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Virtual reality and augmented reality are getting some recognition as a new medium with the opening of a new studio at the University of Southern California.

The Ganek Immersive Studio was made possible with a gift from David and Danielle Ganek, through the Ganek Family Foundation. It is a first-of-its-kind immersive studio aimed at fostering the next generation of storytellers using cutting-edge technology.

Based at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, it will have high-end content creation tools and an incubator. The creative hub will be led by USC School of Cinematic Arts professor Candace Reckinger, an award-winning filmmaker and animation artist. The aim is to expand the boundaries of immersive storytelling and world building.

“The thing about the lab — and this is where immersive is at — is it is something that forms the web over the whole school as it is drawing in from all the divisions, and it also draws in from beyond the actual cinema school. It draws from the arts, business, health, and sciences,” said Reckinger, in an interview with GamesBeat. “It’s the same way that cinema drew things together. Immersive knits things together.”

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So the immersive studio is like a hub. But just what is different about immersive storytelling?

“When you are in VR, as with games, you are creating an illusion, like a magic show,” Reckinger said. “When you’re in a VR headset, everything is in the present, in the moment around you. And we don’t have the frame that you have with cinema and most visual arts. How you tell a story is more challenging. How do you focus someone’s attention in a 3D field? It’s a very exciting, complex form. For young people who have grown up in a digital world, it’s easier for them to think about.”

The Ganek family shares a passion for storytelling. Danielle Ganek is a novelist, and David Ganek is the managing partner of CityLights, a virtual reality firm specializing in bringing immersive cinematic storytelling to broader audiences.

“We’ve grown very fond of the school, and we see that this space is going to expand into many different things, including fictional storytelling,” David Ganek said in an interview with GamesBeat. “The idea of being at the forefront of that, with a great institution like USC, was an exciting idea. As a founding partner of CityLights, that brought me into the immersive space. I was always intrigued by virtual reality.”

As for examples of good immersive storytelling, David Ganek pointed to a VR story about crossing the border. He also noted that, at a time when fires are threatening the national park, the virtual Yosemite Experience from CityLights can show people what the place is like at a time when it’s hard to access.

“If you can put yourself in the first group of storytellers, writers, and directors who work on a great project, it can put you at a really advanced career position at an incredibly young age,” David Ganek said. “That becomes a unique skill set in a world where traditional media is very mature and going through a lot of disruption.”

The studio will serve as an interdisciplinary center for the development and production of immersive
media content. Its aim is to function like a creative design studio with a modern, real-time production and visualization pipeline.

David and Danielle Ganek funded the immersive studio at the USC school of cinematic arts.

The studio will focus on current and emergent technologies that allow students to immerse themselves in innovative, creative, educational experiences. Student and faculty projects will employ technologies that include real-time game development capturing and rendering, machine learning-powered sensors such as Microsoft Kinect Azure, Intel RealSense, Lidar, photogrammetry, and volumetric video capture.

Both Ganek and Reckinger think these are skills and technologies that will land students jobs in the future. These skills remind them of a symphony, made from so many different sounds and instruments.

“The most active students are all finding work because they come into the field with a fair amount of hands-on knowledge, which is sought after now,” Reckinger said. “Companies are aware of immersive. It takes ingenuity and motivation, and that spirit of being willing to try something new.”

The studio will feature a theater space in the School of Cinematic Arts’ Interactive Media Building that will be equipped with haptic chairs for exhibiting projects.

“Whenever we are thinking about opportunities for students to innovate and expand their creative abilities, it is imperative that we look to the future,” said Elizabeth Daley, dean of the school of cinematic arts, in a statement. “There is nothing more exciting and relevant to the future of our industry than the creation of entertaining immersive experiences. David Ganek is a leader in this realm and we are thrilled to have his support in providing the resources our students need to take content creation to the next level. Candace Reckinger’s body of work speaks for itself and our students are in the best of hands as she guides them in what promises to be a groundbreaking journey.”

The Ganeks had close contact with Daley at USC, and they believed the school needed a resource for students to use to work on their projects.

“The interesting part is the hub can be used across the whole film school,” David Ganek said. “This could be a great asset for the school and it can be very adaptable about it.”

USC School of Cinematic Arts
USC School of Cinematic Arts

The Ganek Immersive Studio aims to deliver on the long-awaited promise of immersive experience through virtual reality. It will develop and produce a number of projects simultaneously, with varying budgets and creative goals, and establish a protocol for students from any USC school or program to pitch projects to a “greenlight committee” consisting of School of Cinematic Arts faculty members and representatives from CityLights.

The committee will recommend proposals to move forward to the “greenlight” phase. From there, the final selection process will include interviews with student-creators, and a process for revising proposals. The projects selected will be supervised and supported by USC faculty and CityLights creators throughout all stages of production.

Rather than create a new major, USC has taken the approach of creating a lab that can be used by people in many majors. In that way, it is modeled a bit on the innovation labs of major companies, which Reckinger has studied. And it gives the school time to figure out how immersive will evolve.

