Trond Nilsen with Executive Assistant Ashley Fendler, Director of Finance & Operations Julie Daman, and Communications Coordinator Amber Cortes

Coffee Talk is a monthly informal chat between Washington Filmworks’ staff and local creative industry professionals and arts organizations to better understand what they do, how our work intersects, and what we can do to support like-minded projects moving forward.

You could say that software engineer, researcher, and game designer Trond Nilsen has an inquisitive mind. “Everything is interesting to me,” he says.

And judging from his professional history, it’s certainly true. Nilsen, a New Zealand native, got his PhD from the University of Washington (UW) in augmented and virtual reality (among a host of other things) at a time when the technologies were still relatively unknown.

Nilsen now divides his time in Seattle between a diverse array of projects and interests: working with VR meetups and hackathons, immersive media, gaming, educational psychology, and experimental design, among others.

Nilsen has a soft spot for games of all sorts, from massive multi-online player role-playing games (RPGs) to simple analog board games.

“I like games because they are interesting, complex systems, and they have a lot of fun social dynamics,” he explains.

Some of his early game and interactive project experiments at the UW and afterwards included an augmented reality tabletop game called Tankwars, and The Voices from the Rwanda Tribunal, a digital archive which seeks to preserve voices from the Rwandan genocide in a video and audio online collection.

Nilsen understands the potential of games to be a positive and negative force in society – from the potential to promote violence, to being a force for cross-cultural understanding and empathy.

“Fundamentally, people will play games. It is built into human nature that we are players of games. So I don’t think it’s useful to say ‘are games a good thing or a bad thing?’, because they’re both.”

But, he adds, “there’s a whole pile of reasons” why people play games. Games, he says, communicate cultural interest. With their unique content and stories, games give people the sort of satisfaction of being in situations and places that you wouldn’t normally be.

Another area of interest for Nilsen is virtual and augmented reality. He sees a lot of potential when it comes to using VR in storytelling – just not in the typical cinematic way that it’s been talked about so far.

“I think there will be people who are filmmakers who have that storytelling instinct, who will migrate to telling stories using VR,” he explains. But cinematic VR, Nilsen says, implies the use of cinematic techniques in traditional cinema, while VR feels like a somewhat different medium – one more suited to using storytelling in a more engaged, interactive way.

Interactive fiction, a genre centered on early text-based adventure games which uses decision-oriented storytelling, is where Nilsen thinks the future of VR lies.

Seattle, home to tech companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and a host of big-budget studios and educational programs, has become a center for game design and VR/AR technologies, according to Nilsen.

While there’s lots of local talent here in terms of the creative and film industry, what’s missing right now is the feeling that this is an important place to be, the way Los Angeles is associated with all things Hollywood.

At the moment, Nilsen says, it’s mostly the tech nerds and industry people who know about Seattle’s reputation and potential as a VR/AR tech hub. But the general public needs to see Seattle as a center for VR and AR as well.

“A lot of it boils down to the narrative that people are able to tell themselves and tell others about who they are and what they’re doing,” Nilsen says. “But I think one of the cool things about the VR space in Seattle is that we’ve got a community that’s moving really hard to lay claim for Seattle being a key place for that.”

“I’m seeing people moving to Seattle specifically to be involved with what’s happening in VR here,” he adds.

Creativity, says Nilsen, grows better in diverse places: more perspective leads to more ways of telling stories. And Seattle, a place that welcomes diversity, is good at having the kinds of conversations that lead to increased perspective.

“There’s a lot of people coming up saying ‘you have made a community, and you are are doing it right. So I still don’t know exactly what it is we’re doing right, but we’re going to keep trying to do that, whatever it is!”

Interested in trying out some of this new technology for yourself? You’re in luck! We’ll have VR and AR demonstrations going on throughout Film Day 2017, our annual lobbying event to keep film productions in Washington. It’s all happening on March 13 in Olympia, and we’d love it if you came. Read more about Film Day here and RSVP to Film Day here