By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Jacquelyn Ford Morie
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Jacquelyn Ford Morie
Considering her love for mathematics, arts and science, it is not surprising that Jacquelyn Ford Morie is a pioneer of virtual reality, as those three disciplines are the foundation for the medium that offers new ways for people to expand their experiences within a digital construct. Before becoming a Founder and Chief Scientist at All These Worlds, LLC, which explores the future uses of virtual worlds and the societal impact of avatars, the recipient of the Accenture VR Lifetime Achievement Award at the 6th International VR Awards created training programs for the animation and visual effects industry and was a senior researcher at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies.
Life began for Morie in Frankfurt, Germany, where her father was a U.S. Air Force engineer working on planes, redistributing what they could carry for the Berlin Airlift after World War II. The family continued to move around until settling on West Palm Beach, Florida. “I feel like I grew up in a little wonderland of Florida before it became so overbuilt. Our vacations were fishing trips. I knew how to deal with alligators and water moccasins. It was an interesting childhood.” Grade nine was a defining year for her as she went to public high school after attending a small Catholic school for eight years. “I had three classes that shaped my whole future,” Morie says. “An art class that was practical and art history, a math class taught by a guy that looked like Rudy Vallée, and a science class where the teacher gave us foundational science research projects.” It was important to be exposed to all three subjects. “We end up pushing people into choosing one or the other, but they’re compatible, and I’ve always thought that. My mother didn’t try to set boundaries. It was nice not to be steered into a profession that would make money,” Morie reveals.
While attending the Fine Arts photography program at Florida Atlantic University, where she earned her Bachelor’s degree in 1981, Morie decided to take a computer class to prove that computers were detrimental to society: the action backfired. “It turned out that I was one of the five people out of 90 who got an A. What was interesting to me was that you had to go into this logical mindset.” An Apple II personal computer became a part of her household in 1981 and came in handy at the University of Florida. “I spent an extra year looking at the computer as an image-making device. When I would bring something in, my fellow graduate students would be outraged because I was using a machine to make art. We’re talking about photography students here! The whole photography realm had gone through that same argument. I took these overly pixelated images from the Apple II that I would draw with a program or graphics tablet or some other mechanism, and I would photograph them from the back of the room with a telephoto lens to minimize the curvature of those big CRT screens back then. I would take them into the darkroom and multiple print them as regular photo images. That was called ‘Integrated Fantasies.’ Almost 40 years later, I took those images and made a virtual reality experience titled ‘When Pixels Were Precious.’”
What followed was a Master’s degree in Computer Science from the University of Florida and a career in training, whether it be teaching professors how to use CAD software at the IBM-funded CAD/CAM facility at the University of Florida, redesigning the computer graphics program at Ringling College of Art and Design, or implementing a year-long training program for incoming computer animators at Walt Disney Feature Animation. “As much as it was some of the best people I’ve ever worked with, it was a hard system to do something new in, so I left Disney. I heard that VIFX was looking for somebody to set up a training program.” Originally a visual effects company owned by 20th Century Fox, VIFX was sold by Fox to Rhythm & Hues. ”There were vicious wars at that time in the 3D animation industry. Everybody was trying to get into the game and undercutting each other. It hasn’t changed since! The production schedules were not humane, and I had many discussions with production artists and technical directors about what it takes to make another explosion along Wilshire Blvd., or make this lava look good in this Armageddon movie. I could see all these kids feeling that they’d wasted their lives making entertainment for people. I thought, we have this powerful new medium [in virtual reality] that nobody is using: How can we make it so that it provides meaning for people?”
Morie was a guest speaker at a workshop held at the Beckman Institute in Urbana, Illinois, titled “Modeling and Simulation: Linking Entertainment and Defense,” which had evenly split representation from the entertainment and defense industries. “In three days, we went through what it would mean if we took everything we knew about simulations and entertainment and put them together to make something new,” Morie explains. “Ed Catmull from Pixar had the first talk and I had the last one. One of Ed’s things was that we need to be free to pursue crazy and wild ideas.” The climate surrounding grants had moved in the opposite direction. “For grants today, you have to have deliverables and do everything that you say that you’re going to do,” Morie says. “The military funded those things back then and just said, ‘Discover stuff.’ That is so freeing and amazing to just pursue something for the joy of pursuing something new. Out of that workshop, the Army decided to fund a lab to do exactly that. They put it out to three universities; USC got the contract in 1999 and that became the Institute of Creative Technologies. I moved from the visual effects and animation industry into starting up this lab.”
