Dr. Johanna Pirker is a computer scientist focusing on games. She is an active supporter of the indie dev community and organizes the annual conference “Game Dev Days”. She has lengthy experience in developing games and VR experiences. She started in the industry at EA and still consults studios in the field of games user research. In 2011/12 she started researching VR experiences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the moment she teaches game development at TU Graz and researches with a focus on AI, data analysis, and VR.
You are on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for Science. Congrats on that! How did you feel about this and what does it mean for your further career?
Being on this Forbes list and being featured in such a prestigious industry magazine is definitely a great honor. Especially as a scientist, it is sometimes challenging to get attention from the public media for our work. I am happy that our research efforts are recognized and also more visible that way.
How did you become interested in interactive media? (gaming, VR, AR, career starts) How does it feel to be a girl in the tech scene? We would like to break that gender stereotype. Do you have some words of wisdom for beginners?
I started playing computer games on my father’s DOS-based machine when I was two or three years old. I was very excited about interactive forms of entertainment, about digital experiences. That way I discovered very early that I really want to also express myself by creating my own video games and designing own interactive experiences. So that’s why I started to learn how to code and work with the PC. I do believe that many people have a wrong picture of computer science and computer scientists. For me, computer science is a creative and colorful field with so many different facets. With computer science and interactive media, I can basically visualize everything which is in my head – and can make it even to an interactive experience for others. That’s what I love about what I am doing and about computer science.
Your project Maroon has won many awards. Can you tell us more about it? What’s the story behind it and what is its purpose?
Maroon is a digital learning management system for learning STEM in a virtual reality environment. It is represented as a three-dimensional immersive lab experience. In the current version of Maroon, which focuses on physics education, different experiments are visualized or simulated in VR to engage learners in an innovative and emerging environment. It is inspired by a physics simulation framework developed at the MIT called TEALsim and brings these experiments into a more immersive environment.
In Maroon learners can experience a Tesla coil at close range and can interact with experiments and feel resistance through the controllers. We are currently designing two different versions for virtual reality. One version supports room-scale VR experiences with the HTC Vive. The second version renders the lab into a fully mobile VR experience with the Gear VR or Google Cardboard. Since most students already own a smartphone, this version is a cost-effective alternative for in-classroom or at home learning.
Your doctoral thesis was all about immersive and engaging forms of virtual learning. How much truly immersive technologies can help us in teaching? How easy both lecturers and students accept new technologies in education?
Immersive environments let us experience scenarios as we were really within in (feeling of presence). This gives us so many possibilities to create scenarios and worlds to learn from or to learn in. Using the example of the virtual laboratory we can to create experiments which are in the real world either too expensive, hard to reproduce, too dangerous, or even impossible. Learners can work in a safe and cost-effective environment and repeat experiments an infinite number of times. Additionally, invisible elements/phenomena can be made visible to enhance the learning effect and the students’ understanding. Virtual reality also helps us to focus. In a traditional PC-based or mobile-based digital learning environment students are constantly distracted (e.g. Facebook messages). A VR learning experience gives them the possibility to focus only on the learning experience.
Following this topic and your work in this field, we can see that the education system is transforming into a virtual world. Does that mean that one day we won’t have the need for physical classrooms and schools? Will virtual classrooms be enough?
I don’t think that the education system should be transferred entirely into a digital world. I see the digital learning experience as an augmentation of the traditional learning experience or as an alternative in the case a traditional system is not existing or not working. As a result, all learning experiences I am working on are designed to support traditional formats but can also work as a stand-alone system.
Immersive technologies are becoming more and more popular, but they still have some disadvantages. What are their biggest flaws and how can we overcome them?
From my point of view, I was very disappointed by many of the first applications developed and published on the first Oculus and/or the first mobile VR solutions. Virtual reality has become known as a technology which causes nausea. This is not necessarily true. Often nausea is only caused by badly designed or developed VR applications. Additionally, many users tried as a first VR experience a virtual roller coaster. I even get sick when riding a real virtual roller coaster and VR certainly does not help here. I believe a strong and thoughtful design of VR applications is key. We need to be cautious with VR application and experience design and should make it a pleasant experience for all users. I, for instance, get sick very easily (some persons are more likely to experience nausea than other). Thus, I learned to strongly focus on developing VR experiences which are designed to prevent motion sickness.
In the last few years, computer graphic is experiencing some sort of a renaissance, thanks to the development of both hardware and software. What can we expect in the future? What do you expect?
I believe that with the rise of more affordable consumer display technologies (e.g. HMDs for VR/MR) and input technologies (for haptic feedback, smart tracking, … ) the future of interactive media will become extremely exciting.
In addition to your work as a researcher, you are also keeping an eye on the independent (indie) gaming community. Are you familiar with the works of Serbian gaming companies and what are your impressions?
I am well aware of the Serbian game development community since it is a very vivid one. There are several companies producing high-quality games on an international level.
What would you recommend to all those young people who are about to start a career in independent gaming productions? Does the success in that area require good knowledge, good luck or both?
I believe as an indie developer it is crucial to understand games, the power of games, and the elements of games. Often, good indie games were developed by passionate people who found additionally references and inspiration in other media forms and wanted to tell their stories through a video game. I believe to develop an indie game you definitely need knowledge about good game design, but you also need a strong own point of view – e.g. a story to tell, a strong message to deliver, or an interesting art style to explore.
But it is also extremely important to accept failures, learn from failures to improve, and build your games in a flexible and dynamic way. Making good video games can be tough and challenging. But it is so important that also – as an indie developer – your expectations towards your own game should be very high. You want to compete on a global scale. Try to make the best game possible.
You’re coming to Belgrade this fall to share your experience at CGA Belgrade conference. What can we expect?
I want to share my experience in the fields of virtual reality design but also game development. I definitely also want to share my passion about indie games and would love to talk to the Serbian computer graphics community about my project ayearofplayingtheworld.com where I try to find and play from all different countries of the world. I am still missing a recommendation for Serbia.
Is this your first visit to Serbia? What do you expect?
Yes. It is my first visit. And I am very excited. I have already heard a lot about the vivid game development scene. Also, I am always excited to get to know new countries, new cultures, and new people.