Ideas Come From …

What does virtual or augmented reality have to do with Steven Johnson, author of “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation”?

A lot.

Johnson lays out a crisp framework detailing innovation cycles as the compilation of hunches, knowledge, and experiences of many people that fuel a fully formed path to execution—of course clear, in hindsight. Johnson’s TED talk on “Where good ideas come from” is epic and indelible; and I make a point of watching it monthly.

I categorically reject the American obsession of a mythical charismatic leader, lone genius or any version of the idea that one man or woman does it on their own; the proverbial “pulling up one’s bootstrap” without any help … alone.

No matter how many times and ways we hear it in folklore, it’s simple fantasy. Not a single innovation or advancement is the result of a single person. Every great creator has had many influences along the way. There are countless quantitative and qualitative surveys, reports and studies that show every one of those visionaries had a lot of help along the way. In sum, there is a quintessential cycle of vision, execution and process. Each leg is just as important as the next. Rarely, if ever, in the history of humankind has one person, on their own, mastered all three for delivering a product or service.

I categorically reject the American obsession of a mythical charismatic leader, lone genius or any version of the idea that one man or woman does it on their own; the proverbial “pulling up one’s bootstrap” without any help … alone. So, I leave that notion to the wolves.

“We don’t create by ourselves, even when we’re alone.” – Joshua Wolf Shenk

Steven Johnson provides us with a delicious definition of what the innovator’s “village” looks like. While Americans are in love with the lone ranger paradigm, Johnson identifies and lays out multiple examples of the pattern of how the sparks of a new idea grows until someone synthesizes it into something real.

Joshua Wolf Shenk lays out another fascinating take on this phenomenon in his book titled “Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs.” One of my favorite lines is where he says, “We don’t create by ourselves, even when we’re alone.” How could we? Does any one of us live in a vacuum? Each of our thoughts are a compilation of what we’ve seen and heard, no matter where that leads. This is a basic tenet of truth in this suddenly fact-less world; where we are increasingly operating against a vacuum, where, perhaps we are encouraged to ignore facts as inspiration to act and form the creation agenda.

Shenk digs deep into history; tracing the development of new ideas and things from pairs as different as Paul McCartney and John Lennon to Marie Curie and her husband Pierre Curie (perhaps less of a household name in our obsession with assigning lone credit).

In the case of VR and AR, there are many people—many who are not household names– who have contributed to this emerging sector the past fifty years. There will be countless more who will mold and shape the future. No doubt along the way, individuals will be singled out fairly or unfairly given credit.

In that in-between place, it’s important to all those decision-makers to think about who needs to be in the room to help ensure the expediency and efficiency of the next evolutions.

I am most specifically obsessing, thinking, creating, experimenting with VR/AR at the intersection of media, educational and entertainment. The notion of how to develop compelling and dynamic stories, and how to combine elements of interactivity with facts, data and concepts is explosively exciting. Many of the new communication frameworks to come will be applicable across the board as each sector and industry taps the tech in search of greater optimization and effectiveness and thus enhancing their core businesses.

Producing VR, be it 360-degree video or computer-generated imagery (CGI), is very different from producing traditional film and video. The heavy-lifting technical element of developing hardware and software to consistently create the necessary functionality of new equipment is dependent on programmers and engineers. Yet, these technology specialists don’t typically have the creative storytelling or producing skills that will generate the next generation of immersive and cinematic content.

There are few- with the exception of animators and special effects professional- similarities between the skill sets needed to design and bring to market a smartphone compared to developing a documentary or feature film for example.

Today, the knowledge necessary for the technical side of radio/podcasting/film/video is fairly standardized. There is a clear path and a systematized workflow through language, photographic and sound hardware, content-editing tools and defined steps. If they’re followed, a high-quality content product can be made. Of course, some people are far more gifted, as in anything, than others.

Little of that is true for VR/AR. At this point, we aren’t even sure what the optimum experience might be outside of gaming. There is a continuum that is now evolving of new user experiences that will ultimately cross a wide spectrum; moving from a narrow focus on gaming or gamifying content to previously unconceivable interactive experiences to cinematic VR.

A key ongoing question is: What are the many experiences to be made in that huge gulf, and how do we design a workflow to make them?

It’s going to take a multitude of skills to unearth the answers to new VR/AR storytelling formats and frameworks – from the engineering side of cameras that shoot 360-degree video, to new software programming suites that make it easier to edit and post-produce VR/AR.

In the past year, there have been numerous product introductions; each trying to solve for what the last one didn’t. Some of the early 360-degree cameras had no preview function, which can be expensive and disastrous from a production perspective. There’s no way to gauge whether you got the footage you hoped for until you view it in the edit. There’s no longer a way to re-shoot it as you’re no longer on-location and your talent has disappeared. However, among several 2016 releases, Nokia dropped the Ozo, which does have that necessary production function. Until last summer, the ability to edit in VR was limited. But now, Adobe has set forth to increase its software’s future VR/AR-editing capabilities in what they call Project Clover.

So, what else is needed for new VR/AR production workflow to inform the development of new industry-standard hardware and software platforms? It’s really difficult to guess or forecast correctly, because we don’t even know what we’re trying to create or what’s possible yet, without constant experimentation.

It’s a painstaking process of simply doing, and pioneering new possibilities that lay ahead of us in the immediate future. This period of experimentation will help guide us on what’s missing and what’s even plausible. There are so many challenges. Say in 360-degree video understanding lighting, and how to shoot in daytime, and then integrating indoor and outdoor video; and so on goes the list.

Ideally, talented camera people will jump into the fray to try the current hardware available and provide feedback. We need sound engineers to help unleash the power of audio in this new paradigm, and pioneer the various ways that 3D-sound is critical to direct and produce a story in VR. We need great storytellers to write the scripts and produce their concepts using these platforms. Together, these teams will be well positioned to stretch the idea of what a story can be, and help evolve the best of tools of the trade to bring a user along in ultra-immersive stories that were not possible before. At the center of it all are technologists, but they’ll not scale these technologies by themselves.

Net-net: This means there are extraordinary opportunities for a multitude of skills and diversity of talents to jump into these next-generation technologies and influence the future of a fantastically exciting space.

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