Episode 366 – VR Entrepreneur – Sally Slade

 

Episode 366 – VR Entrepreneur – Sally Slade

Sally Slade worked for eight years in the VFX Industry, supporting visionary creators at Oscar award-winning studios, before pivoting to the XR Industry in 2016. 

Sally was nominated as “Reality Mixer of the Year” by Microsoft for her HoloLens product, Muralize, and further decorated by the AWE for her contributions to back-to-back Auggie award-winning XR experiences: Meow Wolf’s The Navigator, and the Virtual Production System used by Disney’s The Lion King

Most recently, Sally served as a Senior Technical Designer at Magnopus. She is currently the CTO at VOLTAKU

Her hobbies include illustration and VTubing. She has released a “virtual production for anime” app called Vodcasto.

In this Episode, Allan McKay talks to the CTO of VOLTAKU, AR/VR Developer Sally Slade about her work in VR, AR, MR, XR; launching VOLTAKU, developing her own app, upcoming technology and the importance of programming skills for artists.

 

Sally Slade on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sallyslade/

Sally Slade on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm2861357/

VOLTAKU Website: http://www.voltaku.com

Magnopus Website: https://www.magnopus.com

Sally Slade on Twitter: @SallyDanger.

 

HIGHLIGHTS:

[02:45] Sally Slade Introduces Herself

[07:54] Working at Digital Domain

[15:10] Transitioning into VR

[29:44] Upcoming Technology

[31:17] The Coolest Experiences in VR

[38:16] Launching VOLTAKU

[46:36] Coding Skills for Artists 

[49:00] Importance of Mentoring Young Artists

 

EPISODE 366 – VR ENTREPRENEUR – SALLY SLADE 

Hi, everyone! 

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 366! 

I’m really excited to be speaking to Sally Slade, the CTO of VOLTAKU which is an AR / VR developer. We get into a lot of really cool topics in this Episode.

Let’s dive in! 

 

FIRST THINGS FIRST:

[01:00]  Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!

[54:15] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!

  

INTERVIEW WITH SALLY SLADE

[02:45] Allan: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?

Sally: Yes. Hello, world! I’m Sally Slade. I’m an Engineer / Developer. I started in VFX in 2008 and really loved my time there. But then I got bit by the VR bug in 2016. I had to do a hard pivot. So I traded my VFX chops for game engine chops and became a Developer for Unity. I’ve been doing realtime, sometimes apps, sometimes experiences. 

[03:35] Allan: Awesome! Growing up, did you always imagine yourself in a creative role?

Sally: I never dared to presume I could hold a creative role. I was taught entertainment was a luxury. I didn’t picture it per se, but I hoped I’d be tangential to animation because I fell in love with that medium. 

[04:25] Allan: How did you discover VFX and get involved in it?

Sally: When I started my more directed journey of wanting to be in animation, I had seen The Incredibles. I didn’t realize there were so many careers related to this field! I didn’t realize I could’ve been studying computer science the whole time [because] there are all kinds of departments that need technical support. I wanted to provide the tools that the artists use to make the art. I thought it’d be nice to help those people.

[05:34] Allan: I’m assuming you were going in a more programming round and then leaning toward creative. What was that decision like?

Sally: I didn’t come by it by bravery. =Once I got into VR land, that became an expansive, entire career. I became more art oriented upon landing in that kind of an opportunity. Luckily, I was working at a startup. I always loved art. I love drawing and illustrating but it starts small with graphic designs for websites; then it blossoms into illustration opportunities. I wouldn’t say I allowed myself to try what a full art career would feel like. 

[07:54] Allan: You’ve done so many amazing things. Do you want to talk about your experience with Digital Domain? It’s a bigger studio. What was it like?

Sally: It was incredible! But I did it in reverse. DD was my first job that was related to the career I wanted to pursue. It is a very cool place to have worked! I had a lot of opportunities there. It was really dynamic. There was an opportunity to squeeze in, “I may be a pipeline TD but I can animate.” Then you’d get more shots under deadline. That is how I became a TD: I was hired to do tracking. I was a data integration person. I got an internship doing that the summer before. I learned how to matchmove and I finally made my way back after months of chilling. They picked me up for a 2-week gig on G.I. Joe. A project TD quit midway through the show and that opened up a space for me. They were like, “Can literally ANYONE code here?!” That’s how I got my foot in.

[10:44] Allan: You getting into pipeline, what was the fascination about? Was it about being fascinated with an elegant workflow?

Sally: I’m obsessed with it. It soothes me. It helps me enter a flow state. It’s mundane to some people but I love organizing data. Even in middle school, my friend told me, “Sally, I really like hanging out with you but all you want to do is look at files on your computer.” I think I was a baby pipeline dev waiting to happen.

[12:53] Allan: Sounds like everything aligned. Can you use some examples in terms of pipelines that you’ve done?

Sally: I’m going to take an anarchist approach in terms of what a pipeline dev is. I’m going to say that we’re all pipeline dev’s. We’re all making tools that could be facility level pipeline tools. I get excited whenever an artist is super aggravated, “This is the last straw!” And I love to approach their desk and ask them to describe what they’re doing. If they give me a recipe, I’m sure we can automate it. 

