Crafting the Mental Space

Jessica Brillhart on designing virtual worlds

Jessica Brillhart is an American filmmaker. She was a part of the virtual reality team at Google and is internationally known for her contribution to the theory and practice of VR. A conversation about meditation in mental spaces, the perception of the futre and radical experimentation.

Foto: Jessica Brillhart,
„All diese Technologien entstanden nicht dadurch, dass ein Anzugträger in den Raum kam und sagte: ,Wir müssen uns jetzt um VR kümmern!‘ Dieser Fortschritt kommt durch das Verlangen des Künstlers, etwas zu erschaffen.“ / Foto: © Jessica Brillhart,

Jessica, how real is virtual reality?

Reality is such a malleable thing for so many of us. My reality is very different from your reality.

How good is virtual reality at convincing you that you aren’t in your reality anymore, that you’re somewhere else?

I think it tricks you quite well. It doesn’t initially take much to think we are in a different world. If I put on a headset and I see Iceland, if there is depth to it, if there is spatial audio and if it’s just a matter of me standing there (there’s no motion or anything), then I can quickly be convinced that I have suddenly been somewhere else. However, after a while you start to question it, like any reality. It’s only real to a point. Then there are certain things that you want to do and if you can’t then you are suddenly trapped in this notion that it is not real. This is why it’s such an interesting field to work in. Basically, people just presume certain ways that we perceive reality and take it for granted. In reality, I look at a white boat on a lake. The boat itself is an amalgamation of all the boats I’ve ever seen in my life, of my ideas of white and of water and of floating.
So, when I see a boat, I can identify it as the word “boat” and understand the context and how I feel about that boat. How it affects me is very different from the way that you see or feel for a boat. I think virtual reality has these pieces which, if appropriately dealt with, can make you feel like you are somewhere else. However, in terms of understanding reality and playing to this notion of reality, I think we have quite a way to go. The interesting things that will emerge from this medium will be the experiences that truly question it, but still include our perception of reality but more as an anchor, that allow us to dream and explore in various ways that we are perhaps limited by in the real world.

So if I follow that train of thought, then virtual reality is the reality in which your body is not recognized and that’s the only difference?

Right now, it is funny because something similar happens in video games. For a long time, it was this notion that I have the agency to participate but there are no nuances. In Mario Brothers, I can’t walk in various speeds. I have walk or run, there’s no in-between. It is a very binary construct in terms of agency. You can do this or that, and if you do this then you can’t do that. Games have gotten better over time, they have created a large range of possibility for actions. But the worlds themselves don’t change and the game itself doesn’t change either, necessarily, because of the actions that you take. I feel like there’s opportunity, especially when you look at the way virtual reality, augmented reality and artificial reality is progressing.
You find that the idea of agency and experience can affect the world and spaces. It’s going to become very interesting very fast because you’re going to see the capacity for me to make these micro decisions, consciously or unconsciously. It could be the way that I drink a bottle of water will be what determines if a character likes me or not, and I don’t know that. That’s what’s exciting. But we are not there yet, by any stretch. Before we get too insane and have all this stuff, let’s think about what’s actually occurring in this space. What is happening here? I quite like the idea of just being in the 360-degree filming environment, which is where I was initially working. You can do so much with it and there’s so much to uncover, like the way we look at a doorknob incites certain things. Just because I can’t move my arms or talk to anyone does not mean my brain is dead. I’m active constantly, I’m questioning everything, I’m creating these stories and narratives between objects. If I have a table filled with stuff, generally I might glaze over and not think about, it but if I lean over and see a table with an apple on top and that’s all I can see, then suddenly I have this whole line of questioning of “Why is this apple there, is it important, should I be staring at it, should I not be?”
So, you have ideas about attention, engagement, and the coordination of that emotion that you wouldn’t get if you just shoved a bunch of crap in a space, gave someone the ability to speak whale, put them in haptic suits and let them walk around a room. There are a lot of opportunities to really start to integrate artful notions of call and response and having worlds actually respond to you, as opposed to you just being there as a voyeur experiencing it. You can’t produce this kind of art unless you are very skilled with the technology.

