Community spotlight: Jason Jerald

CEO of NextGen Interactions and Lead VR Advisor at XMod

To coincide with VirtualityParis this month, we speak with one of the leading names in virtual reality, Jason Jerald. Jason tells us how he fell in love with the interdisciplinary nature of working in VR technologies – creating VR simulations for fire fighters, using VR to implement controlled conditions in behavioural science, and working with a famous palaeontologist. He also tells us about his book, “The VR Book: Human-Centered Design for Virtual Reality”, which is about building virtual reality around humans rather than around the technology itself. Interested in what the future holds for VR? Jason has a few ideas about that, too…

Nia Cason: Great to meet you Jason. Could you introduce yourself in a few words?

Jason Jerald: Hi, I’m Jason Jerald, and for better or worse I’ve focused my life on virtual reality over the last 20 years or so. That ranges from the scientific side to actually building applications – I’m in an interesting spot between research and industry. My company is NextGen Interactions and we’re a small team of 6-10 who do applied research – it’s largely research for hire – for example user studies to help determine if a new interaction technique might be appropriate for some task. My background is technical, but I love creating things in broader conceptual ways.

NC: So how did you first get into virtual reality?

JJ: My parents played a big part in me getting into the field. It was the 80s and I was a nerd, so of course I was getting addicted to computer games, and my mother said ‘no more games’. That kind of forced me to figure out how to do it myself. At one point, she caught me playing a game and asked me where I’d got it from, and I said ‘well, I wrote it’. So she gave up after that. Also, my father was a designer, and showed me what he was doing with computer-aided design. So before VR, I was very interested in computer graphics. In high school, I had an internship in design and transforming that into computer-generated imagery and animation. Back then, those tools were only just becoming available.

I discovered the concept of VR in 1994 and it just blew me away; I fell in love with the technology and haven’t looked back. In 1996, I got an internship building an immersive medical environment. So you could take scans out of volumetric CT data and look at it in different ways – that was one of the first VR medical applications.

NC: What’s your specific role in the world of virtual reality?

JJ: Right now, our biggest client is a US-based government agency called the National Institute of Standards and Technology. They’re funding us to look at physicality, which is being able to reach out and touch physical things in VR. Our focus is public safety, so we’re working with first responders – firefighters, police officers, and emergency medical services – looking at whether physicality is important and where it’s appropriate to use. For example, creating a physical device that matches the device used in real life to detect hazardous materials in the environment, for training purposes.

And what do I know about first responders and law enforcement? Almost nothing—but I’m learning! What gets me excited about VR is that it’s interdisciplinary. VR can bring together art, psychology, science in specific fields, and technology to create really compelling experiences, and I get to work with subject matter experts on things I have no idea about. I had the chance to work with the famous palaeontologist Jack Horner – he has dinosaurs named after him and so on, and was the advisor in the Jurassic Park films, which were actually based on his research. So I’m constantly learning, even outside the field of VR.

NC: Could you tell me about your book, “The VR Book: Human-Centered Design for Virtual Reality”?

JJ: My realisation was that I needed to create a kind of holistic approach: VR is the technology, but the technology is there to provide humans with experiences and tools. So my book is about focussing design around the human rather than around the technology, and also about how humans interact in these virtual environments. It’s very interdisciplinary, and I’ve really tried to make it accessible to almost anyone creating VR experiences.

I also talk about why is VR effective in the book – I call it visceral communication, something that can’t really be described in words. In that, VR really has to be experienced to be understood. It’s a bit like the overview effect; when astronauts go into space and look down on earth, they have a paradigm shift, and you just can’t describe that in words.


NC: What are the potential applications of virtual reality in science?

JJ: I think one of the main uses of VR currently is to create experiences on the entertainment side. But you can also think of VR as a powerful tool to study science. For example, we have a lot of control over what users are seeing and their actions in the virtual world, so you have very controlled conditions under which you can see how individuals behave. One of the complaints of science is whether results found in the lab really apply to the real world, and using VR can increase ecological and external validity. Take first responders, for example. You can put them in a crazy chaotic situation that would be hard to create in a lab. They are of put in real-world non-VR simulations, but they’re lucky to get those once a year.

Fear of flying is another example – you don’t just stick people on an airplane and tell them to get over it, but you can use virtual reality to gradually introduce those cues and shut it down at any point. Ideally, you want a therapist there too, because you’re not trying to replace what’s already know to work well, but instead use these technologies as a supplement.

NC: Is the use of virtual reality in science regulated?

JJ: Like anything, there’s absolutely ethical considerations. And we’ve gone back and forth on this in different law enforcement projects. If a police officer has a traumatic experience in a virtual situation and then later that day has to make a decision in a bad real-world situation, then could this affect their real-world performance in dangerous situations? Related to that is negative training effects. The idea is to train and teach someone in VR and then apply those acquired skills to the real world. But if something is slightly off, such as the sense of distance, they won’t necessarily apply those skills correctly in the real world.

NC: How has virtual reality changed in recent years, and what does the future hold?

JJ: Behavioural science is a good example of how things are changing in VR. With VR, you’re tracking head motion, eye movement, the hands, and so you’re getting behavioural data as a side product. I think behavioural scientists have wanted these tools in general, and over the last few years it’s become more accessible for them to use these tools.

A lot of people are really excited about these technologies and are having the time of their lives – saying that now is the time to be alive because were at the beginning of this VR revolution. Obviously, I’m pretty excited about it as well, but I think it’s going to continue to expand and create more and more questions, so it’s always going to be exciting. Even going beyond technology, humans have always been creating experiences, such as theatre, or even since cavemen have been drawing on walls – we still don’t understand the human mind or everything about science. The more we understand about science, the more questions we have. It’s the same thing in VR – 200 years from now, we’re still not going to know everything. It’s limitless. That’s what will always make this type of work in