From Pages to Places: The Transformation of Presence

Synchronicity is a wonderful thing.

Watch legendary Disney animator Glen Keane draw in virtual reality” leaped from my morning email. I clicked on the web page and up came a short article that started with “Virtual reality is a potent tool for art and storytelling, but we’re still exploring the best ways to use it.”  How could I not click through after that introducition?

The article pointed to a video titled “Glen Keane: Step into the Page.” Not only was I interested, but my mind just got warped – step into the page – had I just wandered into Abbot’s Flatland?  What followed was a beautifully crafted video that drew from Keane’s story of being one of three generations of animators. Setting the context of the story was Glen at work drawing on paper as he did to create the characters and art work for Disney titles like The Little Mermaid.

glen keane

Then the video made an abrupt transition to Glen dancing in physical space while he was liberated in virtual space with the new app Tiltbrush.  I watched the video several times as it captured so much of what I’ve tried to communicate to my colleagues about my own VR Presence experiences.  I realized the “script” for the short video was well crafted so I quickly transcribed it.

“When you draw, you’re expressing something that’s real and visceral. By making a line, it’s sort of a seismograph of your soul. I was at Disney for about 38 years and was given an opportunity to animate Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Tarzan, Pocahontas. These are not drawings; these are real characters as they exist in my own life.

Picasso said, “When I was young I could draw and paint like Raphael. It’s taken me a lifetime to learn to draw like a child.” An artist’s spirit is that freedom and fearlessness of being a child. I was planted in the perfect nest to grow up in. My dad was a cartoonist who created the Family Circus. He was a kid. He was just like a big kid.

When my son Max was just a little guy, he said, “Dad, teach me to draw.” I taught him the same way my dad did. Dad drew circles and then wrote expressions under each one. Within like a half hour he came back and they were all filled out. The key to doing those drawings was asking himself, how do I feel? That’s the thing that you got to hang onto: that full immersion into the drawing.

When I animate, there’s a frustration that I have wishing that the flatness of the paper would go away and that I could actually dive in. Animating the beast, I became the beast. I remember going home at night and my jaw just hurting because beast all day he’s talking like this and my back is all bent over and my neck was sore because I’m being him.

 I would draw not to do a drawing, but so that I could step in and live in that world. Today all the rules have changed. By putting tools in your hand that can create in virtually reality, I can put goggles on and I just step into the paper and now I’m drawing in it. North, south, east, west: all directions are open now. Just immersing myself in space is more like a dance.

 What is this amazing new world I just stepped into? When I draw in virtual reality I draw all the characters real life size. They are that size in my imagination. The character can turn. Ariel is actually turning in space. Even if you take the goggles off, I’m still remembering she’s right there. It’s real.

That doorway to the imagination is open a little wider. The edges of the paper are no longer there. This is not a flat drawing. This is sculptural drawing. Making art in three-dimensional space is an entirely new way of thinking for any artist. What does this mean for storytelling?

I love the idea as an animator that you can be anything that you can imagine. As a kid, you’re completely free. The soul of any kind of a creative art form is freedom.”

The next day I visited Envelop VR to catch up on their latest alpha software builds.  Before starting our conversation, I put on a headset to experience their enterprise productivity software.  I was impressed at the progress in the previous months. As I started to take the headset off, Steve Santamaria, Envelop VR COO, asked if I would like to try out Tiltbrush.

“Absolutely,” as I nearly jumped out of my skin.  “I just viewed the Glen Keane video and was wondering if you had it available.”

After a few minutes of getting the HTC Vive hand controllers figured out and some education of how to use the clunky user interface to select colors and brushes, they turned me loose.  Within seconds I was well beyond the willing suspension of disbelief and was drawing life size 3d sculptures.  Before I knew it, I was brought back to reality with a very loud “STOP!” shouted at me and laughter from the observers. I was so into the VR experience that I had not realized that I had completely wrapped myself in the “tether” tangle of wires like a boa constrictor. In another few seconds I would have pulled their computer off the table.

After getting untangled with a little help from my new friends, I had to keep part of my mind in the real world and another part in virtual space creating my sculptures.  What a pain that I couldn’t completely lose myself in virtual reality.

After a few more minutes I took the headset off and told Steve “I better stop now or I will be here all day.”

We wandered over to Steve’s office as I talked 100 miles an hour about what I just experienced.

As we sat down, I realized I had to get back to our agenda for the day to catch up on the evolving strategy of EnvelopVR. Steve was kind enough to share that after much argument among the founders, the company decided not to pursue the Metaverse approach of a single unified space of VR outposts. “We realize that is the likely approach that Facebook is going to take as they already have the world’s largest walled garden of a couple billion friends. So we decided to create what we are calling Envelop Virtual Environment (EVE). Each user can create their own virtual environment that anyone else on the Internet can visit.”

