By Ian Crawford
Designer & Futurist
30 years ago the notion of virtual reality was fanciful, whimsical, poorly simulated and barely envisioned. Maybe 'Lawnmower Man' was alright, at the time. But the stereopticon was pretty much the only 'real' version to be had and 3D movies were in that headache inducing green/magenta Anaglyph format. But we knew. We all knew it was to be the pinnacle of experiences, even back when today's designers were up at 6 AM on Saturdays playing NES, we knew that when the graphics caught up, when the prices came down, it would be incredible. "Can you imagine?" We'd tell each other.
So, with that in mind, the elite educators of visual design curriculum around the nation... did very little to prepare for it. Which is unexpected, frankly. Not to say the careers and educators don't/won't exist, nor to say there aren't classes to be had behind the right doors. But comparably, China invested four billion into the 2016 Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality industry alone, now think back on how many hours you spent in grade school learning HTML skills that are utterly obsolete now. Four billion dollars is a monumental step forward. Every gaming platform is pushing in that direction, from phone games to AAA titles on high end consoles and PCs. But what about in our own humble, collegiate halls? Currently you find VR education prominent in two routes, one at the end of an expensive Computer Science degree, and the other behind a paywall at non-accredited sites such as Udemy. There is even a modern stigma among visual designers, based on nothing but repeated assertion, that 3D is a fad. An unusual position for people that live, full time, in the third dimension.
Especially now, as we're seeing automation begin to seep into current design fields. The Google 'Deep Dream' graphics you may have seen, using nuances and elements of one image to stylize another and from memory generate common forms such as spoons, dogs, trees, etc. To be fair, that's a job a lot of people are paid to do, currently. Web design, as well, is starting to slope into automation, a machine can better organize data to be more impactful per user. Meaning that if you like that graphic two pixels further to the left and two shades greener, the machines will catch on to that and reformat what you're actively seeing to better enable and encourage you as a consumer. This refinement/filtration of internet content will move well beyond merely adblocking into a specifically tailored and secure service, like having an AI secretary screening your messages and calls, you'll get only what you want/need to see and hear in the way you want it. The rise of modern misinformation and unchecked commercialism will only propel this solution into the spotlight. And this threatens to leave a great many designers behind and their work unseen. Artistry aside, the duties of formatting and presenting information will be assumed by the information itself sooner than we like.
But VR and AR will be a lasting reign in the world of visual design, and one that a machine will have almost no advantage over a human in. In the long run, sure, they'll get around to it, but until then it's a scarce field in the US, both in education and in employment prospects. It's a role that's not receiving a warm welcome in industry, on the whole, and a majority of employers don't see the value inherent to it. To boot, those few new jobs are currently held almost exclusively by software engineers. Which is a travesty, to tell the truth. All media technologies started off as an achievement at the technical end, a feat of wizardry, but in each case eventually gave way to being another tool on the belt of the artistic community. Now that 'wizardry' is taught at night classes for 3 credits. Don't imagine for even a moment that the developers behind Adobe Photoshop were also that software's most prominent artists. Science and Art are linked and inseparable, one to bring closer the things we imagine, the other to imagine further.
A visual designer can still get into the rare VR job, but exclusively with many, many years of 'experience'. Experience in a job that has only recently come to exist and from an education that exists in maybe a handful of colleges. But here's the thing with that, we're here to sell experience itself. Why should there be ANY loss in new-hire experience anymore if we can bottle it up in VR for later? Make it available to candidates coming down the line. VR can literally educate and propagate its own skill set with it's own technology. Picture this: You're filling out a application for that dream job, and you no longer have to have to vaguely claim you have 'experience' ever again. Because instead you can live the job in simulation, go through the motions and methods and hours in total safety, take your time, see it done right, and have your performance evaluated by the employer.
Bet your pancakes it would open a great, wide pool of ideal employees from a random base of applicants, weeding out the slackers in short order. KFC recently generated a short VR game on this concept, and it's not the last we'll see of it. With VR capture this could be as simple as recorded video with pauses for multiple questions, and the consequences of your choices, with software it could be made all-but-real. Just immersing someone into that role will build experience where none was before, nor was it available. The quality of one's cited 'experience' can vary a lot from applicant to applicant, but in the future they can tally up real hours in simulation and prove themselves. Weigh that, say 4 years of 'experience' in a position that may or may not have merit to the job vs 70 quantifiable hours in tested simulation specific to your needs.
To all this, I say it's time to bring VR education into the circle. To steal Merlin's secrets and make them known. This stuff is not so mystical that it can't be learned from the bottom up, and at that from a high school level onward. The techniques and technologies of stereoscopics, 3D and game engine coding (which isn't at all about just playing games) should be brought to the masses. There are simple, real steps to get there and national art and design curriculum should embrace this. After all, in the age of VR and AR (AR especially) we're seeing the beginning of a time that we have the fullest wisdom of all human history at our disposal and the means to seamlessly integrate it into our lives.