3 Questions with a Tech Lady: Timoni West of Unity VR


Interview by Allison Grinberg-Funes

Tell us about what you’re currently doing.

I work at Unity. It’s a fascinating company. If you make games, I don’t need to explain Unity; you know it. For the 99% of folks who don’t, here’s the short pitch. Unity is a 3D game engine — a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) for games — founded with one mission: democratizing game design. It uses C#, has a friendly UI, and most importantly, it lets you code and design in one environment, then port your app or game to over 30 platforms. So if you’re an indie developer, you can make a game for iOS, Android, and Playstation simultaneously, all in the same engine. It’s dead useful.

It was founded twelve years ago in Denmark, and has been profitable ever since, but just this year, 2016, it got billion-dollar unicorn valuation. That’s unusual for Silicon Valley. But it makes sense: over the last 12 years, many other industries started working heavily in 3D: cinema, heavy industry, automotive, creative coding, and architecture, to name a few. If you’re an engineer, architect or VFX guru, Unity can import everything you build, then let you show it anywhere: in films, projected on buildings, viewed on an iPad, in augmented, mixed or virtual reality.

Let’s focus on those last three examples, augmented, mixed and virtual reality, or xR for short. In 2016, for the first time in history, we’ve got two commercially viable, high-end VR devices on the market: the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift.

Google, Microsoft, and every tech and hardware manufacturer on the planet are also actively figuring out what they’ll do in the xR space. From academia to NASA to Snapchat to Warner Brothers, this is a big new tech conversation happening right now. Unity is the base on which most of these new apps, movies, and experiences are made.

That’s the backstory. Now to bring it in: I work in Unity’s Labs, the moonshot department. I lead product and design on the team focused on xR. We’re further Unity’s core mission: creating tools for people to make worlds in xR.

If you remember the early days of the iPhone, you might just remember how there was no App Store. In fact — stretch your memory wayyyyyy back — really, there was very little to do, because the platform was so new. We anticipate this for xR, and so we’re building out tools for both developers and regular consumers to easily make 3D worlds, movies, and games.

This is easy in some respects: building a 3D world in xR can be as simple as playing with Lego. But it gets complicated quickly, because not all of the real-world rules need apply. For example, in the real world you have gravity. But when you’re designing a game, gravity isn’t necessarily useful. In Labs, we are figuring out the new rules of computer interaction, where you can easily assign gravity to specific objects. Where does that option live? In a menu on your controller? In space? If you grab a virtual backpack? As a gesture or audio command? There are no solid answers yet. These are the kinds of questions we’re solving.

What do you do to stay so up-to-date in a world where it’s so difficult to stay in-the-know of new technologies?

That’s a tough one, because time is of the essence, and we all have busy jobs. I get that. I used to do more subtle research and quietly sign up for alphas, but nowadays I tend to just reach out to folks. Working on a cool new xR experience? I’ll follow you on Twitter. If you’re not in Twitter, I’ll email you. If people are using Unity to build new xR experiences, they’re very often self-funded and really enthusiastic. If nothing else, I can give my support and open up channels for communication.

Or I’ll just send an email intro anyway. I’ve learned there’s very little to be lost reaching out to people who are interested in the same things you are.

I also go to a lot of events. If you’re new to any tech field, I highly recommend going to conferences, workshops, or meetups. Shake hands, say what you’re working on, and follow up with emails. Even the smallest of intros can lead to really great partnerships later.

Throwback time! What’s one gadget from the past you wish would “come back”?

My first gut instinct was ‘mini-game console’ but let me step back from that to a larger gripe: digital ‘touch’ inputs are bullshit. I typed faster on my Motorola v700 numeric pad more quickly and accurately than I ever typed on an iPhone. I vastly prefer the buttons of a 3DS XL to touch screens, and the Kindle 3 — the one with the physical keyboard — will always be the best Kindle to me.

While I am a firm believer in swipe, pinch-to-zoom, and drag-to-scroll, the fact is we live in a bizarro era in which alphanumeric inputs are getting worse. Sure, maybe we’ll all switch over to shortcut autocomplete emoji — thanks Google keyboard! — but in the meantime, I’ve typed all this on a physical keyboard, because moving my fingers millimeters on physical buttons with tactile feedback just works really well. Alphabets involve many characters, hands are really good at muscle memory, and tactile feedback can’t be beat. I think we can all agree writing emails on a touchscreen is just painful. This is an open problem to be solved, and speech recognition isn’t there yet.