Unity

Today I am thrilled to share that I am embarking on a new chapter: I have joined Unity Technologies as Global Head of VR and AR, overseeing the company’s strategy to expand its business based on the new immersive platforms taking the world by storm.

Now, if you don’t know about Unity, first off… what planet are you living on? Unity is by far the most popular tool for making games and, by extension, VR and AR. It’s accessible and easy to approach for the beginner, but has all the power the pros need. Unity is free for personal use, and has affordable priced tiers above that. It supports all the major platforms. OK, I’ll stop gushing; the list of features and benefits go on and on. But let’s just say I’m such a big fan, I devoted most of my latest book to it.

For almost my entire career in technology, I have been working in 3D graphics. Not gaming per se, but graphics — for scientific visualization, architecture, education, and other non-game uses. I got my first taste in the late 80’s, working on 3D rendering software drivers for CRT displays, before graphical user interface systems were even prevalent.

A lifelong fan of comics, art and design, I have always been fascinated by the rendering of beautiful images and the visual presentation of ideas. When I did a life pivot from working musician to computer programmer, I certainly didn’t expect to be doing something as sexy as graphics; I figured I would be writing financial applications or something else involving wearing a tie to work. But I got lucky, and from early on in my career I have been fortunate enough to be able to write programs that put pretty pictures on the screen.And I never, ever had to wear a tie.

So when I moved from the east coast to the west to pursue my fortune in the new world of the Internet, I guess it just made sense that the first person I connected with was Mark Pesce, a network geek who needed someone to build a 3D interface to the then-nascent World Wide Web, in a way-too-early attempt to bring Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash to life. We were crazy, and it didn’t really work, but our mad experiment put me on the path that I am still on, exploring themes around building interfaces to the world’s information in VR and democratizing 3D development.

That last bit is key to our story. 3D development is inherently hard. The extra dimension is a bitch, partly because the tools we have on our desk render to flat screens, making interaction and manipulation harder, but mostly, because math. Graphics programming involves a lot of math, and 3D is more math-intensive than 2D, especially given the things we want to do with it, from mesh deformation to lighting to animation to physics.

I will let you in on a deep, dark secret: I hate the math. I love to brag that I got an A+ on my linear algebra final, but well, that was a lifetime ago, and now if I have to decompose a matrix I break into a cold sweat. I still fall prey to the occasional impostor syndrome because of this; but I ultimately take comfort knowing that I have spent the last couple of decades focused way higher up the stack, trying to do good by spreading the Good Word of real-time 3D.

During this journey, I have discovered something interesting: I think a lot of folks in our industry would prefer that 3D development remain a black art.Rather than devise pipelines, engines and tools that make it easier, most of what I have seen in graphics system design has moved in the opposite direction. I was on a mission to bring 3D to the world, but it felt like everybody else was trying to keep it tucked away behind hidden doors that could be unlocked only with secret handshakes.

Imagine if you wanted to build a web page today, but you didn’t have a web browser. You just had the Windows API and an Internet connection. You’d have to build all the other bits up from scratch: page layout, parsing HTML, decoding packets coming over the network. Inconceivable, I know. Well, that’s how game development was for years.

And then came Unity.

I first discovered Unity in the late 00’s, when they helped The Cartoon Network deliver an MMO in a web browser using their plugin. Even though I wasn’t building games at the time, I admired the company’s singular focus on their customers and core business. I soon became friends with founder David Helgason, and from then on I made sure to keep a close watch on the company’s progress. When the VR consumer boom hit, I now had a reason to dive into Unity development, and began using it for my own work. Simply put, it blew me away.

I have tried many 3D development tools over the years, and for the most part they, well — they just suck. The learning curves are really steep, and the user interfaces are designed abysmally. Unity, on the other hand, was a breath of fresh air: it made game development accessible, even to non-gamers like me, with a clear set of concepts and an approachable interface.

One could argue that it’s not necessary to provide easy tools for 3D game development, because game developers are highly technical and don’t need that much hand-holding. For hardcore games, the point is debatable. But VR and AR are a whole different beast. A large percentage of would-be VR developers aren’t graphics experts. They are filmmakers, educators, psychologists, and domain experts in various fields outside of computer science. They need easier tools, ones that take the rocket science out of authoring by taking care of the hard aspects of 3D. They need Unity.

Doubly awesome about Unity is that it also has a ton of power. The company has invested significantly in rendering, animation, physics and other areas, making it a professional-grade system for high end use as well. So developers can get started easily, and continue to use the product as they grow professionally. Some will go on to build mind-blowing creations, tomorrow’s VR blockbusters.

Unity has built the world’s largest base of 3D creators on the planet by following three core principles:

  1. Democratize development.
  2. Solve hard problems.
  3. Enable success.

Unity has been doing these three things for years for the game industry. And since that has gone so well, the company is now set up to be a dominant player in VR and AR development. Where this will go is anybody’s guess. As we all know, it’s very early for VR and AR. The rules have yet to be written about what makes for good immersive design. The hardware platforms are still shaking out, with no clear winners. The genres are up for grabs, and we have only a handful of killer apps. There’s still so much to do!

And now I’m here to help. Let’s do this.

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