Quba Michalski is an XR creator, Senior Creative and Chief Technologist at creative studio Watts Media, and Founder and Creative Director of virtual and augmented reality platform QubaVR.
He’s also a SPIN Studio beta user, utilizing the platform to distribute his content on Steam (coming soon!).
Quba formerly worked as Creative Director at Google’s VR, Cardboard, and Jump team, and he continues to push the boundaries of immersive media. His most recent work, Ex\Static, won the Special Prize for Innovation in Storytelling at World VR Forum 2017.
We sat down with Quba to learn more about his inventive X-Reality creations, must-have production and distribution tools, and take on how XR will reach mass adoption.
Pixvana: What inspired you to begin creating virtual and augmented reality content?
Quba Michalski: I have a design and filmmaking background. Over the past two decades, I’ve pretty much done it all – directing, scriptwriting, photography, cinematography, web, print, UI, UX, experiential, installation, animations, VFX, live action, slow motion, mocap – you name it. Over the years, I’ve explored newer and newer media and always felt like something was missing.
Looking back, it feels like what was missing in my past works was (and please excuse me for using the 2016’s favorite buzzword) the sense of presence. Sure, I could do some pretty amazing stuff using a combination of live action and effects, but as long as it was consumed in a flatmedia environment, it was but an abstraction of my idea. Sure, I could just go ahead and build the thing and make people experience it as an installation, but then the limits of physical reality got in the way (how pedestrian!). In VR, I can finally let my imagination totally loose and invite the viewer/spectator/player/explorer to become a part of the reality I create.
360 still from Ex\Static, 2017.
Looking back on your career, what best prepared you for the challenges of XR?
I decided to avoid specialization very early on in my career. I wanted to maintain the flexibility to explore new techniques and mediums, and to change the disciplines altogether. While nourishing for the soul, it was a hard thing to keep up. Clients tend to gravitate towards stuff they see and like, and it is much easier to sell “more of the same, just better” as opposed to completely original ideas that have never been attempted before.
The Pull, 2016.
While I refer to it as a “decision,” in reality, XR was the only route for me. I am an extremely curious person: I love to learn, and my appetite for knowledge is rather insatiable. I devour books, manuals, reviews, scientific papers, etc. I strongly believe in formulating my own opinions on subjects of interest and in making sure these opinions are not based on popular voices, but rather on informed, well-researched facts.
From quantum physics, to psychology, to game theory, to anthropology, to… well, you get the picture.
We live in a truly magical time where pretty much anyone can gain nearly unlimited access to knowledge. The Internet is basically humanity’s greatest library. I guess what I am trying to say is that I’ve always been intrigued by how things work: mechanical things, biological things, chemical, cultural, social, quantum things. My dream and ambition was to use this knowledge to build new worlds. For many years I’ve done it through art, film, and design. With the advent of VR, I’ve come one step closer to a true 1:1 relationship between my imagination and the end result.
Tell us about your business, QubaVR. What types of 360 experiences do you create and who are they for?
QubaVR is a creative identity under which I produce and publish my virtual and augmented reality works. For many years, I’ve been known simply as Quba Michalski, but my decision to put traditional flatmedia aside required me to rebrand and re-establish my identity.
For nearly two years, I worked primarily solo, joining forces with other designers and musicians on a per-project basis. After a while, though, I realized there are only so many hours in a day and only so much an individual person can do. That’s why several months ago, I joined forces with Seattle-based creative studio Watts to become Senior Creative and Chief Technologist.
Just like my solo endeavours, Watts intelligently focuses on content that has an emotional impact and motivates audiences to act. Under this new umbrella, I continue creating various “reality” projects – from virtual, to augmented, to actually real. I still publish my own personal projects as QubaVR, but the branding is much more fluid and interchangeable these days.
I started making VR content by creating stereoscopic 360° videos – both live action, using Jaunt’s and Google’s rigs, and CGI. After a number of short films and experiments, I developed my most recent work: Ex\Static. Moving forward, I am focusing my efforts on real-time experiences in room-scale VR.
I try not to address any particular audience with my works. I do stuff to amuse myself – to try and create something that I (or anyone else) haven’t tried before – and to challenge myself technically and creatively. I love the fact that audiences and festival juries respond to many of my works, but there are many lesser known films of mine that have gotten nearly no traction. Those are often the projects of which I’m most proud. If I were to narrow down who I think would enjoy my experiences the most, it would be the people who appreciate escapism and treat VR as a machine to try out things they cannot see and do in real life.
Your work tends to be abstract, devoid of humans, with minimal environments and surreal objects. Which artists or designers have influenced this aesthetic?
