Scotland JS

Edinburgh, July 19th and 20th 2018

Interview with Livi Erickson

Livi Erickson

Virtual Reality: Why?

Hi Livi. How are you?

I'm good, how are you?

I'm good thanks, really excited to be speaking to you.

It's fun, I love talking, and I'm really excited about the conference.

Tell us a bit about yourself?

I am based in San Francisco and work for Microsoft where I am employed as a Virtual Reality Developer Evangelist which is a fancy way of saying I get to play with Virtual Reality and teach people about it. Basically, my job is developing for VR and figuring out where the pain points are then figuring out where developers need educational material to teach them how to do it and how to get started as well and learn more about how they can start developing, how they can start designing, and getting familiar with what VR looks like and making it as easy as possible for them to do that.

What made you get involved with Virtual Reality?

I moved to San Francisco about three years ago and everybody was in tech. Everyone was really passionate about what they were working on and I knew that I wanted to figure out what it was that I was really passionate about. I looked into a whole bunch of different technologies, reading about them, trying little side projects until I watched a YouTube video about the Oculus. The first demo I got to try was a Star Wars lightsabre training demo and I had been a huge Star Wars fan my entire life, when I got to try that it was literally an example of technology making a dream that I had since I was kid come true. After that point I was completely sold and never looked back. I just wanted to help grow a technology that had that much potential.

What are your hobbies?

I think everybody who gets into Virtual Reality has a little bit of appreciation for science fiction novels and always questioning and thinking outside the box of what technology can achieve. For me I've always really loved reading books about VR, so it wasn't really a huge jump to realise this was a technology that can start building today. I think I mentioned I love Star Wars and watching science fiction TV shows, when I'm not playing VR games, which is another big hobby now.

What Virtual Reality Games are you liking at the moment?

I recently got to play Valkyrie which is like a space pilot like battle game and I did not think it was the kind of game I would like at all but when I started playing it and flying around in this starship I really just felt so powerful and it was just such a fun experience that I'm really looking forward to that game coming out. There's a really fun game that I like to play when I'm showing other people VR for the first time called Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes where the person in the headset is the only person who can see a VR bomb and a bunch of different puzzles on it to diffuse it. And they have to explain to the people outside of the headset what they see because they're the only ones that have the manual to diffuse the puzzle problems. It's lots of fun!

How long has computing been an interest?

I don't think I can remember a time where I wasn't really interested in using computers. My dad was a systems engineer so he was always had the latest gadgets around. I never really remember a time when I didn't have a computer in the house to play with and even when I was little all I wanted to do was play video games and education games, I spent hours reading Encarta and online encyclopedias, and just reading as much as I could using computers for anything I could think of. If I had any homework assignment I needed to do I wanted to work on it on the computer because I just never got enough of that. I had a N64 when I was a kid so I played a lot of games growing up too. People ask me “how did you choose computer science?” and I don't feel like I ever made that decision, it just never seemed like it wasn't a part of who I was.

What other aspects of tech grabs your attention?

What really drew me into Virtual Reality was how it incorporates so many different technologies. I'm particularly fascinated about how the internet and web will evolve with 3D development and 3D computing becoming more commonly placed. I'm also really fascinated in taking different applications around biometrics and the data we can get about ourselves as humans and figuring out how we can play with that, learn from that. With all these different devices now that we can capture so much data and figuring out what we can do with these amounts of data and how can we actually use that instead of saying well I have all this information but I don't know how to parse it or process it, being able to make use of all of that is a really interesting thing for me. The artificial intelligence in machine learning, being able to build adaptive experiences is something I'm really really passionate about and interested in. Adaptive experiences is a new thing I've been thinking about and it's very abstract right now. I have this idea that with being able to estimate how someone is feeling based on their actions and their virtual environment you can actually change the environment to do different things and behave differently and being able to do that at real time in an application to have it respond to a users intent and feeling I think will be a really interesting sub field of technology in the future.

How would you start detecting that?

There's the idea of being able to do sentiment analysis on text, so converting statements a user was saying during their experiences and trying to detect whether that was a happy or sad emotion. If it's happy then do X and sad do Y, then eventually growing that out to capture more data that's available like maybe heart rate. For example, if you're playing a game, the more anxious you get in an experience then fewer enemies appear and vice versa, so it becomes less of a stressful experience. I think being able to control game play modules or elements based on how someone feels is a really fascinating aspect that you will be able to start playing with really soon. I think there is going to be a lot of potential for that to grow.

What new technology excites you?

I mentioned the machine learning and being able to process the data from wearable tech. In particular what I'm really excited about is all the advancements that are being made right now in the browser to enable these experiences to run on any different VR device. There's a bunch of different ways that you can run a VR experience now. I've got a couple of different types of headset that you can wear, some of which still require computers, some are mobile headsets that you plug your mobile in and it powers everything. In theory you can use the browser to receive information from a device and have your phone power everything.

