I Went to School In Virtual Reality
It’s easy to pooh-pooh current VR, but the inaugural class at what claims to be the first school in the world to be entirely dedicated to VR development training was transcendent.
VR art by Tyler Sorg. Photo: Jagger Gravning
I'm skipping through a gallery of monsters when suddenly I'm confronted by a facehugger, straight out of Alien, bursting out of its fleshy egg. I take off an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, and I'm back at the inaugural class of the Chronos VR Development School.
I had just experienced a demo of high-fidelity 3D art created by one of the school's teachers. Chronos (not to be confused with the atmospheric VR role-playing game of the same name) claims to be the first school in the world to be entirely dedicated to development training for virtual reality. It's the brainchild of Ricardo Parker, a former web developer and now tech entrepreneur whose plans extend beyond the school and into a supposed future society that is utterly transformed by virtual reality in every way.
It's easy to pooh-pooh current VR. The technology is not fundamentally different than it was the first time around when we collectively decided it was simply an interesting novelty. And Parker's visions for virtual reality reach further than what is currently practical. Where others are simply thinking about what games and experiences can or cannot be made using this new tech, Parker is preoccupied with a sort of transcendent life that an idealized virtual reality will ultimately bring about in the far future. He wants to ensure that next world is more like a heaven and less like its opposite.
Even believers must concede that VR is still only a novelty in its current state.
It could be said that teaching the principles of VR, when nobody know what those principles even are yet, would be like trying to open a film school in the 1890s, before a grammar of editing, lighting or camera movement had been worked out. Just shoot this dancing skeleton with an unmoving camera, gentlemen! That's all there is to filmmaking!
Are these the imaginings of a visionary or the ravings of a naif, or even a scam artist? Is training for tech that we still don't quite know what to do with yet, and which is too new to even have experts, even a viable or appropriate business plan? To find out, I found myself in a Chronos classroom on the seventh floor of Seattle's eighth tallest skyscraper having just stared down that facehugger.***
Parker foresees a world where the Oasis, this virtual, superior world, is a networked, shared place that people will spend much time in. It is something, he says, that everyone will want to be a part of. There will be a new economy in place. People may have businesses such as nightclubs, for example, in the Oasis, and they may profit from them as business owners.
But the key is ensuring that the greater Oasis as a whole be free and accessible to everyone. Walking the virtual streets, breathing the virtual air shouldn't be something that you have to pay for, says Parker, who is hoping to lay the groundwork to prevent that from happening with Chronos VR.
Prognostications about the future are sometimes spoken by those who are trying to sell you on something. Others have no qualms pointing out that VR is, in fact, quite manifestly bullshit. Even believers must concede that VR is still only a novelty in its current state. The practical applications in the near term, apart from ungainly and simplified video games (or those playable only in special exhibition rooms) are foggy to say the least.
Parker freely admits that many of his concepts of the future are inspired by ideas found in science-fiction, specifically what he refers to as "the bibles": Snow Crash, which speaks of a shared virtual reality-founded "Metaverse," and Ready Player One, which describes a virtual world similarly unrestricted by the physical constraints of Earth, called "the Oasis."
The school is only one "pillar" of Parker's intentions with Chronos VR. There are also plans to make games. The first one is intended to be something like a virtual reality Minecraft—"where you can create and destroy, but much more than that"—and he also sees potential in apps with more practical purposes. Some of which, Parker claims, might even "reduce wars and help with the challenges we have with natural resources." But one of his essential goals remains to "be a major force" in making the Oasis/Metaverse a reality.
Parker is actively, today, working toward this distant future, anticipating the development of more sophisticated iterations of current virtual reality tech. He speaks of teleportation, body swapping, flying cars—all the old sci-fi tropes—yet he thinks these things will come about not on everyday Earth, but in a virtual world indistinguishable to our brains from the real world.
The seven students in the first class, on the game development suite Unreal Engine V, seem satisfied with how things are going. (The other two classes Chronos offers are in game animation and art; classes are four hours, meet once a week in the evenings for eight weeks, and run $1,250 and $1,050, respectively.) They're jazzed as they packed away their laptops and goggles.
