Tag Archives: Chris Madsen

What’s it Like, Attending a Memorial in Virtual Reality?

12 May

My good friend Christian Long passed away a week ago. I had sent Chris a message a few days before, because I realise that I haven’t been able to say goodbye to him. I wanted to send a personal thank you, and goodbye. I knew nobody would read it, and he was long gone. It seemed like saying goodbye digitally seemed fitting in our tech-heavy digital world. However what better way to say goodbye to somebody who was dedicated to virtual reality (VR) than holding a memorial in VR?

I’d like to add some personal experience to this story for context first. I used to be a pretty hardcore PC gamer. I would game long into the night, and would be part of clans and chat groups. It’s led me to attend ‘virtual’ Christmas parties on chat groups organised by members of the group. It was a strange opportunity to chat, play games, win prizes and get to know one another without playing videogames. You could recognise voices, and gamertags in the chat group. However once we started to add photos to the group chat, suddenly here were faces behind the voices rather than just digital avatars. It felt like you were part of a strange online family, that you’d never met before but had spent hours together with on adventures. I could argue that I knew some of these people more than my real friends, because I’d seem them tested under difficult situations and saw how they reacted and behaved in those situations. Virtual reality (VR) offers something similar, but different to these online digital parties.

Steve Bambury, Chris Madsen and Mike Armstrong managed to organise a beautiful memorial inside Engage. In fact, it was the same environment I mentioned previously –  the circular stone burials. However instead of a giant dinosaur floating in the sky, there were red arrows guiding attendees to the memorial space. An ethereal shining light lit the space where we would have the ceremony. I was the first attendee to come in, and it felt strange being physically back to where it all started. Bagpipes were playing in the background, and as I went to the space created for the event I started hearing other attendees come in. I could hear how moved they were, crying and sniffling. “Oh god. This is amazing.” With some technical guidance we all realised that we were on open mics, and everybody could hear us. We swiftly and promptly muted ourselves to cry into our VR headsets in our separate houses/office spaces. Yes we still all had digital avatars. Some of us had our faces scanned and put onto the digital avatars in Engage. However we hadn’t met before, we don’t regularly game together and we were essentially a group of strangers who had all come together for our love and appreciation of Chris.

As people started streaming in, a video slideshow of photos of Chris started playing with the background song of “City of Stars” from the La La Land soundtrack and the speeches started to take place. I realised this was a very special experience. I don’t know if there’s every been a VR memorial before. This might have been the first ever one to take place. As I looked around me, I saw avatars all dressed respectfully in black with the word ‘muted’ under their name. I heard the sound of birds, wind in trees, and tearful goodbyes. In a strange way it all felt real.

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Autumn leaves fall from the sky during the singing of Hallelujah.

As with all things related to VR, a surreal and beautiful moment took place. A young girl in Spain with her father started singing Hallelujah, and as she sang autumn leaves slowly started to drift down from the sky. It was so beautiful and moving. I had never heard somebody sing in a virtual world, let alone a dedicated song at a memorial. It was extremely moving. This suddenly felt more real than any of my Christmas parties I attended on Teamspeak. When I came to give my speech, I physically stood up in real life and in Engage. As I walked towards the podium and looked at all the avatars around me, it suddenly felt even more real. After giving the most tearful speech I’ve ever given,  I sat back down in my chair. Both in VR and in real life. I was shaking and the spongy protection eye cover on the HMD was wet.

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A RAF officer stands tall and salutes as the planes flew over us.

A RAF officer who served with Chris then spoke some beautiful poetry dedicated to Chris through a robotic voice (the bandwidth must have been suffering with the amount of people all in one space). Somebody then put a video of air planes doing a special tribute in the sky for fallen soldiers. They put the video up in the sky which was blue, and tilted it down towards us. It was like the planes were really doing these manoeuvres, and this RAF officer stood up in front of me and saluted. It was so moving to see this tribute.

His wife and children were all on one headset, guided by the help of Chris’s friend Jay. His wife had never been in VR before, and she said she’d been extremely moved by all the tributes and people Chris had managed to touch. Her avatar dropped to the ground and rose up again as Chris’s children giggled and said their thank yous and goodbyes (his children are extremely young). They were extremely joyful and playful, and I hope that the space/experience is recorded to return back to as an option when they’re older and more mature (yes it’s possible to do this in VR). Hearing his family, children and Jay was enough for me to break down in tears if the singing and planes weren’t already enough.

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We were then given the opportunity to put his favourite plane, the Lancaster, into the environment around us till the digital space would crash. What ensued were planes taking up all the space around us. Luckily my graphics card was pretty high spec and I managed to stay in long enough to see hundreds of Lancasters take to the sky. I could hear Chris’s children giggling and laughing as they were slowly surrounded by Lancasters.

