We recently connected with Adam Blumenthal, a veteran of the virtual reality space, to discuss the history and future of Virtual Reality. As Brown University’s Virtual Reality Artist-in-Residence and Virtual Reality Professor of Practice, Adam provides a unique and comprehensive perspective on Virtual Reality as a medium.
Tell us about yourself. What’s your background? I've been an interactive media strategist, designer, and producer since 1993, and have worked with many of the world's best-known brands. I was introduced to VR in 1990 when I was in college, and I was blown away by the possibilities. But I knew it wasn't ready for prime time back then. The technology was even more bulky than it is today, latency was a big problem, graphics weren't great, but I could see the promise. So I went on to have a career working on Madison Avenue, and producing innovative digital products with media and entertainment companies, and waited for the time when VR would be a viable technology, which is just about now. I'm the Virtual Reality Artist-in-Residence and a Professor of the Practice at Brown University, and I'm the Global Practice Lead for Digital Strategy at Optimity Advisors, a digital innovation consultancy with 10 offices around the world.
How did you come to be the Virtual Reality Artist-in-Residence at Brown University? After several years in New York and in North Carolina, my wife and I moved back to our adopted hometown of Providence, Rhode Island about 2 years ago, which coincided with the re-emergence of VR. So as part of my networking around Rhode Island as I was new in town I met some of the folks who run one of the VR facilities at Brown University. They mentioned they were creating this residency so I threw my hat in the ring. After a year in that appointment I was offered another appointment as a Professor of the Practice of Computer Science - a role for professionals who don't have a traditional academic background but have experience and expertise that is of value to students and faculty.
What led to Brown University’s historical interest in computer graphics and VR? Computer graphics was basically invented at Brown by the legendary computer scientist, Andy Van Dam and his colleagues. In 1967 he co-founded SIGGRAPH, the primary annual industry and scholarly conference on computer graphics. A few decades ago he co-authored the textbook considered to be the bible of computer graphics, and so Van Dam (and others) are the genesis of a great heritage of computer science innovation at Brown. We started doing VR in the 1990s during that early wave when I caught the buzz, and it's a legacy that I'm proud to be a part of today.
Tell us a bit about the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts and the Center for Computation and Visualization (CCV) - what role do they play at Brown? The Granoff Center for the Creative Arts at Brown is the home of the Brown Arts Initiative, and an amazing, inspiring building full of visual art, a recording studio, dance studios, a digital media lab, a maker's lab, great media gear, the VR studio out of which I work, and many creative students, faculty, and professionals. The CCV is like the advanced technology equivalent of the Granoff. The home of Brown's super computing facilities, it's a center established to provide the scientific and technical expertise to support Brown’s scholars. It's also home to Brown's YURT facility, a very advanced room-scale VR installation that can accommodate 6 or 7 people simultaneously in a very high-definition social VR experience. Leadership at both centers are interested in fostering collaborations between art and design and advanced technology, and that's the intersection where I'm working.
Tell us about your work in the residency. What project(s) have you been working on? During my residency at Brown I've had a few priorities:
Be an evangelist for VR for faculty, students, and professionals. In this capacity I’ve done (literally) a few hundred demonstrations of VR, which often lead to the question, "how can I use this?" and that has lead to a lot of interesting collaborations.
Inspire and educate students about VR and interactive media design and development in general. As I mentioned, I'm not an academic by profession, but I love to teach and work with students, so I've taught classes and I advise students about careers and work they can do now in the field of creative technology.
I've been producing several VR experiences - most importantly to me is a history project in which students and I have been researching, designing and producing simulations of historic scenes from the 1770s to tell the story of a pre-Revolution uprising that took place in Rhode Island in 1772, which the British considered the first act of war by colonists against the English.
What do you feel this/these project(s) have contributed to the medium of Virtual Reality? There’s not a solid body of scholarship right now about how to effectively use VR for achieving learning outcomes, so I hope my work, once completed and tested, can contribute to establishing best practices for other developers.
What are you most excited about for Virtual Reality? I'm excited about the technology's ability to take students to places that are otherwise impossible - back in time, to foreign lands, to outer space, inside the human body. I look forward to the technology getting smaller, faster, and cheaper, and then more ubiquitous. I'm excited for a time when we can easily deploy VR to a classroom full of students, and at that time to really transform the way students learn.
What challenges and obstacles exist for Virtual Reality as an expressive medium? Right now there's not much of an audience because there just aren't that many consumers who have the gear, so in the meantime VR storytellers and content creators are working on figuring out the best practices, and breaking new ground. There's a lot of great content out there already, and so much more to come.
What does the future hold for Virtual Reality? So much promise! I saw the promise way back in 1990, and it's taken almost 30 years for the technology, the content, and the possibilities to come together to make VR a truly viable medium for many kinds of uses. Over the next few years it's just going to get better and more ubiquitous. I think we'll see the merging of VR and AR (augmented reality) as we get a single vision device that can deliver either experience. I think VR will be a transformative technology in nearly every sector, ushering in the era of telepresence, the evolution of the tele-technologies - telegraph, telephone, television, telepresence.
Anything else you’d like to share? At Optimity Advisors I'm leading a major VR project with Arizona State University's ASU Prep Digital. We're building a catalog of VR modules that will be used in several online courses for middle school and high school students. We're developing a strategy and plan to help ASU Prep Digital become the world leader in VR for education.