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Jumping into the world of Virtual Reality — with no background in coding

A Year of Taking Risk Into the Unknown

Yesterday, I got an email from someone saying this:

“I just checked out your Data Viz piece in VR and it’s amazing! Did you use Unity/C#? Is it available for download on Android?”

If I had received this e-mail one year ago, I would have had to double-check what the acronym for VR was because surely, surely, Virtual Reality couldn’t have anything to do with me. Then I’d have googled what Unity was. And when I figured out that C# is a coding language, I’d have discarded the e-mail as a mistake. I wouldn’t have gotten to the Android part.

So, how did I get here in less than one year? By here, I mean, being able to proudly call myself a Virtual Reality Programmer and Creative Director.

I took a risk into the unknown — something few people are willing to do because we’re concerned about how we will look and we are scared about how we will fail. I don’t get to escape these feelings either — but letting go of them is how I’ve been able to grow, learn and create the most.

My background is in Economics and Film & Media Studies. I got my BA from Yale in 2016 and moved back to my home country, Kenya, soon after. I worked as a data analyst and talk show producer for a small media tech startup (Nairobi is Africa’s Silicon Valley). I liked my job but constantly felt like something was missing. Being surrounded by bright minds in technology constantly had me thinking about what ifs.

And then, I discovered Virtual Reality.

The ‘why and how’ aren’t so important. It’s also a long story so I won’t bore you with it. But the short version is that I was captured by this new medium to tell stories (the root of all my passions) because it could mix different experiences into one: narrative, gaming, and interactivity.

I signed up for a special VR Developer online course — which was a big investment for me. I wasn’t totally sure how I wanted to use VR, or why I was even taking the course, but there was something calling me toward it.I also know that it’s becoming somewhat cliche to jump onto the VR bandwagon right now as it’s been around for a while.

I think I’m drawn to the fact that there are still so many options for it — especially in Africa where it’s relatively unexplored. I had also been watching some of the New York Times 360 media films and fell in love with them. As a self-proclaimed filmmaker with only one short film to her name, I knew that I’d have to start thinking more seriously about my future in the field and VR was calling to me.

Taking the course — and investing in it financially, was the first step into the unknown for me. It could have been a total waste of money. I could have realized that I’m not smart enough to program. I could have gotten lazy and left it to the wayside. Or worse: people might see that I’m not good at it and that I was wasting my time not earning money at big consulting company. Already, working at a startup had me feeling this way. But going even further away from a track drawn out for me by my peers, (and dare I say it, by the ‘prestigious’ institution that is Yale University) felt like I was straying into the abyss. I thought about Yale’s 5-year-reunion. Would I be that dodo who had gone astray by being creative and taking risks? I thought of my friends’ bank accounts. And I thought about the fancy suits they’d be wearing at the 5-year reunion.

Goodness — isn’t that so tiring? Isn’t worrying about what other people think such a waste of time? Most of all, isn’t it so limiting?

Virtual Phases to my Reality

Some of my concerns may have been valid — particularly my fear of not having a coding background. But as is the age-old saying, you never know until you try. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. So I took the shot and this is how it’s looked for me:

Phase 1: I started the three term online course. The first term was the most intense. I was learning a lot. They introduced me to Unity (which I love and kind of reminds me of editing softwares such asAdobe Premiere). And then I learnt the basics of scripting in C#. I still had to supplement my learning with Unity’s Scripting Manual (now like my second Bible). Unity has amazing online resources for beginners to understand how to script. All this takes time (something us millenials hate). It requires daily dedication and practice but it’s completely worth it and totally not impossible. If you’re reading this wondering whether you can jump into VR without a coding background, I highly encourage you to take the leap. As you’ll see from my journey, there’s a learning curve but nothing you can’t do with some extra effort!

During the first semester, I worked on three VR experiences with the most advanced of the lot being a Maze Game created from scratch. You can check it out here! This semester took me about two months to complete.

Phase 2: Term Two of the program taught me a lot about documentation and the complete process of creating a VR experience. Design and documentation are arguably some of the most crucial aspects of VR product making and the course projects were a great way to learn the process. The capstone project for this term asked us to create a ‘museum’ style piece that visually displayed information about a certain virtual reality industry or technology. Given my background in Economics and Data, I looked into the Data Viz VR industry (it’s pretty awesome). I challenged myself with this project. I created a roller coaster scene, music visualization scene, learned how to integrate video and pushed myself with creating interactive scenes. The scripting was a pain — I won’t even lie to you. But now if I ever wanted to make something like this again, I’d know exactly how to! I’d start by imagining what I’d want in my scene, figuring out the scripts I’d need. After that, I’d spend a lot of time on google and the Unity Manual figuring out exactly how to make it work. It’s both a tiring but equally delightful process. You can check out my project here. I worked on this term for about one month.

Phase 3: Teamworks. A great part of the course is the option to work with people from around the world to create team projects based around a theme. You get put into a group of 4 and work online to create a VR experience. You can sign up to be a team leader but I was too afraid (there’s that fear thing again) to do this for the first project I worked on. My team made a game called Look and Learn that was a learning game for children. For this project, I did all the design. For the second team project, I got over my fear of not being good enough and signed up to be a team leader. I had an amazing team of people from all over the world and we made a pattern-themed space game. I learned so much from this experience because each team member had their own strengths that we could borrow and learn from. Collaboration and team work is key for success in Virtual Reality so the more you can work and learn with other people, the better. You can check out the project here!

Phase 4: For Term Three I specialized in Mobile Performance (a short course on how to optimize performance for mobile VR) and 360 Media Production. Here, I could combine what I’d learned with my true passion for storytelling. I’m now able to create cinematic VR content and add data, gaming and interactivity to it. Awesome huh?! Stay tuned for my capstone project on this.

Phase 5: This is where I start thinking about my future in Virtual Reality. I’ve spent the past couple months doing this on the side. I work during the day, and learn at night. I got to the point where I had to consider whether this is something I seriously want to pursue. Living in Kenya, there is practically no VR industry and so a job switch isn’t the most practical unless I moved to another country (which I’m not opposed to at all). That said, there’s no shortage of content that could be created. A few weeks ago, I got my first freelance job from an American who wanted to create a VR experience using footage in Kenya. It was a surreal experience working on it but also a total whirlwind managing his deadlines and my job. Phase 5 is me realizing that I need to go full into my new passion of creating Virtual Reality content. It’s me telling myself that I have to quit my job, and processing all the ‘what do you do’ questions that will come my way. It’s me saying life is short, do what you care about. It’s also practically thinking about what I’d like to do in VR. I’d like to be a creative director for VR content. I’d like to program cool things for people as a freelancer. I’d like to break the rules and do things that haven’t been done before. I’d like to learn Unreal and Java script as well. There’s so much — it scares and excites me.

So what next?

Phase 6: Jump.

This is a guest post by Michelle Mboya, one of the organizers of 360 Afrika ForumIt was originally posted on Medium.

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