was still hand-drawing all of their designs and making physical models out of wood and plexiglass. Every time we needed to ‘scale-up’ a floor plan to double size, we would need to spend hours tracing and redrawing the entire sheet! Talk about inefficiency…

The summer after my sophomore year, I stayed on campus to take one of the first 3d digital modeling courses offered at the architecture school. The initial learning curve was incredibly painful for the first several weeks, as it was entirely different from anything else I had ever done before. The first assignment was to 3d model a pair of eyeglasses, and I remember struggling with it for days. When the process finally began to click, however, I fell head over heels in love with digital modeling, and this love became the driving force behind my whole career. It was like seeing an entire potential universe just waiting to be revealed; anything was possible.

The lesson learned is one that remains with me to this day. Whenever I come across something that appears to be too difficult or a hurdle that feels insurmountable, I think back to my time as a young architecture student, struggling to make a very simple 3d model of a pair of eyeglasses. I remind myself that everything worthwhile is usually worth struggling for and that grit and determination are they key to creative fulfillment. Fortunately, I am also married to an amazing woman who happens to be a psychology researcher studying ‘sisu’, a Finnish term denoting extraordinary courage in the face of extreme adversity. Any challenge I have faced in my career pales in comparison to her own life story, and the stories she tells me every day of people overcoming the most seemingly insurmountable odds.

Q. Tell me about your approach today.

A. There are so many new technologies and software programs emerging each month that it often feels hard to keep up. With every cool new 3D tool, I feel an unavoidable sense of ‘FOMO’, that I might be missing something by not diving into and learning to use the tool. I have become quite adept at quickly identifying which tools are worth the research time, and which are just minor variations of what I can already do with my existing tools.

That being said, probably the biggest driver of my work ethic today is an insatiable desire to constantly learn and improve. There are so many incredible artists and designers in the world, and in a way, I feel like we are each contributing to the collective hive intelligence of the earth’s artistic legacy. Nothing great comes out of a vacuum; every amazing work of art is born out of the rich tapestry of our collective creative culture. I soak everything up like a sponge. Every day while I work I keep my second screens saturated with images, videos, models, etc. Doing creative work is mentally exhausting, so it’s vital to recharge and refuel by being inspired by the incredible work of others.

Q. What career advice would you give to young people or people who want to get into the VR industry?

A. I know this sounds cliche, but if you want to get into the VR industry as an artist or designer, I would say: just start now. The barriers to entry are virtually non-existent. Spend your free time learning the software, creating concept art, building a game, building your personal brand. The internet has made it possible for anyone living in their basement in Siberia to create something (a game, a painting, a video) and have it be seen by millions of people.

Don’t wait for publishers, bosses, parents, or teachers. Human beings have never been as empowered as they are today to reach millions of others without having to go through gatekeepers or boundaries.

Q. Hardest part of your job?

A. I think the hardest part of any job as a creative person is working perfectly in sync with people who perform the other functions necessary within a company (business, engineering, etc). It can be very challenging to keeping trying to come up with your best ideas and most compelling work when under pressure to meet a sales goal or tight deadline. I’ve become better over the years at straddling the conflict between art & commerce, but I still find it challenging to continually produce emotionally resonant, meaningful work while under pressure to ship a product.

You constantly have to factor in whether pursuing a certain vision you have in your head aligns with the larger business objectives of your organization, or whether it can even be executed by an engineering team already swamped with millions of other (probably more important) tasks, and temper your ambitions accordingly. At the same time, these factors keep the job interesting and challenging!

Q. Favorite part of your job?

A. I love dreaming up new virtual places, and visual experiences that have never been seen before. It feels like magic every time, it’s what I live for every day and I couldn’t imagine a life doing anything else. I also really love working with my incredible art and engineering team, who continually inspire and challenge me to do better work every day.