A Virtual Reality BFA: Content Becomes King

Specialized training in virtual reality is a testament to it's staying power.

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A-Virtual-Reality-BFA-Content-Becomes-King

Recently, Ringling College announced it would be the first art college to offer a Bachelors of Fine Arts (BFA) in Virtual Reality. On its surface, that might sound neat. Many who don’t routinely follow college degree offerings may even bypass the notification as underwhelming. But, in fact, the future implications of this will ultimately change and define our lives.

Most often, we associate certain types of degrees as being “life-altering.” If we consider medical, engineering, criminal justice, or even business degrees, it is easy to see the impact those graduates will have upon their surroundings. So, how can a degree in the arts affect our lives to such an extent that the author of this article is desperately trying to stop doing virtual mic drops?

Where We Are Now

Before we can fully understand how a changing trajectory in virtual reality schooling will affect us, we must first look at what is currently being taught and offered to the future of this technology.

A quick Google search of “virtual reality degrees” will quickly reveal a myriad of options. These range anywhere from video filming to coding, and are offered by the likes of Udacity, The University of Advancing Technology, and The University of Idaho. These programs, however, often carry a heavy focus on the technical side of things over quality of content.

To illustrate this, let’s take a leap back to the early days of video games. As people often associate virtual reality with games, and given the lengthy childhood path virtual reality’s taken, the comparison is an easy one. (Learn more about the path of VR through games by reading “Why is AR/VR Synonymous with Gaming.”)

When Pong was first created—yes, that silly little thing where the only option was to smack a pixel back and forth—there was excitement surrounding the new technology.

The Pong of yesteryear.

Since then, we’ve seen more than forty years of video game evolution. We’ve gone from profile-based games to 3D exploratory types. We see users enjoy the ability to “be” the characters in first-person shooters, and as the purchasing options are endless, we see that the storyline is of great importance.

While there are likely many of us who would still purchase the classic games for the sake of nostalgia — proven by the release of the N64 Mini — our younger generations will seek out and find new games which fit their expectations of today’s evolved tech in the gaming space.

To look back once more toward Pong, though, it becomes increasingly more evident that if Pong had remained as the only type of game available, the gaming industry would not have made it through the decades. Even if the technology evolved while the “plot” of the game did not, the only new excitement would be based on better graphics and additional types of movement.

I still want to try it, but this alone could not have maintained an industry for 40+ years.

As consumers, technology growth gets our ADHD going. We’re excited initially and then quickly lose interest. Pokemon Go was a perfect augmented reality example. Suddenly, everyone was up in arms about being able to see their favorite characters in their own world. And, within a couple of months, almost no one cared anymore. This meant people stopped walking off of bridges in search of new finds though, which is nice.

However, it became even more evident that technology, alone, will not hold a consumer’s attention for extended periods of time. And, despite Pokemon Go consistently adding new Pokemon for the finding, the lack of an evolving storyline disengages users.

Perhaps Jim McCampbell of Ringling College of Art and Design said it best:

“Without good content, all you have is a piece of hardware.”

The Department Head of Computer Animation (instrumental in the founding of, and head of, the new Virtual Reality Development program), adds that the fusion of art and technology is a well-known aspect of Ringling College’s institutional mission.

So, let’s circle back to our BFA in virtual reality and what this truly means.

While many of the existing virtual reality-based programs carry a heavy focus on the technology of virtual reality, a fine arts curriculum focuses on the content and production sides. Or, in other words:

If virtual reality were a website, most majors have focused on coding websites. Now, a degree becomes available to teach students how to design a website people can and actually want to use.

Bad website

If that doesn’t seem important, then just think back to the last time you tried to navigate an outdated 2002 website on your phone and thank your lucky stars that, today, most companies use designers specifically trained to make your web experience enjoyable.

Virtual reality BFA curriculum
Image courtesy of Ringling College of Art and Design.

But, We Already Have Content

So, where’s it coming from?

As with any other new technology or business, we have been witness to the evolution of expansion. At the beginning, a handful of people strive to develop something new. We move to the proof-of-concept, and we evolve toward mass-consumption.

At the start, though, there cannot be trained individuals for every aspect required. So, professionals from closely-related fields are often utilized, expanding on their existing skills.

In terms of virtual reality content, professionals in a variety of fields — from video gaming graduates to graphic designers — create content for us to view in our all-encompassing headsets.

Virtual reality, however, is not a variety of fields; it is its own, and it requires specifically-trained professionals to create distinct experiences for its unique challenges and capabilities.

A true VR experience convinces our minds we are physically somewhere else by way of movement, sight, sound, etc. (You can learn more about what we require out of virtual reality in “What’s the Difference Between VR, AR, MR, and 360?”)

So, it would be foolish to assume someone who is used to creating flat phone apps would be an easy fit to jump into designing a 360 degree, moveable space. This is likely why we see so many video game designers already working with virtual reality, as the fit is a bit more natural.

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That said, the future of virtual reality isn’t solely in gaming. It’s in everything from healthcare and engineering to education and shopping. Game content principles cannot flawlessly transfer over to utilitarian concepts, so specified education is needed for advanced creation.

McCampbell predicts the ideal Virtual Reality BFA student will be “storytellers with a bent towards technical expertise… They will enjoy teaching and explaining.”

Admitting we need specifically-trained professionals in VR creation is, of course, not meant to discredit all of the insanely talented creators out there who are, right now, making stellar content. Instead, what this intends to state is that those who are out there creating exciting content have learned things along the way — likely a lot of things.

Where does the lighting make sense? What types of shadows work best? How can we make this a more engaging experience? What did not work?

So, instead of every VR designer or content expert starting from scratch as others have, we are now at a point where we can build on a collaborative knowledge to further launch the virtual reality industry.

We’re (Almost) Already Behind Schedule

I’ll personally admit that less than a year ago I would have argued we do not yet know enough about the psychology behind how people will best experience VR to an extent where we can feel right about taking student money to teach them “definite” concepts.

I’ve since changed my tune.

A perfectionist by nature, I want everything flawless on launch — including a curriculum.

When asked about this challenge, McCampbell states, “the medium is changing daily, so designing curriculum for it is somewhat like hitting a moving target.”

Designing for VR is swinging at a missing target

So my own viewpoint from many months back, as I know was or is shared by a great many others, would typically wait for the moving target to stop. Once stationary, a “perfect” curriculum could be developed.

But, as is so often evident, perfectionism is the death of advancement. At what point do we expect VR to become stationary for long enough to finally be willing to teach others what we already know?

More importantly, we really don’t have time to wait any longer.

Predictions place virtual reality as a $40 billion market by the year 2020. With 2016 closing out the market at around $6 billion, this gives us a 667% increase in just four years. Yes, go ahead and read that again, because we might have another virtual mic drop coming.

These indications show consumers have, at least at a basic level, bought into virtual reality’s proof-of-concept and are now requiring more relevant and useful content.

And, who is going to create that content for us by 2020? Well, many of the same types of individuals we see doing it today, as the first Virtual Reality BFA students won’t graduate until 2022. However, when they do and unleash their new specialized skills unto our virtual worlds, we will likely see a shift in the type and/or quality of content being developed.

In every other major industry, we see this same type of specialized training. Seeing it in virtual reality, now, is a testament to the staying power of VR and is an indication that we are truly witnessing the birth of an industry we are only beginning to imagine.

(Final mic drop.)