Olivier Tristan BalmokuneMFA graduand Olivier Tristan Balmokune created a virtual reality experience as his film thesis project.

Virtual reality thesis breaks new ground

When MFA film and media arts student Olivier Tristan Balmokune defended his thesis on Aug. 29, he broke new ground. Balmokune hasn’t created a film, he has created a virtual reality (VR) experience.This project incorporated several of his skills and interests: storytelling, learning new software platforms, and virtual reality.

“I was always interested in virtual reality, and I’ve always been doing research on it,” says Balmokune. “So when it came to doing my master’s thesis, I had a big discussion with my thesis supervisor, professor Nick Hector.

“We discussed my desire to take a different angle as opposed to making a short animation or a short film. I decided to go in a different direction and explore immersive narration. Prof. Hector was very encouraging and very supportive. He’s made my MFA experience amazing!”

Then Balmokune started watching a lot of YouTube videos to learn how to do it.

“I have been trained as a creative. So, I have done visual effects before and movie editing, of course,” he says. “So, this project takes all those skills that I had and morphed to build the virtual reality environment. I've been telling stories since I was a kid. This is going to sound super geeky, but I've been role-playing in Dungeons & Dragons games since I was young.“

Pre-pandemic, Balmokune planned to shoot live action segments and incorporate that into the animation and into the actual VR experience. But when COVID-19 caused everyone to isolate, he decided to go completely virtual.

“Everything you see has been done virtually,” he explains. “Even the voice acting is done through artificial intelligence. It's not an actual person talking. My project is completely digital, completely virtual, and pretty much everything was done remotely from my house, from my home computer. Everything from the facial expressions, to building the environment, to the talking, to the lip-syncing.”

The creation process took time because Balmokune was learning as he was making it.

“When you film something, you might have to build the set, but everything is there. The person is there, their voice exists, when you close the door, the sound of the door closing is there. Everything can be recorded,” he says. “However, when you're creating VR, all that stuff must be made. So I must create the character. I must create the voices. I must create even the sound of somebody walking. I must create the sound of the footsteps. Nothing exists on your set until you make it.”

The time it takes to complete Balmokune’s VR experience depends on the person, because it depends on how long a person explores the environment.

“Overall, it's only about three to four minutes long to go through the whole thing,” he says. “There are only two puzzles. You listen to some of the characters talking, you’re able to explore some stuff and you figure out some puzzles — about four minutes. And that’s been a year’s work.

“There is the code that goes behind it. Everything else has code in there, especially if you are going to make things interactive. To be able to have responsive elements there must be enough code behind it to be able to have characters respond to what somebody's doing.”

Researching and creating this thesis project helped Balmokune land a job with Hitachi.

“I’m now a XR developer, so a mixed reality developer. That incorporates virtual reality, augmented reality, that sort of thing,” he says. “I am on the innovation teams right now and I’m working on developing interfaces and applications for wider use. I want to continue exploring the narrative side of immersive narratives.”

Due to current health and safety restrictions, people weren’t able to put on VR headsets at Balmokune’s thesis defence.

“I recorded some friends of mine going through the experience,” says Balmokune. “And then I made a video of myself going through the experience and then talking about what people are doing.”

His support document goes into greater technical detail regarding how the virtual experience was created and tested.