Reality TV competitions have helped people sing to the masses, dance with stars, pitch ideas to billionaires and find love. They’ve even introduced the nation to a future president. But can they boost the young virtual reality medium?
To promote its new virtual reality platform, Qualcomm created the “VR Developer Challenge,” pairing game developers with YouTube stars in a competition to create the most engaging VR experience. The series, which debuted on YouTube last week, gives viewers a peek behind the scenes of what it takes to think of and execute a project within VR.
The show features three VR developers (Sam Maliszewski, Jordan Mann and E McNeill) selected by Warner Bros.-owned Machinima, which produced the series with Qualcomm. Each developer had a month to create a project of their choosing using Qualcomm’s new standalone headset, the Snapdragon 835 VR developer kit. The headset is more advanced than some of the mobile phone-enabled headsets, but—unlike the more popular headsets such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive—is untethered.
While the developers are unknown, they’re not exactly novices. The two men and one woman all have experience developing on other platforms and with other companies such as Google. Maliszewski won an augmented reality hackathon hosted by AT&T, while former Oculus fellow Mann has worked with everyone from Samsung to Verizon to NASA; McNeill was featured on Oculus for his VR games.
The episodes capture the developers going from concept to creation: talking about their ideas, overcoming personal obstacles, and even facing user testing. Along the way, YouTubers—Ana Brisbin (Brizzy Voices), Zach Drapala (Ghostrobo) and Kimmy Saracino—serve as both cheerleaders and sounding boards for each project; each of them already has a built-in fan base through the millions of subscribers that follow their channels, and they will give more personality for those potentially unaccustomed to being in front of a camera.
McNeill, who created a VR strategy game as part of his project for the show, said he was initially torn between focusing on creating something with mass appeal or something that appealed to him. He said content developers don’t have the responsibility or the “moral push” to help expand VR. However, he said many developers in the VR community are still looking to create the first major breakout experience. “There’s kind of the quest for the holy grail going on right now in that respect,” he said. “And nobody knows what that’s going to look like.”
The show, which will pick its winner on Dec. 8, is distributed to Machinima’s 12.6 million subscribers on YouTube. But unlike certain other reality shows, the contestants don’t compete for a rose. Their prize is $20,000, with the two runners up receiving their own $2,500.
According to Andrea Hogan, senior director of marketing for Qualcomm North America and Australia, the company wanted to do more than issue a press release or gear an event toward existing VR fans; rather, they hope to broaden the still niche base of developers and gamers. “It’s a way to reach a broader audience and show the mindset, motivation, approach and ultimately outcomes of the developers in this reality TV series,” Hogan said in an interview.
Machinima added that the three developers were chosen based on their creativity, vision, camera presence and “diverse voices.” As The Cut noted in a piece late last year, VR has become “the most diverse corner of the male-dominated tech space” due to it having “no formalized industry, and therefore no industry hierarchy,” according to Julia Kaganskiy, director of New Inc., the New Museum’s incubator for art, technology, and design. “[VR is] particularly welcoming to outsiders and newcomers,” Kaganskiy said then. “Effectively everyone is a newcomer, and there are virtually no insiders.”
Qualcomm isn’t the first company to host a VR competition. Oculus has been fostering VR developers for years through fellowships and conferences that bring together some of the biggest names in the VR community. Last year, Samsung—often an unsung hero in the VR world—promoted its Gear 360 camera and Gear VR headset with its own Creator Awards. It also showed off what’s possible in VR with a storytelling showcase at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
McNeill said he hopes that the emergence of VR as a medium might be more “indie-friendly” than some other parts of the gaming world, which often focus on major company launches.
“I think it’s interesting that they’re focusing on teams of one or two, very small projects with small groups of developers,” he said. “And most markets when it comes to games are drifting toward bigger budgets, bigger game and bigger production value. I think it’s nice to highlight the little guys.”