Vernacular Reality Podcast Ep. 4 Transcript
Collins: Welcome back to Vernacular Reality. This week we have a guest who comes to us from the West Coast! (The beauty of recording and sharing virtually.) We are sitting down with Jim Toepel! He is a long-time Product Lead in the gaming industry. He’s done a lot of work with unique hardware systems, such as the Rock Band games, and he has been kind enough to join us for our episode of Vernacular Reality. So welcome, Jim. Welcome back, Sean. And it’s great to have you guys!
Toepel: Yeah, thanks Blythe and Sean for having me. Like you mentioned, I’m a Design/Product Manager hybrid and I’ve been working in what I call ‘weird interfaces’ for the past decade or so. Spent some time on both sides of the hardware divide, working on all those fake plastic guitars from about a decade ago. I moved over to Kinect games, so, ‘how do I control this thing with just my body?’ And then, moved from there into the VR space, where Sean and I met.
McBeth: Yeah, we met a couple of years ago at something called an Immersive Design Retreat. Chatham University out of Pittsburgh, PA had put on this program. This was the inaugural event in what turned into a many-years-series of retreats that they did, where we basically got to hang out at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater for almost a week. No computers, we just sat around and talked about art and architecture and design and virtual reality, and do it in the context of this really amazing space, which was really kind of… Like, going into it, I had no idea how this was going to relate. Like, Frank Lloyd Wright and VR? What is that about? But you know, when you get there and you start learning about his history you really get the sense of how he’s designing a space for the whole body to inhabit, and that’s kind of what we’re doing in VR too.
Toepel: That was definitely one of the most exciting experiences I’ve had in the VR industry. It was on my checklist/my bucket list for a long time, just to go see that building, ever since I was a little kid.
Collins: I like how you both could take that base education and that experience, and then take it into two different branches of immersive software. You know, they’re very different in their functionality but very similar at their core.
McBeth: It had a very significant formative impact on my thinking about virtual reality design. I think the biggest thing was the concept of: how do we breathe life into spaces? What is the disconnect between what we think of as the dead virtual thing and the living real thing? How can we work to try to bridge that gap?
Toepel: One of the things that struck me most — and I was working in Los Angeles at the time — there’s something about my time in LA where I became acutely aware of architecture. I think we were down the street from a couple Frank Gehry buildings, and my family’s favorite ice cream place was an architecturally inspired Ice Creamery — I don’t even know what you call them — called Coolhaus. It’s a good architecture joke, it’s a deep cut. But it was really exciting, and I loved going to this space that was manmade but still felt organic in a way. It was immediately juxtaposed against previous VR creation endeavors where we are trying to build these James-Turrell-inspired spaces in virtual reality, which I don’t want to say never works, but is kind of antithetical to what James Turrell is working on. I came from this world in Los Angeles that had these great examples of built spaces, and it was really interesting to go see this one that felt very organic and felt lived in. I can still picture in my head, that one hallway that went over the driveway and at the end, a part of the rocks and part of the moss and the outside broke through and there was just a little bit of water coming in. Nature was not even intruding into this space. It’s just that this space was in harmony with the built world that was there before the house and that was really inspiring for me.
McBeth: I felt exactly the same way. Here is this thing, this place, where a person has placed their stamp, but they’ve not done it in an overly destructive way. They’ve done it in a way that was respectful of its environment. It’s something that I’ve personally kind of struggled with, like hiking and camping and stuff. You know, it kind of dawned on me at one time: I never really feel comfortable, I never really feel at home. And you look at an animal, and an animal out in the woods has no conception of feeling at home in the woods it’s just like, ‘what are you talking about dude?’ And that level of comfort that we get with our home space, that we don’t get in public or in places that we revere. You know, sitting in Fallingwater and, at first, not feeling at home until you’re there having a meal or seeing some friends play a card game at the kitchen table. Then suddenly, some light switch goes off, and then it feels like a home.
Collins: What would you say is it about a place or a space that makes it feel like home?
Toepel: Home, to me, feels like I have a place and that I know where, in a particular space, what role I’m supposed to play in that space. Whether it’s my living room I can sit on the couch, or this is my desk and I’m here to work. The spaces almost have verbs to them. I know they’re places, they’re nouns, but they help inform the way I should behave when I am inside of them.
McBeth: I think it is those actions, and I think it is those ways of moving about in that space, as you said, because what is more personal than our body? You know, our body is our uniquely owned domain and so, if you can express your body in that space, then it must be the home space versus the other space where you feel as if you are an interloper.
