Kickass women of VR interview 5: Amber Mason, Texture Artist

"The current game project I'm working on is mindblowing"

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We’ve had tonnes of love for our Kickass Women of VR series so far (check out interviews one, two, three and four), and we’ve got something special lined up for the next four.

I was introduced to the lovely team at TimeFire VR a little while ago and was extremely happy to discover four women working together there. They’re all amazing, so the next four interviews will be with them – and we think you’ll love them as much as we do.

We’ll start with Amber….

Amber Mason, Texture Artist

Before Amber joined the team at TimeFire VR, she didn’t know much about virtual reality in gaming when it came to workflow, pipelines in production, and the next generation of software and technology know-how. She’d been an illustrator and comic book artist, and had developed her skills in 3D modelling.

In January this year, Amber was offered the chance to meet TimeFire CEO and Owner John Wise for a possible internship or position there. It went pretty well: Amber is now their lead texture artist, working with Allegorithmic’s Substance 3D designing and painting app, plus supporting programs.

Hi Amber! Do you remember your first introduction into VR?

The Nintendo Virtual Boy was the first experience I had physically with a VR type headset, but the first introduction I consider to be my reason for venturing to VR instead of traditional gaming platforms, happened in 2010 at the SIGGRAPH conference in LA. At the time, I was president of the SIGGRAPH chapter at the Art Institute of Phoenix and attended for more than just the exhibition hall fun.

The panel held by the team from the University of Tokyo that year exhibited the first examples of visual and olfactory stimulation with VR technology and player interaction. Watching how this type of technology affected people, stimulating reactions and cognitive association with what they were seeing and smelling was very interesting and helped open the door to showing the future possibilities with what VR would be capable of doing.

These types of advancement gave a clear concept of how full immersion could work, as well as how realistic interactive gameplay could be. This was something I could easily get behind as it could lead to many advancements in the field.

What inspired you to join the VR industry?

Outside of the many things that have been – and continue to be – inspiring to me, the main inspiration I have will always be seated with my creativity as an artist. It pulls from the desire to create things that people will enjoy interacting with, from education to pure, adrenaline-packed fun. There is no greater inspiration, in my opinion, than the reactions of the player or viewer to the artwork I have created.

How has working in the industry changed your first thoughts on VR?

There have been many things that have added to my knowledge about VR, but the biggest change in my thoughts is in the production of virtual reality games. It’s one thing to make an asset and see it on a flat screen with high definition graphics that look realistic and amazing, swooning over a 4K or high resolution rate. With VR, we can use the same resolutions, but we have to keep it accessible, optimised for gaming at higher frame rates – and making it a social and functionally friendly UI and navigation system. That’s far more complex than on other gaming platforms.

We’re having to build our own unique engine, software, services and other attachments to the gameplay in order to make the experience for the player more all-in-one, since you just have a headset and either a keyboard and mouse, a Bluetooth controller or, looking into the future, the Oculus Touch.

With things going wireless, certain services and capabilities have to be planned out ahead of the current trends, so that things continue to progress. Unlike the general thought I had coming into VR, that it was just another “division” of the industry, it is truly a whole other beast of its own, and right now we are just trying to tame it in a direction that will be quite progressive for us and the players. There’s far more to VR than I’d thought, and in many ways I’m enjoying where things are going and excited that I can be a part of them.

As for the projects, the current game project I’m on is mindblowing, with some of the advancements and services we’re integrating into gameplay. And on my end, it’s exciting using next-gen software that is continuing to advance alongside my career. It’s great feeling like I’m helping to advance gaming, and seeing things develop first hand, that’s for sure.

What would you like to see happen within the industry and your career in the next year?

Things I’d like to see in the next year: I’d like to be running a full department on texturing with TimeFireVR, seeing Hypatia really take off as the first MMORPG-based VR game platform, being among the top texture artists in the industry, having a panel/showcase at GDC 2016 on being a lead VR female texture artist demoing VR workflow and other things I’ve learnt, seeing Arizona become more of a game industry established state, have a solid chapter for WIGI [Women in the Gaming Industry] out here that I would continue to co-lead with the other ladies I work with, and being able to contribute to advancements in VR in general.

Any interesting lessons learnt so far?

When you’re having to self-teach and figure out new ways to do things in any industry, there are always lessons to be learned. Some good and some you wish didn’t happen. One of the good ones was figuring out glass surfaces and other transparent ones between the Substance software and Unreal Engine 4. It really helped cut down blueprinting and time spent on creating those types of materials.

