Three MDM Student Cohorts Work Together To Develop VR Theater at SIGGRAPH

Three MDM Student Cohorts Work Together To Develop VR Theater at SIGGRAPH

This past summer, Vancouver hosted SIGGRAPH, an annual computer graphics conference. The conference attracts tens of thousands of global visitors and was the first time SIGGRAPH was back in Vancouver since 2014.

MDM faculty Larry Bafia was this year’s producer for the Computer Animation Festival at SIGGRAPH.

The event was held at the Vancouver Convention Centre from August 12-16 and showcased the latest technologies in computer graphics and interactive techniques. One of the main features of this year’s SIGGRAPH was the VR Theater which was a chance for attendees to watch some of the world’s top VR films within a unique VR experience.

The VR Theater project was run by MDM alumni, Yangos Hadjiyannis, one of the first graduates of the MDM program, who worked with a number of MDM alumni to develop, build and create the VR Theater experience.

We sat down to talk to Yangos about the project, how he worked with MDM alumni and faculty to build the VR Theater and how popular the experience was over the four days of SIGGRAPH.

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How did the idea for the VR Theater develop?

VR Theater started last year at SIGGRAPH 2017 in LA with Pol Jeremias. The team wanted to explore the medium of VR as a theatrical experience. Being the first year, they were really safe and attendees would basically just sit in the theater and put on a headset.

In 2018, I had a meeting of the minds with Larry Bafia, who had just been appointed SIGGRAPH chair. I had been in Dubai for two years working on one of the sustainability campaigns in the region. I had been working on a combination of interactive installations and door to door visits and had been working with MDM students and alumni on the interaction elements.

Having finished the Dubai business, I came back to Vancouver to see how I could continue making experiences that matter.

One of my jobs in Dubai was to pitch to sheiks—people who get pitched to everyday. So I went to Larry and said "I hear that you’re the lead for SIGGRAPH, let’s talk, I’m really interested in being a part of this community. And let me help you with the pitch because I can see great potential in our collaboration."

What happened next?

One of the major complaints from the previous year was that not enough people got to witness the VR Theater and what that was. So at a minimum we said that we would have 30 people in a space watching the VR experiences at a time, plus we would have 5 kiosks that were outside in the expo space. All of the kiosks were going to be curated and selected to fulfill many different requirements, from diversity to indie to experimental.

The story of the VR Theater is a family story. I worked directly with [MDM faculty members] Larry and Patrick and they acted as mentors and producers. Patrick helped to create some of the sound elements and gave advice on how to set up the space. Larry, with his connections and being an industry veteran, helped me find a lot of the content makers and had important insights as we curated world class VR movies.

Can you explain the VR Theater and how the MDM cohorts worked together?

Visitors would enter the theater and the space was almost a hypnotic refuge from the outside hustle. There was the bustle of the expo and the theater was basically away from the expo reality. We designed it in a way that we were controlling the light and the sound and created a mood that was very hypnotic and very relaxing so that when you entered you were ready to enter a new reality of projected content.

Then as you put on the headset, you were transported to an extension of that world and got to watch a series of curated VR movies that in total run for 45 min. Examples of these included Arden’s Wake Expanded, with amazing showcase of detail, sound and sight, Space Explorers: A New Dawn a narrative-driven space piece and Trinity a beautiful showcase of live action 360 film and real time elements.

The custom virtual lobby of the world in the headset was created from a group of C12s (Ana Ostovic, Hang Yang, Kirsten Howard [UBC student], Leticia Ripoll, Mark  Olson, Thoufeeq Ahamed and Rex Shi) as an industry project. I was the co-client with Larry, and they built the magical world inside the headset for the VR Theater.

And then with some alumni from C11 (Conrad Sly, Jimmz Zhang, Marco Cermusoni, Maria José Herrera, Mateo Cano Gomez and Youhan Guan) we worked to refine that experience and take it to the next level so that it was super polished for SIGGRAPH.

So it was a semester of the students working on it and learning what it's like to build a world-class project, and then the alumni gave it the final flair.

The whole thing was a great success with very positive feedback. Colleagues overheard hallway conversations with people recommending the VR Theater to complete strangers.

Do you think for a lot of people it was their first time experiencing VR?

Yes, but I think for a lot of people, understanding VR as a holistic theatrical experience and that you can sit with a bunch of people and experience it at the same time, I think that was what was new for them.

An important note is that the people who got to experience the VR theatre were only full/premium pass holders and it created a buzz! It was a truly a unique, captivating experience.

You can imagine that in the mornings they would have to line up at 7am and wait 45 min in line and you’d have this calibre of people doing that, to get a seat at the VR theatre.

This was a quirk of the ticketing system that we’re trying to sort out for next year but it also created this sought-out factor. We had people almost jumping on top of each other to find a way to get into the theatre.

We had people almost jumping on top of each other to find a way to get into the theatre."

So that was a huge success for you guys.

It was huge. I don’t remember the number of people we served but it was a full house at all shows for 4 days straight.

What was it like for you?

It was a bit surreal. It’s one thing to draw a sketch of and another to really see it being brought to life in the actual space.

Will you be working with the cohorts again?

To me, half of the thrill was to see how well the inter-cohort relationships worked.

It was all volunteer based. It wasn’t something people were getting paid for. Because SIGGRAPH is so prestigious and there is that family bond between the cohorts...I think there’s something unique there.

And it doesn’t end this year. Our work extends to 2019 when myself, CDM alumni and hopefully some members from the new MDM cohort, are going to work with Maxwell Planck, next year’s SIGGRAPH chair, to create not only a theatrical experience but a bigger more social experience for SIGGRAPH 2019. We’re going to experiment with new ways of socially connecting mass viewers.

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Watch what it was like to experience the VR Theater:

Find out more about the SIGGRAPH VR Theater industry project.