Toepel: I like that. And to me, it’s most effective when it becomes like a conversation, because it’s not just my body in this space, but it’s also the space around my body and they both impact each other. It feels like certain spaces change the way I am looking at the thing I’m doing that day, or they encourage me to behave in a certain way. If there’s big windows open, I have a better sense of communing with nature, and if there is a long, tiny uncomfortable tunnel, like in Fallingwater — many of the hallways were very small in a way that was almost arresting in a modern American ADA-Compliant housing unit — the hallways wanted you to not be there, to keep moving. I really loved that relationship with space and physical interfaces.
Collins: So, you’re putting a lot of value on moving around these spaces. How would you say that fits into immersive software?
McBeth: I think it’s one of the key value-adds of immersive software, that we have this ability to be able to move within it. We kind of ask a lot of users to put on a headset. You know, if you’re doing something, being in the VR and you get a text message on your phone… now you gotta take off your headset and deal with the text message, and then go back in. So, you have this switching cost, going back and forth. And when you have a cost like that, you need to be providing something of commensurate value in response. And to me, that ability to engage the body, to be able to move around, and not just have an application in front of the user that the user pokes at and the application then sends data back through their eyes in a beam from a giant rectangle of light, you have this intimate immersed relationship with the software, with the machine, with the task that you were performing. For a long time, I’ve always felt like using a VR application was less like using a piece of software and more like wearing a piece of clothing when it’s really done well. When it’s really done well, it responds to me, and it flows around me. I don’t have to necessarily address it directly. Like, you put your hand in your pocket to pull out your keys, you don’t look directly at your pocket and engage your hand and insert into pocket and grab keys and pull out. You don’t construct this whole command structure to do that. You can just feel around in the bottom of your pocket and pull out the keys.
Toepel: That’s frankly one of the things that most excites me about spatial interfaces. And I hope in the future it can open up computing to a wide swath of people who are pretty underserved by definitely the old text-based DOS interfaces, but even the graphical user interfaces that are still 2D and flat. I’m reminded of one of my college jobs at the moving company and just how physically satisfying it was to: drive truck to house; pick thing up out of house, and slowly close all the doors as you emptied out the closets, as you had emptied out the master bedroom, and there was like this physical record of the work you had done. You filled up the truck like you were playing Tetris, drove truck to new house, and then watched as you emptied that truck out. You had all these interesting physical reminders of the progress of your day and the progress of your toil. You’re like, ‘oh, we’re like three rings down into the truck,’ or ‘I remember that this mattress is coming up next, as soon as we remove the mattress it’s the dining set.’ I’m convinced that computers can still become yet more accessible by providing these physical interfaces for people that, for whatever reason, text interfaces aren’t engaging for them or these, like, flat — I think the hip kids on Twitter are calling them ‘pancake interfaces’– just aren’t really working for them. At least I’m hopeful, anyway.
Collins: So, watching a video or just trying to read an article on your phone isn’t enough anymore?
Toepel: I don’t know if it’s not enough, but it could be better. I mean, like, I’m a weird dinosaur that can’t process video tutorials and I’m always like ‘I want the written one, so I can follow along’. But I think that actually speaks to like the wide array of learning styles out there and computers are very good at a couple of them. But I think we’re probably not serving all of the learning styles in the current computing paradigm.
McBeth: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. I’m right there with you with not really appreciating video tutorials, like ‘I can’t control-F find keywords in this, can I?’ It’s something that I think we see in a lot of, like, social VR apps where people figure out new ways of using the software. You don’t really have to come up with all kinds of really interesting features, like like-buttons and resharing and emoji gestures. You don’t have to do all of those sort of things, people just figure out ways to congregate in the VR space online and have conversations and make them meaningful with body language and gestures and all the things that we normally do in real life. They become embodied in the virtual space without us having to program anything specific in for that. That’s exciting – when a user can use the tool in a way that you don’t predict or never even gave any specific, you know, tooling for. Then, it becomes a gigantic realm of possibility that, you know, rewards creativity rather than trying to fit people all into a single prescribed box.
Toepel: Yeah, I’m reminded a little bit of one of the previous projects I worked on. It was called Mindshow where you could –this is gonna sound like a fever dream — but you could pick kind of these cartoon environments using some VR tools, decorate the environments, place characters in them, and then you would jump into the characters using a tool. And, because we know where your hands were in VR and where your head was, we could map those to the cartoon characters. When you moved around, you could essentially — we called it puppeteering — but you could perform as these silly characters, the space alien/space captain. And what we found is, even with those three data points -where the two hands are and where the head is at, I could tell which one of my coworkers made a piece of content without their audio. When they’re pretending to be the alien, like, I knew it was Max, just from those little three tracked points. I could intuit their body language. I could tell that that Max’s performance was different than Luke than was different than Sydney’s, and it was really interesting to be in a virtual world and get that feedback. It’s not something you see even — we’re on a video call right now while we’re recording this and I’m missing that feedback and when it is there, it creates a more natural form of communication and a more natural environment to, I think, collaborate. In a world where we’re not all going back to work, but some of us are going back to work in physical places, and other people are going to be displaced, I think it’s going to become more important than ever to find ways to simulate or replace that natural body language.
