The future.

I’ve been spending a lot of time preparing for an event I’ll be speaking at later this month.  Now, if you know me well, you know that I have the very opposite of commitment issues.  Nope.  On the contrary, I’m someone that has (on more than one occasion) committed intensely to something I had no idea how to do.  This event was one of them.

I wasn’t exactly expecting a call to be asked to speak at this event, so when they did actually call me and put me on the spot, I had to be honest with them.  I have to blame Australia for that.  I’ve learned all my new-found forwardness from living here, and I’ve had no better place to put that blunt nature into action than in the professional world.  So, I told them I was disappointed in last year’s event for no other reason than only two or three speakers inspired me with anything I didn’t already know about Communications.  I felt like, for whatever reason, marketing was never even mentioned.  I admitted that I wasn’t sure if that’s simply because I expected “Communications” to be all-encompassing and perhaps I didn’t really “get” that in the land down under, Communications maybe didn’t have anything to do with Marketing at all?

You know that bit about, “Be careful what you ask for…” Ya, that’s never worked well with me.

The lady on the phone asked me what sort of topic I would propose or be willing to speak on, and without a second thought I said, “Virtual reality as the new empathy tool for a more immersive marketing strategy.”

Even at the time I felt like I heard myself and went, “Man! That’s a lot of big words.”  It really was a lot to say without even thinking about it.  I could barely hear myself ramble on about how I had just attended the Sundance Film Festival where, for many years now, I’d been all about attending the panels on the virtual reality space and I thought it was interesting how this topic has grown exponentially year over year.

To be honest, the call lasted less than three minutes and at the end of it, I had no idea i was up for consideration let alone that I was actually “in.”  That was sometime in March and it wasn’t until almost May that I received an email asking for photos, bios, and all that jazz.

Now, I’m not “virtually stupid.”  At the dawn of virtual reality programming, my brother bought me a VRML programming book complete with CD-ROM.  I did actually start going through it.  But, at the time, I was only 11 or 12 years old.  I couldn’t grasp the entire thing, but I set out to start at a level I could grasp.  I spent that summer taking classes on Paint Shop Pro (ya, that was the Photoshop of my time) to learn graphic design and I started coding basic HTML tables with the really “amazing” designs I created over the summer.  (That… was a joke. I’m no artist.)

Eventually, I was one of the youngest students to be accepted into my high school’s AP Computer Programming class.  I was the Freshman that sat front-and-center to a bunch of Junior and Senior students that were stuck with the class because they didn’t register for anything more interesting in time.  In Computer Programming I, I don’t remember any student besides myself that truly wanted to be there.  Perhaps that is why I excelled.  By the time I made it to AP Computer Programming II as a Sophomore, I was upgraded to an unofficial Teacher’s Assistant (TA) for the actual real-life TA that already existed for the class, Mitch.  (That… was the misfortunate part.  I missed a lot that I should have been learning.)

As I moved my way through school, my intention was always to combine my computer knowledge with my music obsession and go into sound design.  I was all lined up to apply for a handful of dream schools I’d been toting around flyers for when life had other plans for me.  But, that didn’t stop me from actually becoming a computer programmer by the time I was 18.

I’ve always been a fast mover.  I went off to college by myself, registered and diligently attended my Electronic Music programming and Computer Basics courses while working my way from local coffee shop barista, to big chain coffee shop barista, to 24 hours as a telemarketer (where I immediately lost my voice).  At that point, failing to be able to talk was one of many things that put me in the social awkward category of “nerd” which then advanced me to  be a transcriptionist (yay, typing skills!) for the same company and within four months, be promoted again to be the only young, female programmer.

Long story short, that did not end well.  (See: female programmer)

By that time, life had between me down into thinking more practically about survivalism rather than floating around in an ether of dreams.  So, after most of two years as a programmer, I was at the end of all the music classes my college offered at the time and I didn’t have it in me to go up against any more sexism in the technology industry.

While that may have stopped me from developing new technologies or jamming new sounds for the next blockbuster film, it didn’t actually keep me from being really, really “bright” about how these worlds would continue to collide.

In the end, I feel like I am just as qualified to speak about the virtual reality landscape today as I would have been if my former life had played out.  There’s no time like the present, and there’s no better time to jump back into a world that I may not have understood at the age of 11, but I can easily understand now.

In fact, all that C# programming knowledge that goes back to being a Freshman in high school and the summers I spent reading Dune novels out loud for my brother while he did 3D modeling in AutoCAD, are anything but forgotten when I dive into the world of Unity’s 3D modeling software.

So far, creating this speech and putting together this presentation has been one of the most enticing projects I’ve worked on in recent years.  I’ve been able to have long chats with my brother about virtual technology, involve my dad in splicing videos together for case studies, and get all the latest 411 from my Stark from every virtual reality link ever created on the internet (he reads a lot of RSS feeds ;). I’ve spent days scouring the streets of Hong Kong for the latest VR tech.  I’ve talked dimensional sound design with friends, and can barely keep up with the 3D modeling prowess of others.  The technology moves faster than you can learn about it, and the growth is exponential.

From the slam of that first VRML how-to book slapping against my sunburned knees after a long swim team practice, to my brother sending my nephew off to college last week already fully capable of programming new gaming environments, the influence spans back generations thanks to my brother.

For me, the love affair has always been in the sound.  Sound design in virtual reality is more important than any Oscar winning score or horrifying film you’ve ever witnessed.  In VR, sound is the only cue that allows the viewer to engage with the program.

Right now I feel a bit like an old lady going back to college for the first time.  Even then, all my experience as a college counselor plays into how justifiable and rewarding it is to feel that way.  Education never stops.  Today, I am taking back my dreams and I am learning about dimensional sound design while I get to enjoy my brother, my nephews, and my friends becoming pros in creating virtual landscapes.  Perhaps right now it is nothing more than a free time, but what excites me most is the ability to see, just like I did as an eager college-bound kid, that what I know, what I can easily know, and what I am fully capable of doing is… the future.

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