Q&A interview with Jake Donaldson

Jake Donaldson started his career in television at the Discovery Channel. Though many would say this was a dream job, for Jake, something felt like it was missing.  “My career wasn’t fulfilling,” says Jake, “I wasn’t really into TV”.

So how did Jake leap from TV, to YouTube, to winning a Guinness World Record and reaching for the stars with a career in Virtual Reality (VR)?

In this Q&A, we’ll discuss Jake’s story, and how a serendipitous adventure into VR led him to create the successful immersive app, Interstella VR.  

So tell us how you started in VR?

Jake: My journey into VR started while I was still working in television. I decided to start a YouTube channel with a friend. In a way, VR is interrelated to TV, and I had an interest in VR, thus started showing VR content and gameplay online. 

And this led to a Guinness World Record?

Jake: What started with a bit of fun became serious when we opted to register for a Guinness World Record for playing VR games for 36 hours straight!

When we first decided to start the channel, my friend and I took different roles. When trying to grow the channel, my friend became the face by being the one playing, whilst I did all the behind the scenes legwork to verify the record. The entire process took around 6 months and after all that work (or playing) we finally secured the record! Following this mini success, we were also fortunate to lock in an interview with Triple J.

Interestingly enough, the witness who verified our world record had done a course with Academy Xi and mentioned how it was such a great experience. Academy Xi was the only place at the time to be offering VR, so I knew I had to do it there. Plus we also decided to tap into the alumni referral perks and locked in our VR course with a nice discount.  

What was your biggest take out of the course? 

Jake: Before Academy Xi, I had no prior experience in building VR experiences whatsoever. The course was very accessible and enabled me to build a VR solution using VR software that was taught. 

Studying at Xi also fueled my motivation to keep learning throughout and after the course. I built additional skills in my own time and learned specific software such as Unity and the programming language C+. 

I’d have to say my biggest take out from Xi was networking. The course put me in touch with industry experts and connected me to all the right people, kickstarting everything I am doing now. The ongoing feedback from the course instructor was very useful. 

Xi also helped me figure out what I needed to do to kickstart my VR career. I was hosting a YouTube channel, but I didn’t know what else could help me break through the industry. The course allowed me to figure out the tangible steps from having a passion for VR to turning that into a real career. 

What was your project about when you were studying at Xi?

Jake: My team of 3 used Unity, a game engine that can be used for VR development, to design a fireworks experiment. It was so impressive to see the awe on people’s faces when they tried the experience. 

I was then able to showcase fireworks experiment at one of Academy Xi’s later Industry Nights. It helped me realise that for people who are not regular VR users, some of the functionalities were not seamless and intuitive enough. At some point in the experience, they didn’t know what to do, as the cues were not clear enough for someone who doesn’t play VR regularly.

For example, there was an onboarding image to teach the player how to use the controller, where to place their thumb and which button to press to teleport. But that was not intuitive enough for users who are seeing a controller for the first time.

I learned a valuable lesson: it’s my job to make VR user-centric and easy for everyone to understand what action to take.

So what’s Interstella VR and how did you come up with it?

Jake: After quitting my job in TV and taking Academy Xi course, I began a VR startup and decided to take a year off to focus on what I was really passionate about — I didn’t want to live with regrets. 

I started by building a music app. The idea was to host music festivals on alien planets and experience music in these incredible settings, and this is where Interstella VR was born.

Interstella VR took over a year to complete and I had to learn a lot of skills to get it finished. This ranged from creating 3D environments and modelling to creating the animations and programming the ways the player can interact within the scene. 

I also collaborated with other people to fill experience or knowledge gaps:

  • A character artist, Megan Barnes, designed the final images. They are the spotlight of the experience, so they needed to look properly amazing
  • The rigging (building of the characters’ skeletons) was done by Jason Dobra 
  • The environment models, such as the band animation and moves on stage, were done by Lucas Sabatka
  • For the 3D animation such as the lip syncing, I outsourced to Keira McMahon. Expressing emotions was key here. The characters’ faces and their details were critical to the success and credibility of Interstella VR. 

That’s the other thing that I’ve learnt from Xi: how to work with a group, manage a project, and use soft skills to collaborate with various people.

Funnily enough, I came back to another one of Academy Xi’s Industry Nights and again was able to showcase Interstella VR to an audience.

For me, it was a great way to test Interstella VR with users, as it was not released yet at this point. Showing to people who are not familiar with VR was super helpful. It allowed me to make some tweaks before the official release.

What was the biggest hurdle during the creation of Interstella VR and how did you overcome it?

Jake: One of the biggest challenges was creating the social chat functionality of the app, where users can come and enjoy the experience together. I alone spent 2-3 months trying to make it happen technically. 

It was hard to organise the timings and technicalities around when people join in the experience. On a VR chat, people can log in at any time from anywhere in the world. But I wanted to ensure users would come in at the start of the song, to experience it in full. Which means that, as the song is 5 min long, people would have to wait for the song to end, before being able to join in with a new group. In the end, I opted for a solo experience rather than a group experience to overcome this issue. It was the best way to deliver a premium and seamless user experience. 

Do you have any tips for students who want to get started and build a career in AR/VR/MR?

Jake: The journey into VR is a long and rocky one, with some uncertainty along the way. The industry is constantly changing with new releases and changes into the ecosystem occurring every couple of months. My recommendation would be to learn a VR game engine – a VR software like Unity or Unreal. I also believe one of the best ways to learn VR is to take a course, and I’d highly recommend Academy Xi as a place to study this. 

Lastly, build something you’re passionate about, put it out in the world, get feedback, and use what you’ve learned as an experience to build your portfolio and career.

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