Currently I’m attempting to learn how to make a more realistic-looking hair material that will be animatable, much like you see in high resolution animations and cinematic clips in games and the film industry. Some that weren’t so fruitful were on some functionality and texture database maintenance. Every day is a challenge when learning things in the field, so it just depends on the day whether it’s a good lesson learned or one that I won’t be repeating. It is all a part of the process of progression and leading advancements. Trial and error.

Have you had any difficulties with being a woman in VR?

Within our company, there are no issues with me working in VR. I believe that due to a strong support system in the office and my boss, as well as WIGI and my friends and family, running into outside people that have negative views or opinions on me being a woman in the game industry has had less of an influence.

When it comes to holding discussions in some forums and with some people in the industry it can be a little difficult, more than a little depending on the person. I’m not going to let it get me down as I got through the first step of getting a foot in the door. Every step after, I take in stride and that’s all I can do. I am strong, and history has shown as long as you keep strong and don’t budge, things will change. It’s only a matter of time.

What are your career goals?

Some of the short term goals I have are: to fully know all of the Substance software capabilities; figure out hair and fur that looks and “feels” more realistic for gameplay as well as figure out an active electrical current material that can add animated flair to some assets; and finally, launch Hypatia with physically-based rendering textures that look fantastic in VR.

With 2016 set to be a huge year for VR, where do you see it heading in the next couple of years?

Based on the new technology coming out in the next year and where I see some of the games heading, I think we’ll see some advancements that will change gaming and other associated fields (like medicine) that have shown interest in this area of technology. Looking back over the last 10 years or so, with the advancements that have taken place, and how the recent few years have had leaps and bounds more than any other part of that 10 year period, it can only be said that we’re on the brink of a breakthrough in VR with immersion quality.

The Oculus Touch is the first step in touch sensation, and then pairing olfactory (scent) stimulation and headphones with VR headsets add the hearing and smell aspects of our five senses. The only sense left, and that may be better not to test with VR, is taste. At this point it’s finding the right way to tap into all the senses we’re able to affect with VR – that’s an obstacle we need to get over.

With medicine getting involved in how to implement things for simulations, it’s only a matter of time before we see a breakthrough in full immersion through something like nanotechnology for AI control in the neural hemispheres or some other way to connect to our brain for cognitive interactions. I think we’ll soon be starting to see the first examples of this type of technology, and possibly versions that will be used in application tests.

Would you encourage other women to look into a career in the VR tech industry? Do you have any advice for them?

I don’t see why a woman shouldn’t look to pursue a career in the VR tech industry. If it’s something they have an interest in pursuing they shouldn’t prevent themselves from getting into it. If they’re having trouble getting into the industry, they need to look at what’s wrong with an interview they had, what’s missing from their CV and/or their cover letter, reflecting on what’s needed for the position and whether they have it. You can’t forget to show your passion for the position and the industry. The more knowledgeable and capable they are of showing creativity and that they’re forward thinking, the better.

This industry is difficult for many because it’s continuously changing and evolving, largely because of the early stage it’s in. If applicants can’t learn quickly and take charge of what they’re doing, then they’re not going to be able to fit the position and expectations required. The expectations are pretty high when you look at everyone that has their hand in this cookie jar, as all are fighting to be the next cutting edge thing.

Additionally, as a woman, you need to have thick skin since you’ll run into difficulties due to the more aggressive nature of the industry right now. Keep up on the software and programs out there, as well as the technological advancements. Hitting the ground running and having knowledge in a software or program over someone that doesn’t definitely helps the odds be more in your favour.

Do you know of any women working in VR that you admire?

Currently I don’t have a specific woman I admire in VR. Those of us that work together are on the same page due to working on the same project and direction in the industry. I don’t know of too many women that are particularly involved in the VR tech industry since I spend most of my days at the office and getting things pushed out. We’re nearing our launch date so time is moving into crunch period.

What have been your best experiences of VR?

The best experiences I’ve had are all of the breakthroughs and successes we’ve achieved so far on this project. My favourite headset is going to be the Oculus Rift with the Touch. I already know this! And then one of the games I’m most looking forward to playing in the near future is EVE: Valkyrie.

Want to hear more from Amber? You can follow her on Twitter here: @Amber_Mason13.

We’ll be back soon with another interview with one of the amazing women making the future of VR happen. Watch this (virtual) space.


Images: Amber Mason