What's really fascinating to me is seeing how tools have evolved to a point where a single person can do 20 different things and play with so many different types of technology without having to be an expert in one particular area. There's a lot more flexibility in learning about other different types of technology. Personally, I started learning JavaScript for web development but then I could use it to build VR as well which is a totally different application that shares a lot of the underlying knowledge.

What your talk is about and why you're excited about it without giving too much away?

I have a couple of goals and how I've talked about VR has changed a little bit over the past couple of years. The industry is growing really fast and it's hard to even give away too many specifics because I don't really know what it's going to look like in a few months. So much changes rapidly in VR but I'm going to talk about how it is shaping a number of different industries and how it's becoming a very viable platform for new types of information. I'm probably going focus on VR as a unifier for this but also talking about how JavaScript as a language is everywhere now and how many powerful things you can do connecting those different parts together. With JavaScript being an open a language it has helped customise a lot of different applications, so it's the easiest language that I've found to really be able to build different parts of different technologies together.

Do JavaScript frameworks help?

I haven't done too much exploring into it yet, but I'm sure some of the different frameworks have a lot of potential in terms of helping set up guidelines. I think we're still a little way out until there are going to be frameworks and best practices, because even in the industry itself there are no best practices on design. The only real rule of VR development is make it perform over 60 frames per second, past that there are no rules about best practices, no rules about which concepts work and which don't. There's no real standard yet for development or design.

What tools would you use?

I switch between using game engines and writing just regular websites with text editor, I use three.js, which is a graphics library. There are two kinds of graphic frameworks really pushing forward with supporting VR which I'll probably show in my talk. Three.js gives you the building blocks to put that environment into your web page and be able to explore that. I may write a web VR site on stage to demonstrate this because my main job as an evangelist is to help people understand how their existing background lends itself into VR.

I use a game engine called Unity to build a lot of applications but that's genuinely building an application that will run natively on a device. I love using the web to teach VR development because anyone can get started building on it straight away. It is a little bit harder in my opinion to build 3D environments without being able to see it, this is one of the downsides of doing everything in a text editor but three.js has a web editor that shows what the code looks like visually. It's always been amazing for me to see 6 or 7 lines of JavaScript turn into something I can walk around in. I always like to give a little understanding of what VR is because a lot of people hear of VR and they think it's like the Matrix, or Total Recall, or something like that and I like to define what it looks like today in terms of devices you can buy and different ways you can buy VR apps. I'll spend most of my time talking about will be why JavaSript is such a good tool to write for VR and how to get started. I have a couple of websites that I've build that I would show.

How did you come to find out about ScotlandJS?

I have been speaking about VR for about a year now and recently JS Scotland reached out to me. I really wanted to start looking for ways to talk about VR and make more people aware of it, looking for interesting topics to talk about and I've spent a lot of time playing with VR on the web. I've found a lot of web developers are really excited about the idea of VR development as there's web VR and there's the option to start building browser based VR, helping the industry evolve.

What are you looking forward to most about Scotland JS?

I've loved every stage of working with the Scotland JS organisers. They have been an amazing team, putting together a really good event which I'm really excited to go to. I love that it's in Scotland. I went to Scotland in 2007 for 3 weeks on a high school exchange and I'm really excited to come back as it was one of my favourite memories in high school. I was involved in an exchange with a school in Dunfermline and we travelled to Glasgow, Edinburgh and up to Loch Ness. What's the most unique about this time is that I'm in a position to talk not only about VR but also how you can combine all these other really interesting areas. People are building really cool things with JavaScript and how all of that comes together in building these very futuristic experiences and how close we are because last year when I gave my first talk about VR web it was only in its infancy. Things were running really slowly and there wasn't very many people working on it, there wasn't many examples and the only thing I built was a swirly kaleidoscope example and now in the last year I've got to play with new technologies and these new tools where data feeds into a rest API and I can pull that into a VR experience and actually build something that's very compelling, useful and interesting rather than an example of this is where we are now. Now we can actually look at that and say this is where we're going in the future which I think is awesome.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I'll be bringing along demo's for people to try. So if anyone is worried they haven't tried it yet I'll be there with devices on hand. The only thing I would like to say about my talk is that I want people to know it's okay that they don't know anything about VR yet because that's what I'm going to teach them about and what I want is for people to walk away with more of a curiosity about it and have a better understanding of it and I don't want it at all to seem intimidating. I'm really excited about it and I am really really looking forward to it.

We're excited to have you over and thank you so much for taking the time to share your knowledge about Virtual Reality.

Thank you for having me, I'm really looking forward to the event.

Suzanne McCulley

Interview by Suzanne McCulley