[15:10] Allan: How did you make that transition into VR?

Sally: It was strenuous. For a long time, I was a tedious VR hater. I was really into the challenges presented by VFX. I wanted to make the most beautiful images no matter if they took all night to render. I just resisted so hard! Through reading and watching YouTube, I thought I’d understood what VR was. I was above it all! One fateful evening, I was at Magnopus downtown LA. I was there through Pixomondo, traveling with them. Through that chill social hour, after closing time, Lap Van Luu, the CTO, said, “Sally, you’re here, you need to try VR!” “NO!” He lured me to the idea of a tilt brush. It was mind-blowing! It was a religion-on-contact moment. I thought, “I need to stop everything and do this now!” That hadn’t happened to me since The Incredibles. I started learning Unity on weekends during my VFX job and built a reel. Magnopus took a chance on me and hired me. I became a VR and AR, MR, XR person. I got to work on experimental displays and new headsets before they got released. I got to do all kinds of cool stuff! 

[18:48] Allan: That’s so cool! The first time I put a VR headset on, I couldn’t wait for 5 years from then! I bought everything in sight because I was buying an experience. It was a whole new world. 

Sally: Yeah! Preach!

[19:37] Allan: In regards to VR, where do you see it all heading? 

Sally: I definitely see it being embraced more than now. We saw some of that during the pandemic where people went to a virtual concert or a virtual bar. The thing I’m most excited about is to see the VR culture leaking into real life, like avatars. Right now, you can do all kinds of vivid expressions. I’d love to see how that would affect today’s fashion, today’s self-expression. Stuff is pretty repressed right now. I’d like to see some of that vibrancy from the virtual world.

[21:13] Allan: Did you ever experiment with Second Life?

Sally: Yeah! 

[21:19] Allan: I didn’t know what it was. I was working at Activision in Vancouver BC. Someone from Second Life came by and did a presentation on it. What was your experience like for you?

Sally: My experience was pretty relaxed. I’d like to think I’ve merged with my avatar long ago as a Floridian tomboy. Maybe I’ll go for more exotic looks in VR. I wish I had the balls to have the cat ear headphones. But there is so much stigma!

[23:00] Allan: I saw a guy rocking those on a flight. I felt so old, very judgey. I think of LA, I always liked that people dressed so differently. No one will have time to point fingers and judge. It’s a chance to get away from all that. You mentioned AR, MR, XR. What are your thoughts on where those are going?

Sally: I would agree that MR is the future because you are not vulnerable. In VR, your hands are full. But in MR, you’ll be able to live your normal daily life while experiencing the MR reality. It would be cool to be able to control what visualizations you’re seeing around you and when and how you want them. 

[25:38] Allan: For the layman, could you describe what MR is?

Sally: Sure! MR stands for “mixed reality”. It’s this idea of seeing reality through a lens. The augmentations / holograms embed themselves in the world around you. There are lighting techniques that make it seem that they’re being lit by the environment around you. That’s different from augmented reality which could be something like an overlay of text over your fighter pilot helmet. Some people would consider projections to be augmented reality. It’s in the world.

[26:53] Allan: One of my friends Patty Rengel [www.allanmckay.com/90] was on the Podcast and she worked for some big hologram companies. She collaborated with Dr. Dre in orchestrating bringing the hologram of Tupac to life. Is that something that you’ve looked at at all?

Sally: Of course! It’s really hard to believe. I can’t fathom what kind of technology that would be. We’ve seen funneled glass or a mist. The closest I’ve come was this prototype for Laya 3D’s displays. That allowed you to see into the device. If I was on one side of the phone and you were on the other, we’d see two different sides of the same character. That was so cool! I’m certain people will come up with ways to advance holography. 

[29:44] Allan: Is there any technology that you’ve got your eye on?

Sally: It’s not so much in the XR field, but I’m really excited that so many engineers are pointed at the idea of a metaverse. (I’m ready for the rotten fruit to start flying my way! So many people are not keen on it!) But for the sake of the discussion, it’s about an inter-operable XR experience that we’re all participating in. And I’m excited for the technology that would make that possible on all possible platforms. We’re seeing the tip of the iceberg. We can all use the glTF files, or we can all use standards that describe color space and plane geometry. Project owners are realizing they have to get onboard with these new standards and the concept of a metaverse.

[30:12] Allan: You’re absolutely right! There are negative associations with metaverse. I’ve spoken with NVIDIA a lot. They’re talking about standards for the next 15 years. It’s this massive contribution to the future.

Sally: We need the FFmpeg for VR. 

[31:17] Allan: That’s going back to Second Life being an attempt at a metaverse. What are some of the coolest experiences you’ve seen in VR?

Sally: I’m going to split this into categories:

  • I really loved the attention to detail in Halflife: Alyx.
  • But I can never shut up about VRChat. I just think it’s the future. Just this ability for people to build their own avatars or their own worlds. We’re seeing so many reinventions inside that reality. We have clubs, bars, live theater. I saw a show called Finding Pandora X. It was live actors and it was a bit improvised too. You can go on Tinder dates. 

