When I was a kid, I played Cosmic Osmo and the Worlds Beyond the Mackerel. It was a graphic point-and-click adventure game released in 1989 that ran in something called HyperCard, and it was released for the Macintosh. In the game you’re an alien who rides a ship through a strange universe, discovering planets and running into peculiar characters along the way.
Describing Cosmic Osmo as “odd” would be an understatement.
No one tells you what you’re supposed to do in the game. You don’t know why you’re even there in the first place. There are no maps or inventories, no cohesive narrative or end goal. You simply wander around aimlessly, exploring, trying things out.
If you were to take all the VR pieces I’ve made and put them on a timeline, you would find a similar paradigm emerging: a tale of a curious alien in an unfamiliar universe, trying to make some sense of it all.
Each experience — may it be World Tour or Conditions at Omaha —was made in the spirit of experimentation. Working like this has been fruitful. It has helped engineers develop VR tools, platforms, workflows and pipelines. It has lead to graphs, keynotes, blog posts, and articles to help inspire and educate creators. It has given me the opportunity to meet people from all over the world and to contribute to the broader discourse of the medium, including but not limited to having my work shared on Twitter by Kenny G.
More recently, there was an article published about my work in the German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung.
It’s funny to think how these circles were once just scribbles on a piece of scrap paper.
I am also struck with how this particular article presents me as one of the medium’s leading theoreticians. As flattering as such position may sound and feel, it also comes with responsibility. It’s vitally important to finally understand and accept that creative expression and aesthetics will ultimately be what drives discourse in this space, not the platforms themselves or the companies making the platforms.
It’s a wonderful idea, isn’t it? This should be how things go: emerging technology strives to serve the creator’s vision, not the other way around. Yet when I look at what’s happening, this doesn’t seem to be generally the case.
What we’re seeing is companies developing technologies while trying to control content at the same time. As a result, a lot of the content is not compelling. It’s what happens when business dictates the creative conditions. It’s what happens when you champion risk aversion and profit instead of the medium. It’s certainly not exciting enough for people to jump through hoops to experience any of it.
For me, one of the central challenges we face as creators is understanding how this medium fits into people’s everyday lives. It’s been increasingly difficult to share content in any sort of functional way with the very people who could help figure this out. Case in point is delivering VR to mobile devices, which is still problematic. Phones are expensive and so are data plans. Coverage isn’t ideal, especially in rural areas. Too often I’ve tried to show a VR video on YouTube —using a cell phone with great service — only to receive the following image quality:
Even the creative process barely holds together. While emerging technologies in this space have gifted us some great tools, they have also thrown in a large number of apps, gear, players, plugins, file formats…all of it piling on and adding to the fragmentation instead of fixing or reinforcing what’s there. With every update, a handful of VR projects no longer work. With every abandoned application, a simple thing — like moving a file onto a phone —becomes massively complex or just flat out impossible.
This has all been weighing on me for some time now. While it’s hard to see the forest for the trees, there is a way forward.
I’d like to return to our friend, Mr. Osmo.
Twenty years after the game’s first release, with Hypercard gone and the Macintosh a relic, you can still play Cosmic Osmo. You can download the game from Steam and play it on a PC. The game didn’t die when the technology changed. When the original platform dismantled and something else took its place, our pot-bellied alien friend remained.
Cosmic Osmo and the Worlds Beyond the Mackerel went on to be played by millions of people from all over the world. It lead to best-selling computer games like Myst, Riven, and a slew of other great interactive experiences. It set the stage for what would be the future of immersive adventure computer games.
Point being: if a creator positions herself in such a way that she can be free from a specific platform or piece of technology, she’s more likely to be much more successful imagining something that truly resonates and has a longevity beyond the lifespan of the technology itself. This, in turn, will push everything forward.
I have left Google. I want to work actively and independently with new artists, engineers, technologies, and organizations in order to lead this medium into new and exciting places. There’s much that can be done — and should be done — and it will only happen when the goals of a single platform are no longer the priority.
Emerging technology is still a part of why I love doing what I do, and it will always play an important role in my efforts. I’m here in this medium because of it. I think of the talented engineers I worked with on Google Jump with special fondness. We were able to accomplish so much, and I’m very proud of that. I’m excited to see (and use) what they come up with next.
Though this once completely alien territory is starting to feel more familiar, there’s still a lot left to be uncovered. I promise I will always champion radical experimentation, whether it’s VR, AR, or something else entirely. I’m excited to keep working with all of you out there, to experiment and explore, and to travel into the uncharted space of this medium together.
Stay true, fellow aliens.