What about the infrastructure that you need to consume your kind of art?

When someone sees your work is tied specially to an area of infrastructure, that is not necessarily available to everybody and perhaps unrealistically available to the people building the technology, then suddenly you have a rift between the haves and have-nots. You have a rift between the expectations of those who do have the infrastructure and are building the technology and those who are eventually going to give us reason for that technology to even exist. What I did with “Omaha” was tapping into the idea that it is not a high-fidelity experience. You don’t need the crazy latest piece of technology, you could access it on You- Tube even if it was low quality. It’s the weather channel, there’s enough going for it that you get it. You’ll have people who are just like, “I don’t understand that; that was really weird.” Which to me was a great response. Other responses varied to people who remember and cry because they are like “I used to travel all the time with my parents in hotels and all I remember is the weather channel.“

What is space to you and how do you deal with space within your work?

Well, it’s mental architecture. For me spaces are everything. Architecture is not just a box where people exist in it. It’s a conversation that you have with people that there’s a flow, there’s a story, there’s the narrative of the space itself. Depending on who you ask, somethings are meant to care more about the people in it and in some cases, it cares more about the architect. The artistry, or lack thereof, depending on who you’re focusing on, is really just about how space communicates with that person. In a lot of ways it’s also about the texture of spaces too. One of my favorite games that I played when I was growing up was Myst, actually it was the sequel to the game, Riven.
The developers of the game used photos of their skin as graphic textures for a particular room that was meant to make you feel freaked out. There’s no one in the room, there’s a little bit of ominous music. You are not going to die in that room at all. But these rooms that are basically built with this inherent human-ness, are really scary. So, you have these interesting spaces that are built to make you feel a certain way by adding textures that are not your typical textures. There are no plaster walls, glass windows and so on.
So, it was really fascinating stuff. I feel like spaces can have that effect psychologically on people. Things like color, obviously, are big. People love mess but you can’t have a messy room and expect anyone to get anything out of it immediately. Right? You must have an understanding of what that space delivers to somebody from a standpoint of engagement and then how that might flow into the next place that they go into and then the next place and so on. So, again, that flow idea is also very important. Even how someone moves through a space is very important.

Our magazine is dedicated to the subject: “Modernity is an attitude.” So, what do you think is more important, being entertained or having a special kind of attitude?

Personally, for me as a creator, I think attitude is more important. I mean I find that more interesting because it educates and informs people a bit more. Especially now, about what’s possible in the space, because otherwise it’s just a bunch of shit, you know? People going into something, being vastly entertained because they are perhaps sitting in a chair that vibrates and they are in space. It’s okay, I’m very entertained by that, but I progressed any further as a human mentally or otherwise by doing that. But I think there’s room for both, sometimes you just need to see a film that’s just entertaining, eat that popcorn, and just don’t care about anything.
It’s complete escapism— ridiculousness—it’s fine. In terms of what’s important for what’s happening now, I think the attitude is what’s imperative and far more important than the vibrating chair, space thing. We’re in a state where there’s a really interesting medium and artistry that’s being developed but not having an attitude is a dangerous thing. Thankfully people aren’t really saying this that much about the art gimmick anyone. It was being over-done, the big gimmick thing. Its people with attitude and the artists with attitude in the space that will help define how it’s not a gimmick and prove why it’s not a gimmick and why it can be important to people.

There seems to be a connection between the so called Western world, our idea of modernity, the white men and the digitalization of the world. However, the people that use it, are everywhere.