“So you are taking the Tim Berners-Lee approach and creating the VR equivalent of web pages and web sites?” Steve paused for a long time thinking through the implications of the comment. “We haven’t made that connection, but you are spot on,” he said.

As I walked out, the theme that ran around in my head was “from pages to places.” I had just glimpsed the future and I was still trying to grasp it.  My gut tingled with the anticipation that I just stumbled onto a real transformation enabled by technology that would be greater than anything I had experienced.

The only analogy that came to mind was watching my young children using the MAC SE thirty years ago. I was helping my four year old daughter create a birthday card in Aldus Superpaint for her grandmother.  She wanted to be just like her older sister who she’d just watched create a couple cards.  She asked me to be with her in the room while she created the card.

For 30 minutes I quietly watched her draw, quickly switch drawing modes between paint and draw, and access different menus to select the different painting tools she needed.  Suddenly she asked me how to print her drawing out.  Without thinking I said “go over to the File Menu and pull it down.   Find the selection called Print and click on it.  Then when the dialog box comes up select the printer that you want the drawing to print on.”

Maggie looked at me like I was the dumbest person in the world as she loudly exclaimed “Dad, you know I can’t read!  Come over here and show me how to do it.”  Maggie had worked for 30 minutes just by knowing where the commands were spatially.  Icons and text were all the same to her.  The MAC was a different way of thinking about software and the design of the man machine interface that could be used successfully by someone who couldn’t even read.

The Macintosh showed us the power of a well-designed object oriented Graphical User Interface. This kind of interface quickly migrated through our desktop, laptop, and now mobile smartphone computing worlds. Yet, each of these devices kept us in the Pages world.  VR takes us into the Places world.

From Place to Pages to Places

A few weeks later another morning email pointed me to Marshall McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy. I thought I had read all of McLuhan’s works, but I somehow missed this one. McLuhan described all of human history in three large cultural changes.  The first culture he labelled “Oral” (like all McLuhan labels it is critical to pay attention to his definition as the labels can send you spinning in the wrong direction). This first culture was characterized by the social needs of being in one place at a time. It was a highly oral culture in the sense that knowledge was transmitted through the whole being of the speaker – the words they spoke (content), the way they voiced those words (craft), and the way they embodied those words (character).

McLuhan labelled the second culture “Visual Phonetic.” He asserts that this culture started with Gutenberg’s printing press. Prior to the exact replication of words and the high volume of printed books available, any writing was still spoken orally to transmit the information. With the volume book and exact replication, transmission of culture went through words and became dissociated from voice and body. Knowledge was now abstract.

With the advent of electricity, radio, television and the computer, McLuhan saw a third culture emerging which he called “Electronic”.  He wrote “in the electronic age, which succeeds the typographic and mechanical era of the past five hundred years, we encounter new shapes and structures of human interdependence and of expression which are ‘oral’ in form even with the components of the situation may be non-verbal.” In the electronic age, we return to our past of place and the primacy of being fully present while at the same time being remote from each other.

After a few pages, I realized that the three cultures he identified captured what I was trying to explain with the advent of VR.  The first culture was about a singular place. Most humans strayed very little from their birth place.  Then with the advent of the printing press we became fully in the “pages” world. Even with the advent of the computer, we still have the command to “print” things out. Email is just a digital variant of pages. Movies and videos are often described as “moving pages.” With computers, our world is still a flatland and encapsulated in rectangles of either print or digital pixels.

With VR (or Augmented Reality or Mixed Reality), we move fully out of the flatland of pages and get into the virtual world of many Places.  We move from the singular Place of where I body is currently located to abstract Pages to an infinity of Places.

As these concepts were spinning around in my head, my wife and I got to babysit for two of our grandchildren.  Over the course of thirty minutes, I watched three year old Alice go through all three stages of McLuhan’s culture definitions. For twenty minutes, she ran around the house skipping from one set of physical toys to another urging granddad to keep up with her.  During this whole time she narrated her activities to her captive listener – granddad.


Alice reading to her babies

As I sat down to rest, she slowed down and decided it was time to read to her “babies.” She lined her babies up on the floor and covered them with her blanket. Then she went to the bookcase and got her parents books (mostly words) and started “reading” them to her babies. I was stunned. She went from culture 1 to culture 2 in a heartbeat. She wasn’t reading her picture books to her babies but rather telling stories of her life at day care through the medium of her parents’ words books.

Then Alice climbed up on the couch and picked up her mom’s iPad and started watching Daniel Tiger cartoons (her generation’s version of Mr. Rogers). This active girl went almost catatonic as she watched Daniel Tiger. She was now deeply immersed in McLuhan’s culture 3.