McBeth: Yeah, I agree completely. I mean, that’s actually why I got into VR. That’s why I decided to make this career a career. I had started playing around with VR and, you know, I thought it was a lot of fun, made a small little project, got a small little amount of Internet fame within the VR community for it, got a cold call from a company that wanted to hire me and we did the interview in their application, in their VR social app. And it was amazing just to have this conversation with a person across the country and have it feel like being face-to-face with that person, rather than – you know, at the time, Skype was the big teleconferencing software and all of its problems of, you know, just like we have Zoom today and feeling disconnected and feeling exhausted by it and everything — but to have this really super compelling conversation and to be talking in a way like I experienced when I go to like meetups and meet up with other enthusiasts and you get that really excited animated way of talking. You know, that was incredible, and it was a bit addicting. And at the end of the interview, they asked me, ‘when can you move to the West Coast?’ And I said, ‘are you joking? Do you not see what you have in your hands right now?’
Toepel: It’s funny and I want this future. I want this future to be there, but I still feel the pressure of wanting to co-locate with people. Like, my most recent project was 100% remote from the start and the whole time I’m sitting there, ‘man this is great, this is awesome, it’s so flexible,’ but boy, I wish I could just lean over and say, ‘there should be, you know, 10% higher,’ or ‘more blue’. The amount of additional friction involved in communicating those, like, little tiny changes… It makes a difference, and it adds up. It seems almost paired like a paradox to say, ‘by putting these headsets on, by going through all these hoops, and buying these expensive computers, communication is actually going to be more accessible because you will get to leverage all of your real-world communication experience. Ever since you were a baby, you were building mental models on how humans interact in a space, like is someone smiling at you? Are they making eye contact with you, are they shrugging? Are they breathing, are they leaning forward like they’re ready to talk? And by going through all of this work and putting these headsets on and going through these digital kinds of communication experiences, I believe that in the end, it will result in more accessible collaboration tools.
McBeth: I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s so important for us, as a language instruction company, you know, foreign language instruction company to be building these virtual reality tools. You know, what is our job? Is it to teach people foreign language or is it to teach people how to communicate? And it’s really to teach people how to communicate. And part of that is the language, part of that is the grammar, the syntax, the vocabulary, all of that sort of stuff. But part of it is culture. Part of it is a very intangible thing of explaining to a person how you talk to somebody else, not what you say when you talk to them, but how do you talk to them? And that’s not going to come over text. You can’t do that over a textbook. You can’t do that over a video series because it fundamentally requires feedback. So, that’s why for, you know, for 35 years we’ve had such a successful business with this very personalized one-on-one focused system. But that’s obviously very limited in reach. You can’t… You can only reach the people in your immediate environment. After the job interview experience, I started thinking about how, you know, Google and Facebook talk about how they ‘only hire the best and brightest in the world’ and what they really mean is, they only hire the best and the brightest that they can convince to move to California. And so, there’s so many people in the world that… you know, we talk about the importance of diversity and the importance of different viewpoints. And why are you going to shut yourself off from all those people just because they aren’t physically located next to you? I think that’s a big goal of mine with the with the work that we’re doing here. As a VR enthusiast, as a software developer, I’m not bringing foreign language expertise into the mix. I’m bringing a different set of expertise. That’s my personal goal here at the company, not just improving the foreign language instruction — which is absolutely the base goal– but to expand people concepts of what communication can be.