“Five years ago, we got to see they were working with game engines to make a movie. Now, many of us are working with game engines,” Reckinger said. “We’re exploring where the new technology will take the whole entertainment media process. There is great interest in it.”

To showcase the innovative work produced, the Ganek Immersive Studio will coordinate with media festivals, competitions and symposiums, as well as hold annual shows and exhibits at the School of Cinematic Arts. CityLights will also have the option to acquire student projects to further develop for release through their own distribution arm. Additionally, as part of the partnership, qualified SCA students may be considered for internships with CityLights.

The Ganek Immersive Studio is expected to be up and running in early fall of 2022, and expects
to launch its project proposal process during the fall 2022 semester. The space will be an open room with a lot of workstations and a large projection screen. Students can work privately or in teams, with enough capacity for dozens of students.

The school has kind of bet that VR and immersive technologies will be a big economic powerhouse. While VR fizzled some after its recent relaunch back in 2016, interest in immersive kept on growing and the field expanded with many kinds of avant garde projects. Now the presumption is that VR is here to stay.

“My dentist talks to me about VR,” she said.

Yosemite Experience was made in VR by CityLights.

As to whether VR is mainstream or not, he said he is well aware that it has been around for a long time and has had a lot of false starts. David Ganek said he thinks it has all the potential to evolve into a significant medium for a variety of different categories. And he believes that students who come out of the school with immersive skills will be ahead of the curve.

“My opinion is we’ve gotten to that tipping point in the evolution of the technology, even though most of the country and most of the world has not done what I would consider a very high-quality virtual experience,” he said.

On top of that, Reckinger believes in immersive because it can be so profound.

“It touches you when a person tells you a story in VR,” she said. “We have some pieces that, when people watch it, it brings tears to their eyes. When VR connects, it is very powerful. You can be there is the moment and affected immediately.”

David Ganek is an arts patron, collector, and entrepreneur. He is the managing partner of CityLights and he is the founder and former head portfolio manager of Level Global Investors. Since 2010 David has been running Apocalypse 22 family office & the Ganek Family Foundation which supports various charitable initiatives and lends contemporary art to educational institutions around the world.

Danielle Ganek is a writer and the author of novels, Lulu Meets God And Doubts Him and The Summer We Read Gatsby, published by Viking Press and translated into multiple languages. She is currently focused on different forms and uses of storytelling in other mediums as well as virtual reality. She is also a philanthropist and serves on various arts and education boards of trustees including the executive committee of the Center For Fiction.

Reckinger is an artist-director working in visual music and immersive media. She currently is a professor of cinema practice at the USC and the Director of the Immersive Media Lab at the School of Cinematic Arts. She co-created the animation for the A-ha Take On Me music video for MTV, and she directed the Luka video for singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega which won MTV Best Video for a Female Artist 1988.

She also did some pioneering work in music videos, motion design and computer graphics. After joining the faculty of the USC School of Cinematic Arts in 2007, Reckinger began exploring new forms of visual music merging multi-screen storytelling and design. She co-led projects for concerts, projection mapping and immersive events with artist teams composed from their animation students and graduates.

In 2018 and 2019, Candace co-created large-scale immersive experiences for the Getty Center Museum in Los Angeles. The Getty Unshuttered Live 2018 and 2019 events featured architectural projections mapped onto 12 buildings with interactive exhibits and environmental lighting. The artist team were animation and interactive students and alums from the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

In 2016, Reckinger founded the USC Jaunt Cinematic VR Lab which made over 30 projects with USC students exploring immersive storytelling.

“That very much let us explore VR storytelling,” she said. “That lab was extremely interesting. And what happened is it after the first year and a half into it, we started drawing our projects that were really expanding the idea of immersive because they were starting to integrate experience design. They were starting to integrate some of the ideas coming out of games.”

Renamed in 2019 as the SCA Immersive Media Lab, it continues to be an incubator for creative exploration and supports innovative projects utilizing VR, realtime animation, interactivity and projection mapping. Students who are graduating are going into film and TV, but they also go into a lot of other fields.

“VR opens up their minds. What we’re finding is that the initial group of students we worked with in 2016 and 2017 — what they were doing is becoming more organic and native to how young people are thinking,” Reckinger said. “We’re getting a free flowing interest in VR, interactive and immersive. And people are exploring new storytelling in a much more expansive way.”

USC's film school.
USC’s film school.

Reckinger said the school didn’t consider calling it a metaverse studio. Or I suggested maybe the school start a metaverse major. That might have been too far out there.

“I believe in the metaverse as representing the beginning of a new world and I’m trying to figure out what it really means,” David Ganek said. “We have gone from an analog world to digital, and now we are at the beginning of a digital to immersive world. A metaverse major? You’ve covered gaming and how many years ago would people have considered it preposterous to have a gaming major in college?”

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