"How cool would it be to say that you were part of this innovative time in history in this first ever virtual reality class?" says Alexander Aversano, a Chronos student.
Parker and his team of three teachers don't seem overly worried about the present limited state of VR technology or by their own limited experience developing for VR. The new wave of virtual reality is so new that it isn't possible for anybody to have more than two or three years experience developing for it, as the first modern VR goggles weren't available for developers until January 2013. And since dedicated VR goggles are not yet commercially available, no one has experience shipping commercial applications for VR.
"We are passionate about virtual reality and the Metaverse."
Parker and his three teachers say this lack of experience can be a benefit in this virgin frontier. I hear this sentiment repeated by students as well.
It's a "paradigm shift," as Parker said at a speech celebrating the launch of Chronos VR in April. "Nothing that we've done really applies to this new paradigm. For people who want to enter the industry this is really exciting. The old guard will be slowed down compared to people who have never done anything in the industry before."
"Do you want to be learning something from an instructor that has been teaching for ten years and hasn't worked on a real project in ten years?" he elaborates, when I asked about what appeared to be a dearth of experience both with VR development and with teaching in the schools' three instructors. "Or do you want to learn from somebody who was working on a project literally yesterday and is bringing knowledge from that into the classroom?"
Parker is a tall, slender man with a slight Brazilian accent. After his family had purchased him an Atari clone at age ten and later a PC, he became obsessed with computers and video games like Doom. In a computer magazine bought at a local supermarket in Sao Paulo, he saw a picture of a Microsoft sign with the campus behind it. That is when he first got the idea to move to Seattle to pursue a career in technology, and indeed, did so in 1996, quickly finding a job at Microsoft.
Now, as a VR entrepreneur, inspired by sci-fi, the problem Parker immediately encountered when embarking on his goal to create the Metaverse is that there are not presently a large supply of people who know how to develop for VR. Hence the Chronos VR Development School: from here Parker can spread the gospel of the new age of virtual reality that he insists is coming, training individuals—and potentially hiring promising students onto his projects. Though he emphasises he doesn't promise jobs.
"We've been stuck living in an old model," Parker said in his presentation at the official launch of Chronos VR. "And this old model doesn't work. And it's a model where people come and they do a job, and they're afraid they might lose their job, and they give a piece of themselves and a portion of their lives for a few years and then they walk away feeling like they didn't get rewarded properly. Meanwhile, we have CEOs making insane amounts of money. I'm not exactly against that, but I think we should try a different model. Because we need a model that works for everybody. And I think that this is the time."
Days before Chronos VR's opening session, when the classroom was empty, I had seen Parker standing in the same spot, looking out the windows at the other Seattle skyscrapers that were standing around us while he weaved his startling visions to me of the coming world of bliss which he foresaw branching, at least in part, out of the Chronos VR Development School.
"We are passionate," he had said, "about virtual reality and the Metaverse."
After this first class, in which teacher Victor Brodin spent four hours going over the interface of Unreal Engine 4, having his students spawn some fire and then showing them how to optimize the fire for VR, I asked student Andrea Molina if she was satisfied with the class.
"Oh God, yes," she says. "I learned so much. [Brodin] really breaks it down, like what are the elements of the game? It's the player, the environment, the objects."
This is when 3D art teacher Tyler Sorg showed me the gallery of monsters he had made. In a prior visit to the school, the faculty had been unable to provide me with any sort of virtual reality tech demos that they had developed as proof of their abilities. But I admit, I was now impressed. Coincidentally, I had just come from the Kaleidoscope VR Film Festival, and everything I saw at that festival was categorically inferior to the Chronos VR School demo, both technically and aesthetically. Chronos has that going for it, if anything.
I found Parker chatting with another clutch of students. He seemed happy but not overjoyed, explaining that he still needed to work to fill the school's other two courses, which would be starting in the coming weeks. To break even on the investment he needs four students per class. When we spoke he said he only had two students so far for each of the other two classes.