Come on, Ex\Static is chock-full of people! Well… full of human figures. They don’t move and don’t have any color, except of the glow of illumination. I guess I don’t like crowds much and that may reflect in my work.
Influences are always difficult to figure out. During my creative process, I try to isolate myself from works of others and “compose” rather than “remix”. I don’t use social media and don’t build Pinterest boards. Some influences must slip through, but these usually come from books, video games, and music, rather than other people’s art. It may be a sign of my own ignorance (and I hope not arrogance), but even though some of the spaces I’ve built in VR have been likened to the works of James Turrell or Yayoi Kusama, I only learned of these two amazing artists once people began drawing the parallels. Unfortunately, I have yet to experience either of their art in person.
Still from ChiChiLand’s 24/7 Sushi (real-time surreal experience, in production, seeking funding)
What are your most essential production tools?
When Google acquired a San Francisco studio I used to work for, I ended up working with their VR department on the original Google Jump camera (and platform). We did a bunch of projects using this rig and I still have fond memories of working with that early-generation tech. More recently, I’ve been producing my content entirely digitally, using Cinema 4D, Maya and Octane Render for 3D, and Adobe After Effects for editing and post-production. My current projects are built in Unreal Engine 4 and targeted for room-scale VR with HTC Vive.
That said, I constantly try out new engines and software, though the more I do, the more I realize that good ideas and problem-solving skills will take me much further than the latest software revision.
How did you learn about Pixvana and why did you decide to use SPIN Studio?
I ran into some Pixvana folks a while back at one of the local Seattle VR meetups. They were fun to talk to and obviously knew what’s what. The name kept popping up at various occasions – but my real motivation to use SPIN Studio came when I decided to publish some of my content on Steam’s 360 player. I was lucky enough to get into the beta program for SPIN and here we are!
Your projects are available on a variety of platforms. What is your approach to selecting channels for distributing your content?
Technical specs are the only factor I consider when making this decision. I love to have as many people as possible access to my work, but only if it does not compromise the experience. Different people attach the VR label to different mediums – 360 video, room-scale, and even photography. Personally, I draw the line at “stereoscopic 360° video” as the simplest medium that can afford the audience the feeling of presence within the scene. The ability to look around is fun, but only after you combine it with the 3D effect – the depth perception – does it transgress what’s already been achievable in more traditional flatmedia. In regards to stereo 360°, I look at the compression quality, bitrates, resolution, and framerates that the platforms and devices support. So much of today’s “VR” (which is mostly flat 360° video) looks like it’s been shot off an old mobile phone. Bad color, grainy, low-res footage, and poor lighting result in people being turned off by their first encounter with virtual reality.
I master my projects very carefully, using the same processes I use for my flatmedia clients. I believe that (at the very least) the experiences need to be able withstand the same level of visual scrutiny as broadcast media or Hollywood blockbusters. VR cannot survive on the novelty alone, and I see no reason to give 360 videos a pass where traditional 2D would fail. Having people experience meticulously crafted and produced content with bad compression or resolution is like listening to a symphony on a laptop speaker. In the early days, I had to closely work with compression/encoding engineers of various platforms to get the results I needed. Right now, the field has leveled out a lot, and most of the major providers get it right straight out of the box.
Still from The Pull, 2016.
What do you think is currently the greatest challenge for the XR industry and how will we overcome it?
I think the biggest problems our industry faces are greed and impatience. This medium is still very young. Nobody has truly mastered it yet – we’re all on a journey of discovery. Still, companies and investors expect quick return and profits. We have already experienced the first surge of crappy VR content – stuff produced quickly and carelessly in order to capitalize on the hype. The results are lost on potential audiences, general disappointment in the medium, and a steeper slope to climb for those who decide to stick with it.
There is virtually no art patronage for XR: the cost to produce quality content is much higher than for older media, not to mention learning curve involved with learning new skills, software, and hardware. Presented with these barriers, many artists and creatives decide to wait it out at a time when we could really use more out-of-the box thinkers.
We need more programs and funding for non-profit projects that explore and elevate the medium of XR, without the shackles of chasing investment returns and commercial success. Only once we saturate the medium with unique, amazing experiences – ones that can only be had in these new formats – can we hope to reach the medium maturity that drives mass adoption.
It is going to happen. I only wish it were sooner.
About Quba Michalski
Quba Michalski is a Creative Director, Motion Artist, Filmmaker, and Creative Thinker with over two decades of experience in various disciplines of design.
By day he works as a Chief Technologist and Senior Creative at Seattle-based Watts Media studio. Under the cover of the night, he turns into a VR superhero, creating award-winning films and experiences that push the medium of XR forward.