Toepel: You’re expanding the impact or increasing the impact of that instruction, even if it isn’t just the rote curriculum. By transporting someone to a different location — and there’s all kinds of supporting evidence to suggest that the following statement is true– that when people move to new locations or move to strange spaces that aren’t comfortable to them or that aren’t their home, (and this both in physical spaces and temporally too, so time, like calendar milestones), people can use those dates to impact change in their behaviors. One of the things I was most excited about when you showed me, like, a screencap of the thing you’re working on, is that it took me to another place. And when I’m learning something new, or when I am trying to change my behavior in some way, I personally find it helpful to go somewhere new. That sense of exploration and the sense of disrupting my normal routine helps me learn a new thing or stop doing a bad thing or doing something new that I wouldn’t do before because of just the natural momentum of my previous space. And that’s pretty exciting. Another thing I’ve found working on the silly cartoon creator was that one of our goals was to help adults who have forgotten that they could be creative to be creative as well. Like, this is something that was in the DNA of the company, and we found that almost 100% of the time, when you put someone into the headset, they would initially start off standing still in the space, holding the VR controllers straight up like they were ice cream cones, forgetting to really move, forgetting to explore, and they’re very much aware that they’re humans in a space. After we, you know, put them on an alien planet, we would tell some jokes with them, get them to loosen up, they would kind of forget that there was an audience of humans around them and they started playing in a way that I am 100% convinced would never have happened if they were on, like, an improv stage and they could see everyone out there staring at them and all of the kind of like the backlit heads and the backlit faces staring at them. It was a really great way to break down the barriers that, you know, have convinced a lot of adults that they aren’t creative, they aren’t funny, they aren’t interesting people. I have thought, you know, a lot of people have either been taught that those things aren’t true or have learned that they aren’t true just by living here in adult land. And it was great to put them somewhere else and let them be kids again.
McBeth: That’s really beautiful.
Collins: When else would adults have the chance to do this? To explore and, like, move your body in a new way. It’s kind of discovering what it is to be human again.
Toepel: Yeah! These worlds, they all have physics that are like our world but a little bit different and those are, in my experience, incredibly interesting for people, because it is — go back to a kid building up a tower of blocks and knocking down that tower of blocks over and over and over again. They’re empirically deriving the rules of our current universe and that provides great joy to them. There’s some theories out there that all play is learning and that is what actually is fun about play. Giving adults the opportunity to have that same experience again is pretty cool. It might help rewire the creative brain a little bit, get people opening themselves up to change.
McBeth: Yeah, absolutely. We recently had the opportunity to watch a talk from a neurocognitive scientist. He laid all of that out in scientific terms, it’s exactly right. You know, when you’re engaging the body, it’s not just because it feels more fun, it literally is lighting up new sections of the brain. It’s creating new connections between the information that you’re learning and that enhances recall. It’s like strings all interconnected together, and if you can make the strings more connected, then when you pull on one it makes another jiggle farther away. And the more you can engage all of these different senses, and these different modes of thinking, and these different modes of working, the more you just really embed all of that information in people’s brains. It’s fascinating stuff. It’s something we’re looking forward to expanding on. You know, just really designing learning around these physical operators of, you know, thinking about it kind of like a math problem, ‘I have the addition operator, I have the multiplication operator, or I have the physical embodiment operator, I have the learning in motion operator, and I can combine these things and know and be confident in improving the learning outcome for the student.’
Toepel: That’s really cool. I think that there is a–and I’m gonna hate on pancake things for a little bit–I think there is a current trend in UX design for mobile and it’s true for mobile cause no ones got any time when you’re on a mobile device, but to, you know, reduce the number of taps to get to an answer or get to the result. And all of it is very kind of… it’s focused on getting the answer, and it’s not focused on the process of it. One of the things I’m really excited about these spatial interfaces is they are by nature slower, and I think there’s an interesting opportunity to celebrate the process of getting to an answer and might help us when you’re learning and when you’re trying to teach a group of people something. I still, to this day, remember the moment when our calculus teacher in high school helped the group of kids empirically derive calculus, like the concept of calculus. She could have just gone up there and said area under the curve, here’s the formula, go nuts, but she walked us through a very abbreviated process that, like Newton and all of those early mathematicians went through–they had a much harder time at it, we had to discover their way–but by walking us through this process and taking the time, like we got to own that discovery in a little bit of a way, and we internalize it. At least I did. I don’t know about the rest of the kids in the class. But that’s really exciting, is a chance to slow down and focus on the process and the journey of learning.
McBeth: Yeah, I think that’s a big component of it and you kind of made a little throwaway comment about there, ‘at least for me,’ you had said. I think that’s another thing that VR is going to let us do, is that it’s going to allow us to create these learning experiences for you, for the individual, for the wonderful little crystal of a person that you are. Not just as ‘everybody is on the same bus together, and we’re going to go down the road and if you don’t learn what the lesson is today, well we got a new lesson tomorrow.’ You know, we’ll be able to bring everybody along and that’s exciting.
Collins: There is such a wide use for this software, this type of learning, you know whether it’s for foreign language training or whether it’s for, you know, a “silly” game. Either way, you are getting so much more out of this way of learning. I think that is a valuable through-line that I’ve learned from your conversation. It was great to talk to you both. So, thank you for being here, Jim, and thank you, Sean, as always.
Toepel: Yeah, this was super fun. Thank you for having me!
McBeth: Thank you both and thank you, Jim. It was great talking with you again.
Toepel: Have a great one.
Collins: See you on the next episode.
McBeth: Later taters.