In a short thirty minutes, I saw the presence of all three McLuhan cultures.  Later that night as I read more of McLuhan, he pointed out that it is the three to five year old children who live in all three cultures simultaneously.  Once they reach school age in the Western World, we focus the child exclusively on Culture 2. McLuhan shared:

“Whereas the Western child is early introduced to building blocks, keys in locks, water taps, and a multiplicity of items and events which constrain him to think in terms of spatio-temporal relations and mechanical causation, the African child receives instead an education which depends much more exclusively on the spoken word and which is relatively highly charged with drama and emotion.” P. 18.

I can’t wait for the next generation of streaming VR cameras to capture my grandchildren living simultaneously in all three McLuhan cultures.

Implications of the Transformation from Pages to Places

A few weeks ago I enjoyed a lunch with several representatives from the Institute of Design who were visiting Seattle to solicit suggestions for a new Dean to replace the retiring Patrick Whitney.  In their briefing package, they shared as part of the hiring context that the school will be moving twice in the next 3-5 years.

As a conversation starter, I asked “Why are you doing the second move? I can understand that you need to move relatively quickly for the first move. But if you are thinking of moving in five years, why are you going to spend so much money on physical space.” I continued “have you been paying attention to the advancements in VR and AR? Within five years, you would be crazy to spend money on physical space and asking every student and faculty member to move to Chicago. You can create a far better learning and collaborative experience in VR and AR?”

The conversation that ensued was robust and challenged so many different assumptions about the future of education  and possible futures for the Institute of Design.

This conversation evolved from my first visit to Envelop VR eighteen months earlier.  I’d read an article in Geekwire that put three words together that I never thought I would encounter “enterprise, VR, and productivity.” Bob Berry shared with Geekwire:

“Bob Berry is confident about two things: The virtual reality industry is about to take off, and Seattle will be an epicenter for companies a part of this new movement.

Berry is CEO of Envelop VR, a new Bellevue-based startup that is creating productivity and enterprise virtual reality (VR) software.”

I immediately reached out to Steve Santamaria, COO, who graciously agreed to give me a demo. Steve showed me several different prototype VR head sets and some of the early content available in VR.  The first thing he showed me was the Paul McCartney concert captured with a Jaunt VR camera. I had no idea that VR could be video and not just animations. This single app in just a few seconds changed my perspective on how presence could be achieved across time and space. In the concert video you can choose your viewing location and the video and audio adjust to your location. I could choose to view the concert from Paul’s perspective, or the drummer’s perspective or an audience member in the front row or in the balcony. I could choose my presence experience. I could choose my point of view.

He then showed me their very early prototype of a personal Envelop Virtual Environment. I put on an Oculus Rift early prototype and saw not just a single computer monitor located in a planetarium sized viewing space, but ten virtual computer monitors.  Now I see what this new world can be.  “But how do I type into these virtual monitors,” I asked.

Steve told me to look down and I would see a keyboard and mouse.  “But how do I use it?”

“Reach your hands out,” Steve said.

I extended my hands, saw them in the virtual world, and easily touched the physical keyboard. I suddenly realized that this wasn’t an artificial keyboard, but the real keyboard on the desktop. “How do you do that? I didn’t know that the Oculus has a camera?” I asked.

Steve laughed “It doesn’t but it does have a USB port so we just taped a camera to the headset and ingested the video, recognized the objects on the desktop and inserted the desktop objects into your virtual reality.”

I grabbed the mouse and navigated my way to the window with Microsoft Word. I moved my hands to the physical keyboard and started typing. I was beyond amazed.

envelop monitors

Before we started the demo, I placed my iPhone 6 on the desktop as I was expecting a phone call.  Just then my phone rang and without thinking I picked it up, saw that it was the call I was looking for, and answered it. In that moment, I realized what I had just done and stammered to the person on the phone “Holy Crap Batman, I will call you back in a little while.  You’ll never believe what just happened.”

Everybody had a good laugh. Steve added “welcome to your first VR presence experience.”

With hundreds of thoughts spinning wildly, my reality shifted. The future was a very different PLACE from what I was envisioning. Making several leaps of faith, I realized that our ability to collaborate across space and time was a soon to exist new reality.  Not just see and hear each other like with Skype or Facetime, but really collaborate.

From my home office, I could envision fully collaborating at a shared white board or flip chart or pair programming with colleagues wherever they might be located in the world.

I couldn’t wait to share this with my colleagues and start a new company (CoPresence) to build on VR and the promise of collaborating Places.

What the future holds for Enterprise VR and AR

After sharing a bottle of wine at a catching up dinner, Katherine James Schuitemaker looked at me and asked “what are you really trying to ask me tonight?”

I responded “I want to collaborate with you on a regular basis. I miss your point of view. I just filled out a collaborative intelligence assessment and I was asked to list my top five collaborators and how often I collaborated with them. You didn’t make the list as we only get together on average twice a year. I would like to collaborate with you several hours a week.”