There is so much culture there! Regardless of the user experience design, I think it’s top of the line in terms of creativity and community. 

[34:36] Allan: For people who aren’t up to date with VR, what are some of the starter things people should get?

Sally: I really love the Quest 2 for its price point. Its portability is great. For beginners, Meta hired great designers. They have one that trains you how to move in 3D space and to use controllers. TheBlu experience. I love that for onboarding experience, and it’s passive. I love Supernatural VR Fitness for workouts. Space Pirate Trainers is fun. I may be dating myself with these references that are more 2019. 

[36:49] Allan: That’s super cool! I’d love to talk about Magnopus. You spent 6 years there. Did you watch VR mature?

Sally: It was great! When I started there, we were just wrapping up Mission ISS which was a simulator of the International Space Station. I got to do a couple of shaders for that. That was so cool! As the industry grew, so did the ambitions of the projects. It was cool to plan out more robust experiences. 

[38:16] Allan: With you transitioning into starting your own company VOLTAKU, can you talk about that? How did you know when it was time to start your own thing?

Sally: It was a cool little journey. It started on a holiday. It must’ve been during the pandemic. One gal came to the meeting as an anime character, animating in real time. I was like, “How are you doing that?!” That’s how I started on this quest of VTubing or Virtual YouTubing. It’s this phenomenon where you animate a cartoon avatar. This technology was pretty new at the time. I needed to do it! I dove into what was happening with that scene. The apps weren’t super accessible. I really wanted my friends to be cartoons with me. I undertook writing my own app. I designed the software so you didn’t have to push too many buttons. You could just do it over an email. I made that. My friends became cartoons with me. That effort attracted VOLTAKU, this tiny startup animation studio. They were making a comic book into a movie and needed cool people. They needed some avatars for Discord or something like that. I said, “Hell, yeah!” At the time, if you need some privacy on the Apple store, you need a corporation. It didn’t speak to me. I started a small company called SALTECH. VOLTAKU acquired my company. Now, I sit with them as a CTO. I wrote an app for them to be in the arsenal of their tools. It’s very ambitious and I’m super excited about it! Vodcaster is the name.

[43:42] Allan: How has it been received so far?

Sally: Pretty good! Business is not my passion. I try not to look at the numbers because it’d stress me out. I don’t know the stats, which is a little embarrassing. I believe it’s unique to that app, but it has this cool AR mode where your character can be overlaid on top of the rear camera feed. So it tracks you with the front character and overlays your character. It’s a cool way to integrate your characters. The Traveling Gnome, I was really taken with this idea. That’s what I was going for with Vodcaster. Bring your character with you and vlog their experience as you. That’s something that the app offers.

[45:34] Allan: That’s really cool! What was it like to do all this when the pandemic started?

Sally: I am a homebody. I love being in my mellow habitat on a computer. All the immense tragedy aside, I loved being home. It never impacted me to never go out again.

[46:36] Allan: What are your thoughts on artists learning to code? It’s so powerful for creatives to know how to do that.

Sally: Of course, I want everyone to code, especially artists. There is this artist / engineer binary that’s so stupid. Engineers aren’t allowed to be good at art and artists aren’t allowed to be good at coding. It’s ludicrous! I’d love to do anything to help artists code. It’s much more realistic as the tools are getting so good. Artists are already forced to learn with Unreal blueprint node oriented stuff. You’re already thinking algorithmically. And engineers are being exposed to art with machine learning prompts. The tools are getting really powerful for expression!

[49:00] Allan: I think it’s really exciting. You volunteer for a non-profit Built By Girls which prepares the next generation of female and non-binary leaders for careers in technology. I’d love to hear you talk about the cause and what inspired you to join.

Sally: I highly recommend you join their wave program. What they do is match you up with a local high school girl in your area. You’d go out for coffee with them and tell them about their career, advise them on how they can aim their course work for their career. You just answer their questions. It was a way to prepare them for careers. The ratios are just abysmal for women in tech. They don’t have doors flung open for them. It’s nice to be the corrective force for that.

[51:00] Allan: In March, for International Women’s Month, we did a Women in Leadership Episode (www.allanmckay.com/344) and Women in VFX (www.allanmckay.com/345). It was great to hear women in the industry talk. How important is it to find mentors in the business?

Sally: I think it’s a wonderful augmentation. It can only help your career pursue your career. There are plenty of other resources, but it’s more important for us in the field to make ourselves available as mentors. It’s a small industry and it can only help and feel good to help someone with their journey. It feels good to mentor. 

[53:11] Allan: I love that! This has been so great to chat to you! Where can people go to find out more about you?

Sally: Our company website is: www.voltaku.com. I’m on Twitter I’m @SallyDanger. I’m on LinkedIn as well. I always welcome conversations with future colleagues.

[53:57] Allan: Thank you again, Sally! It was so great to chat!

Sally: Thank you so much for having me and for sharing your platform!

 

Okay, what did you think? I want to thank Sally for taking the time to chat!

Next week, I’ll be talking to Ben Grossmann, the Co-Founder of Magnopus.

Until then –

Rock on!

 

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