Is there a different dynamic between academic grants as opposed to military funding? “The VR lab that I went to in Orlando was military-funded primarily and had a few civilian things,” Morie notes. “It was early and explorational. By the time we started the Institute of Creative Technologies, there was some entrenched military thinking. Luckily, the Institute of Creative Technologies was a line item in the Presidential budgets, so it couldn’t be messed with too much. It was more of a discussion on how we use it and our director, Richard Lindheim, was good at letting us researchers say what we wanted to do and then finding a way of fitting us into that budget. It’s how you manage things and let the voices be heard. It was a unique time at the beginning of the Institute of Creative Technologies. One of the smartest things that they ever did was not make it part of a department at USC. It was reporting directly to the provost for research so we did not have to dance to Engineering or Cinema. It was the most freeing thing to pursue interesting intellectual and creative pursuits. In my long career, what I have found is, one or two people can change the way something unfolds because of their passion and voice.”
After spending 13 years at the USC Institute of Creative Technologies, Morie established All These Worlds, LLC in 2011, which developed virtual worlds on behalf of NASA to provide astronauts relief from social and psychological isolation associ- ated with long-duration space flight missions. “We did the NASA project, which was an open simulation server that we ran ourselves in California. I did a lot of work in Second Life (video game) before the new VR gear started coming out in 2013. It was a good platform especially for social research. One of the big things that I did was a warehouse full of hazardous equipment for Texas A&M University, and they used that for studies.”
Virtual reality has been hampered by the need to make it story driven, according to Morie. “Virtual reality is a medium most akin to our real-life experiences. The story comes out of what your experience is. VR allows us to make our choices, have agency, and make every single instance of experience different if we do it right. Very few people came at it from a foundation of thinking about what VR is, like Nonny de la Peña with her immersive journalism.”
Other notable innovators are Nanea Reeves, Co-Founder and CEO of TRIPP, Inc., who creates trippy VR journeys that are good for one’s mental health, and Virtual World Society Founder Tom Furness, who is driven by a mandate to have immersive technology lift humanity. “This whole idea of the metaverse has made us think how much bigger VR can be,” Morie observes.
Populating the metaverse are user avatars which raises questions as to whether this will alter how people interact with one another socially. “This is a great unanswered question,” Morie remarks. “The last project I was going to do at the Institute of Creative Technologies was called the ‘Avatar Investment Metric,’ because I truly believe avatars do influence the way we interact. The way we use avatars depends on the look, feel and functionality of the avatar, and on certain personalities or deep psychological traits that the person has. That’s what the Avatar Investment Metric was going to tease out. It was going say, ‘We’ve done this study and people with this type of personality tend to use avatars as a substitute for self or experimental personas or a record of their life.’” There are dozens of uses for avatars that even date back to the existence of shamans. “In the 2000s and 2010s, kids growing up were more involved in these virtual spaces than anyone realized, such as Club Penguin, Poptropica and Minecraft. These kids have grown up with avatars as their social glue, and we have not looked at that from a research perspective, but I know that for students that I’m teaching at Otis College of Art and Design, avatars are part of their lives. I don’t have an answer for how it influences their face-to-face communication. We need studies on that. Maybe it makes us feel better about ourselves or helps us to find our true person. Avatars are key to a lot of mental health advances that we could be making. I see them as critically important to the development of our technological society and how we interact.”
There is much to be explored and discovered about virtual reality. “Virtual reality only works because we put our bodies into it and track everything that our bodies are doing,” Morie states. “What is it about our bodies that we are ignoring for this? That’s a new phase of research that will help with mental and physical health and therapy. We are starting to see it. I always say, ‘We have underestimated the brain’s plasticity and VR is a way to unlock it.’”
The scalability of gear and the constant need to upgrade firmware and hardware are major issues. “It’s not easy to use, but all of that is progressing. We do need more sensors and have to think about the ethics of looking at people’s eye tracking. What do you do with that data? The form function of these ways that we put ourselves into VR is changing.” The future lies in WebXR, Morie says, with “things like Mozilla Hubs, where you can build stuff in an immersive application and then share it with people through a web-based interface. The program knows what is connected to your system and will serve you the correct functionality for whatever gear you’ve got. That’s the way it has to go. I believe in five years WebXR will be the primary way we experience much of this immersive stuff. It’s not on the radar of most ordinary people, but I do believe WebXR can crack that scalability aspect.”