She commented “CoPresence sounds like an interesting tool suite and the VR software and tools you are experiencing sound cool, but they are tiny steps towards your vision of Living Legacy. You don’t have that many years left to get bogged down. Spend your time inspiring and collaborating with the wide range of deep thinkers and makers who can create this intentional system of collaboration.”

We both paused, sat back, and took a few more sips of our aromatic Italian 2010 Sangiovese. We let the savory smells of the open kitchen envelop us.

Vendemmia Restaurant Seattle

Vendemmia Restaurant Seattle

Katherine restarted the conversation “And while I’m thinking about it, I really enjoyed the video of the Disney animator stepping into the virtual world of creating art. However, there is no chance, I will ever put on one of those heavy, clunky VR headsets?”

We both laughed, took another sip of wine and listened to the sounds of the nearby kitchen and other diners.

Katherine changed topics “I have this current problem with collaborating. Maybe you have some ideas. I am working on a design project for an outdoor experiential learning environment that Paul Brainerd (Aldus Founder) is building near Glenorchy, New Zealand. We have a person on the ground in Glenorchy, a five person design team in Christchurch, another designer in Auckland, Debbie Brainerd on Bainbridge Island, and me in Seattle. We meet several times a week through Skype video conferencing.”

“It is so frustrating to design and architect a space and an experiential campus when we are all dealing with flat small computer screens. The guy in Glenorchy is trying to describe how the light hits inside the existing building and how the roof edges and rainwater flow. None of us can visualize it.  Even if he points a camera (which he can’t) at what he is describing, none of us can really imagine what he is talking about. Similarly, the design team in Christchurch has models of previous projects they keep referring to, but the rest of us can’t see and experience those models.  Even pointing their camera at those models doesn’t allow us to get what they are describing. It is just so frustrating. And it is so darn expensive for all of us to just pick up and relocate to Glenorchy. How do we do a better job of collaborating?”

I leaned into our small table “Katherine, what do you think I’ve been talking about all night. All of the technology that I am going to describe in your context already exists or will be available in Q3 2016. First, I would put a streaming VR camera (a Jaunt or a Vuze or even a Samsung Gear) in Glenorchy and in the offices of the designers in Christchurch.  Now as the participants are describing the physical space you can “move” into their reality. It’s like the Paul McCartney VR concert recording I was talking about. Each participant can pick a viewing position anywhere in the 3D space of the building or the property or the models.”

envelop vr immersion

Envelop VR example of physical space exploration

“You can view the models that are in the Christchurch office as if you were in the room with the designers. But even better you could bring to life their CAD drawings for those models and view them in the virtual 3D space. The Microsoft Hololens team has done a nice demo with Trimble to show a similar interaction to what you are describing. It is all doable and demonstrable today.  All we are missing are the high resolution headsets and hand controllers which will show up in Q2/Q3 with the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.  The Envelop VR team has the software platform to enable what you’re talking about.”

“But wait there’s more. With the kinds of extensions that I envision with Living Legacy, you can have any of the famous architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, or Frank Gehry, or Le Corbusier, or Brinda Somaya, or even Da Vinci join your design sessions and become a real time collaborator.”

great architects

Katherine quickly picked up her wine to toast this grounded vision and said “Now if you could do any part of what you just described, I would gladly wear one of those clunky VR headsets!”

She smiled and laughed “Ok, so get started building that CoPresence thing AND do the new collaborating form of organizing with intent.  I want your Living Legacy vision and virtual collaborators and I want it now.”

From Place to Pages to Places

In a recent VR conference sponsored by the Washington Tech Alliance, Sachin Deshpande of Qualcomm ventures responded to the audience question “what does the future hold for the Virtual Reality business?”

“We don’t know,” he said. “Look, who would have predicted that with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 that in 2009 Uber would be spawned to disrupt and disintermediate the taxi industry?”

What happens to the world of business when we “step into the page” as Glen Keane shared and enter a world of billions of PLACES to discover, experience and explore?

This entry was posted in Content with Context, Design, Flipped Perspective, Human Centered Design, Learning, User Experience, Value Capture. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to From Pages to Places: The Transformation of Presence

  1. Fantastic post, Skip (references to KJS notwithstanding)– a wonderful walk-through of many of the possibilities “where the rubber meets the sky.” At last you’re on the cusp of bringing *that* special PLACE into the world. Thank you for bringing us along on this whole new / 40-year journey!

  2. Skip Walter says:

    Katherine thank you And the references to you (the story) were the heart of the matter. David Robinson hassled me about doing such long posts. I shared with him that this was my short post on Pages to Places. The long version will be coming in the next couple of days. 🙂

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