Most people familiar with virtual reality (VR) associate the burgeoning technology with recent innovations such as the HTC Vive or the Gear VR. But for DigiPen graduate Keith Kaisershot, VR is no fad—it’s been a lifelong pursuit.
Kaisershot, now a programmer at game studio Other Ocean Interactive, had his first experience with virtual reality back in the late 1990s, he says, when the indoor interactive theme park DisneyQuest was in Chicago, near his hometown. He recalls spending an entire day at the towering exhibit, soaking in Disney’s virtual reality and video game technology, including a virtual rollercoaster designer that allowed you to ride your own creations.
Although DisneyQuest was his first true VR experience, Kaisershot says his interest in the technology began at an even earlier age, in the third grade.
“I was heavily invested in playing Wolfenstein 3D,” Kaisershot says. Around the same time, he discovered the point-and-click adventure game The Journeyman Project. “Wolfenstein 3D, back in the mid-90s, had real-time animation but everything looked like cartoons,” he says, whereas with The Journeyman Project, “it looked like you could step into this world, but walking back and forth in this game was like a slideshow.”
A big fan of both games, Kaisershot says he quickly realized that one day video games would incorporate both the real-time interactive graphics of shooters like Wolfenstein 3D and the realistic visuals of point-and-click games like The Journeyman Project. From that moment on, he took every opportunity to explore video game programming and the early developments of VR technology. (“I still have three [Nintendo] Virtual Boys,” he mentions offhandedly.)
Near the end of high school, Kaisershot decided to apply to DigiPen Institute of Technology so he could study game development full-time. He graduated with honors from DigiPen’s Bachelor of Science in Computer Science in Real-Time Interactive Simulation program in 2009.
After graduating, Kaisershot hoped to break into game development right away, but the economic recession limited his prospects, and he moved back to Chicago to work as a database engineer for a local music company. Nevertheless, he continued to pursue game development in his free time for several years. He collaborated remotely with game designers, including some whom he’d met through his connections on The Journeyman Project’s online forums.
Kaisershot’s upbeat personality lent itself well to networking, which would prove a significant asset for his game development career. During a trip to GDC to show off the game project he’d made with his Journeyman Project friends, he met up with a fellow DigiPen graduate who connected him to a new job opportunity as a database engineer at Bigpoint Games, where he worked on licensed free-to-play games. After leaving that position in 2012, Kaisershot went on to work at PlayFirst.
All the while, VR technology was beginning to make a comeback — thanks in part to the success of the Oculus Rift Kickstarter project.
“I bought one of those immediately,” Kaisershot says, eager as ever to dive into the new technology. After he was laid off from PlayFirst, he dedicated his free time to experimenting with virtual reality. “I basically spent the next six months playing around with VR stuff,” he says, during which time he created a VR port of the free game GLtron.
He continued to attend developer conferences like GDC, and even had the chance to work with Presto Studios—makers of the aforementioned Journeyman Project series—to port The Journeyman Project: Pegasus Prime to modern computer systems.
In July of 2014, Kaisershot accepted a position at Canada-based Other Ocean Interactive, where he currently serves as a programmer and, in his own words, “the company’s biggest VR evangelist.” Kaisershot says he and his teammates at Other Ocean primarily do contract work for big game companies like Konami and Capcom, but they spend time on Other Ocean titles as well. One such title Kaisershot is excited to have worked on is Other Ocean’s well-received and larger-than-life VR title Giant Cop, a game that has players patrolling the streets of a miniature city while meting out cartoonish justice.
“I’d been doing VR as a hobby project for a while, and I hoped to get into it professionally,” Kaisershot says. “Finally, I got to work on a VR game at work and I’m getting paid to do VR.”
Kaisershot continues to work on virtual reality projects outside of the office, and he injects himself into the burgeoning VR community by attending conventions such as Silicon Valley VR Expo. With game and technology companies continuing to release new titles and platforms at a rapid pace, the future of VR is as uncertain as it is exciting.
“Ten years ago, the best VR headset you could get was probably something you’d have to go to NASA to play with,” Kaisershot says. Now, headsets like the Vive and Rift are readily available to “mere mortals” like himself. “And these things are only going to get cheaper as the years go on,” he says. “It’s looking more and more promising for VR developers wanting to get into this sort of thing.”
Kaisershot says that DigiPen students interested in pursuing VR in the industry should be fearless and should try to get their prototypes in front of as many people as possible. “Get it on their head and have them walk around and try it,” he says. “It may work out fine for you, but that’s because you’ve been working on it and you know what to expect.” While most users don’t experience the nauseating effects that riddled earlier versions of the technology, Kaisershot says developers need to remember that “for most people, VR is very new.”
“You have to introduce [users] to two things at once,” Kaisershot says. “You have to introduce them to the platform of VR itself, and your experience or game. So it’s an exercise in making things easy enough to grasp immediately, but don’t go too far with it. … The only way you’re going to know what works for a lot of people is to show it to a lot of people.”
Above all else, Kaisershot says, students should be unafraid to experiment with new technology and use their ingenuity to dazzle professors and fellow classmates.
“Show off,” he says. “That’s what you’re here for.”