I know it’s possible to have planes fly over a memorial and have somebody sing a beautiful song whilst autumn leaves slowly float down from the sky. However it requires a lot of money, influence and organisational skills to pull of something that spectacular.  It’s definitely impossible to have hundreds of Lancasters take over the sky, as well as for all these people from around the world to be at a memorial in VR. There were people in Scotland, America, Dubai, Spain and other various places attending this VR memorial. What I was missing was reading the body language, and facial expressions – but I could hear it when the microphones were un-muted. I could see people taking their headsets on and off during the memorial (presumably to cry), and it was such a moving, surreal and incredibly beautiful tribute to Chris. For me it was incredibly real, and I don’t think it could have been done any better.

If you’d like to help Chris and his family please help support their gofund me page.

Who was Christian Long and What did he do?

12 May

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How I met Christian Long

Last week a really good friend of mine passed away. His name is Christian Long. I wanted to write and share my experiences of VR with him, because he was an incredibly special individual.

I met him last year in the most unexpected ways. He was a teacher at Langley College in Slough last year and had set up something special. He invited me as a journalist to attend a virtual reality (VR) classroom. The event was to showcase the potential of education in VR. This was my first encounter of an experience where around fifteen students, all equipped with HTC Vive headsets were put into the same world to receive a class in history, space and physics.

We were guided by Steve Bambury, a teacher who was in Dubai at the time. He gave us a basic tutorial lesson of the controls in the VR platform Engage whilst we were all in a classroom in Slough, England. We were then transported to a location where the first circular burial sites were built. Our objective was to find the centre of the sites. A lot of students got lost, and for many it was their first time in VR. When they got lost, I remember Steve putting up a giant dinosaur in the sky to indicate where we were in the digital world. I could not see the other student’s faces, (I was the only non-student part of this classroom) but I could tell they were excited by how they were testing and experimenting with everything.

Suddenly we were transported to a spaceship and told to go to through some doors, where we suddenly found ourselves on Mars. I was in awe. I was having a shared VR experience with people I had never met before, but we all stood there for a moment in awe as we took in the stars surrounding us in the sky. It was special because it was a shared experience. We were then sent on a wild goose chase around Mars to find Mars Rovers Steve had hidden across the planet. A flurry of astronauts were seen teleporting across the planet, getting stuck in crevasses, trying to jump in the sky (which wasn’t possible). It was like a children’s playground in space with absolutely no worry about loosing children along the way, or fear of them injuring themselves or doing something silly. A care free Magic Schoolbus experience.

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If that wasn’t surreal enough, we were then transported to a lecture hall where we were given a lesson about Quantum physics by Loren Carpenter. The co-founder and chief scientist of Pixar Animation Studio. I can’t even begin to describe how surreal this experience was as he told us how he created the algorithm that allows for 3D creating of 3D computer graphics. It was like meeting a God, but in VR. He explained who he was, and what he was doing now with quantum physics. Whilst he was giving his lecture, with the conventional slides in the background I spotted a student who kept staring at his hands. He was opening and then clenching his hands with his controllers and kept staring at them like he had never seen hands before.

I realised that unlike these students, I had been in VR before. They might not have understood the gravitas of the situation because it was so much to take in. Whilst Loren spoke about using VR to test the double-slit experiment in Quantum mechanics I used the opportunity to ask a ridiculous amount of questions about energy, particles and vibrations. I’ve been in a countless VR experiences as a VR journalist. To the point where it gets hard to impress me whenever I get put into a VR experience. This experience was one of those top three experiences that really changed my understanding of how shared VR experiences could forever change the way we learn.

Chris and the VR Diversity Initiative

Speaking to Chris afterwards, he was filled with enthusiasm and excitement. He wanted me to interview all of his students, specifically the young girls. His interest in diversity and education immediately led me to ask him for help with running the VR Diversity Initiative (VRDI) I was running at the time. Without blinking he insisted on being involved when he heard what I was setting out to do. We became good friends, and would call regularly. We would enthuse about VR hardware, software about the latest trends would offer introductions to people we thought could help the other. I realised back at Langley College that Chris was somebody quite unique and special when he told me he had built a whole wing for the school. I was flabbergasted by his humble kindness and enthusiasm for getting things done. He would help running the VRDI, wake up at 3am to come and help set up the VR headsets for the workshops (we had a lot of headsets to have people build and create VR). Like a whirlwind he would come, prepare, set up and fix all of the problems. Giving me the time and breathing space to deal with everything else. Always in the background, and never taking any credit for his time, effort and hard work. He was there with a smile, boy-ish twinkle in his eye and enthusiasm to help in any way he possibly could. To be honest, i’m not quite sure if I’d be able to set up another event without Chris!

We would call regularly, and were going to do some projects together somehow. Chris was somebody who gave himself into everything he did. He did it with enthusiasm and a smile. What was so incredible about Chris was that he would always figure out a way to fix a problem, no matter what. He asked for nothing in return, and there are very few people in the world who are so altruistic and simply nice.

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Chris Long on the computer as Jay tests out a headset for a demo.

I am still not over his death. It was sudden, shocking and has effected me greatly. I immediately thought we should do something for him in VR. Luckily Steve and his friends were two steps ahead of me. When I mentioned to friends and family that I would be in a VR memorial, I was met with confusion. Rightfully so. Is a concept so abstract, but a glimpse of the future.