Innovator in Residence: Focus on Virtual Reality

August 9, 2016 | Greg Astill

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Starting on September 12 to December 10, the library's new Innovator in Residence Elli Raynai will deliver lectures and teach classes on virtual reality content development. 



Photo courtesy of Elli Raynai


Elli Raynai is a writer, producer, director and Virtual Reality (VR) filmmaker. He formed the production company Cinehackers in early 2015 to focus on making cinematic VR experiences. He has made two feature films and eight short films but his passion for art and technology led him to explore the possibilities of telling stories and creating experiences in virtual reality. His latest experience 'I Am You' was the official selection of the 2016 Kaleidoscope VR World Tour and can now be found on the Gear VR store.  

The Innovator in Residence program offers a fun and hands-on way to learn about the technology offered at the library's Digital Innovation Hubs. Past residencies have included programs on mobile app development3D printing, filmmaking, audio production, Arduino, 3D design and robotics.

We got to know Elli better through our Q&A below: 

1. What made you interested in applying to be our Innovator in Residence?

I was interested in applying for the Innovator in Residence position because I love this idea of sharing knowledge and creative ideas. More specifically, I believe that for virtual reality to succeed as a medium, people need to share what they know because that’s the only way that it can grow. If people are secretive about their methods and techniques, the community can’t learn, support and push each other to make content that is compelling and will in turn make VR successful. In addition, it’s very exciting to perform this role at the Toronto Public Library because of the wide range of people (everyone from kids to seniors) that I will have the opportunity to interact with in order to help shape their thoughts and feelings about this amazing technology.

2. What are you looking most forward to in your residency?

I am really looking forward to the one-on-one sessions because I’m really excited to hear about what sorts of projects people are dreaming up. On the other side, I’m excited to show people virtual reality for the first time as it’s such a thrill to see them teleport to another world. Once they return, we can talk about how they felt as well as talk through some ideas of how they could use the technology for their own projects, be it a game, film or even a education piece.

3. For someone who is completely new to virtual reality, how would you describe it? How do you think it will impact our daily lives?

I would describe virtual reality as a mix between video games and film. It allows the viewer to not just look at world through a screen, but feel like they are actually in the world and have the ability to interact with it. This feeling is often referred to as “presence”, but in order to fully understand this technology it has to be experienced in order to fully grasp the way it makes you feel. I believe that virtual reality has the potential to impact every aspect of our lives; for example with virtual tourism you could go to any place in the world and feel like you are there with the click of a button. Student doctors are also already experimenting with VR to accelerate their training during surgeries, and in theory, it can make education easier in any field. Finally, it can also help people get over psychological traumas such as PTSD and anxiety over a fear of heights by allowing them to relive those experiences in VR and ultimately heal them.

 4. Please tell us about the first virtual reality content that you created. What were the most important things you learned from that process?

The first virtual reality content that I created was a short narrative film called “I Am You”. The film used a mix of computer generated graphics along with stereoscopic live action images. The project was a big challenge as we were trying to tell a narrative story in virtual reality and wanted to ensure the viewer knows when and where to look. I worked very closely with a computer programmer to make the film, as we took a very specific approach that I learned hadn’t been tried before by other VR creators. In this project, we focused on tracking exactly where the cameras were looking while the actor was wearing our camera. This allowed us to force the viewer’s perspective upon playback and get them to look exactly where the action was happening, so they didn’t miss any part of the story. I also learned how acting can feel quite unsubtle in virtual reality, which breaks the immersion, and therefore it was incredibly important to work closely with the actors so that we could create a natural style that puts the viewer at ease. From a technical perspective, we learned how to get the film into unity and out into a Samsung Gear VR, which was incredibly useful as we could not only have a mobile setup to show the film, but we were also able to distribute it on the Gear VR platform. Finally, if it wouldn’t be for this project, I’m not sure if I would have entered the world of making content for VR as working through the process of making it gave me the confidence to make things that have never been done before.

 5. Which virtual reality experience really impressed you?

The latest virtual reality experience that has really impressed me was Destinations for the HTC Vive. Destinations is an experience that uses the process of photogrammetry as well animated computer graphics to create highly resolution spaces that the user can walk around in. The sense of presence that this experience creates is so powerful because you have the ability to walk up to objects in the space and get close to them, exactly like in real life. I’m impressed by Destinations not only because of the technology that they used, but also for the ideas that it can give you to start thinking about your own projects and the different ways that you can take it.