I don’t know if you know this, but I very recently left Google because this is one of the things I feel very passionately about as well. I believe that platform and technology will always be shifting and it will always be changing. It’s a very dangerous thing. From a creative’s standpoint, as a creator in this space to rely on these technologies being forever and being the saving grace of anything. They won’t be. They last, as you have seen and the world has seen, and change all the time. It changes very quickly and rapidly. I have enough equipment that if I laid it out over the last two years that I worked in VR, you would see a crazy number of phones and headsets, not to mention various versions of software and tech. It’s generally been kept to the major companies. The danger in that is that they dictate the content because they are the ones with the technology.
They are the ones with the tools. So, generally, they are the ones that have the money that they can spend on proving that their tools should exist and should be worked on them. That’s dangerous too because you suddenly have people not caring about the medium but just caring about what’s quick. Entertainment versus attitude, so you start seeing that happening, which is not ideal. I also fully believe that a lot of the technology that will be developed will not come from those large tech companies either. Qualis didn’t come from that. That came from some kind of understanding that there was a way to use the technology and a cell phone, to actually create the means of giving people these experiences and creating these portals to these other worlds. Google Cardboard happened because of a group of engineers in France. Even within these large companies you have these people coming up with technologies that completely change the way that these things go. And now you have Google VR and now you have Jump … All of those technologies came from skunkworks projects, never because someone in a big suit came into a room and said, “I think we need to make VR.” That never happened like that. It comes from the need of an artist to want to accomplish something as well. As an engineer I want to obviously build things that are helpful to people: how can I bring VR to as many people as possible? Maybe in not the highest resolution that I would like, but at least in a way that would be engaging to them, smart, and will create a sense of understanding what this thing is. A friend of mine, an artist called Ali from Iran, he made a piece called “Death Tolls the Experience” and he didn’t have a headset for two years and he made a VR experience

As you know, the Bauhaus was about bringing together arts and technology. Is there a similar approach for the future of VR?

A lot of the technology that will be influential will come from a need from the artist and from the audience. Which requires there to be a much more consistent and open conversation with as many people as possible. You really don’t know where it’s going to come from. I do also think it’s important for the artists in the field to also be pushing well. Because otherwise it’s just a bunch of plastic and cardboard there, there’s nothing. In terms of the diversity conversation it’s more important that there needs to be a diversity of funding, like funders that don’t come from the major companies. I think that other people who are interested in taking a bigger part in being a part of the future of whatever this thing is, they really need to think about how they can support artists who maybe are around the world. Different arts councils are doing it and the United States could use a couple more arts councils, but that’s not really possible right now.
Content as a word is kind of a lame thing because it feels like the chump change you put in a toy car so it can the technology to become better and to fix some of the issues as well. I’ve worked with Adobe over the past couple of years to help them, those graphs that I make end up becoming a kind of a reason for them to add VR to their kits in Premiere and in their products. There’s this conversation that needs to exist. I do really think that artists can be a huge part of that conversation as ride. I think it’s more about really a lot of people experimenting, support of experimentation and the format. Really trying to get away, by getting into an attitude and away from entertainment for a second just to see.
If I hadn’t made the first film that I did when I worked with Google and the Google jump team, there wouldn’t be Jump. It had to come from an artistic place. It had to be pushed in that way. It’s just about convincing larger corporations that you do need that artistry, that you do need to think about this critically, and that you do need that attitude or it’s all going to go downhill. It’s always going to fail. And no one wins from being superficial. I think that’s just a roundabout way of saying there is a need for diversity but it’s not location based, its diversity of thought, critical thinking that needs to happen.

How do you successfully defend against the technological colonization of the world?

Even when you work at one, you revolt against it too, which is weird. Because I’m being paid by a company to be supportive of them, not to rebel. But it’s more of a state of mind. At a certain point, you need to make a decision and it starts to have an effect on everything around you when you realize that you can’t rely on the one company scenario. Earlier when I was with them, my job was to basically create artistically done material that would help tell the story of why Google was there in the first place and why it was interesting.
For me it was much more important to be championing the attitude and the medium than it was to be championing them specifically for that. And hoping to show that that was enough to show that we are thinking critically about it and that was important. In the end, Google is just a platform and they need to justify their existence. It’s tough. I’ve witnessed it first hand, and I think there’s a lot of promise in pushing for that experimentation and that diversity of thought. Everyone is on the same playing field where no one really knows what’s going on. No one knows and if anyone says they do, especially from a larger company, then I don’t know where they are getting their information from. No one really knows and it changes all the time. So, the only thing we can really do as artists is be reactive and fluid and just create all sorts of stuff and see where we get.


Ms. Brillhart, thank you very much for the interview!


This article was originally published in the first issue of the “bauhaus now” magazine.

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