How would you react if someone told you they were an extended reality (XR) worldbuilder? Would you give them a blank stare? Scratch your head? Or rub your chin? Because that’s what we did when we were first introduced to Leah Kallen.
Kallen, currently on assignment at Meta, is an XR world builder at Gravity Media and a true pioneer of extended reality. For years, she’s been visualizing experiences for businesses, editing designs, and, most notably, creating for the stage.
Now, if you’re anything like us, you’re back to square one. Left with a blank stare, wondering, ‘What is the stage?’
Kallen explains by asking how familiar we are with greenscreens. She reveals that instead of having a large green backdrop behind an actor, an extended reality stage is a large LED volume that displays a virtual environment behind an actor in real time. This allows for the camera to capture the actor and the virtual environment at the same time instead of having to composite the background in post-production. Finally, the role of an extended reality worldbuilder is starting to come into focus.
In between her busy roles at Gravity Media and teaching an XR class at San Francisco State, Kallen made the time to talk with us and share more about the world of extended reality worldbuilding in business.
Meta for Work Explores: Can you tell us how you ended up as an XR designer?
Leah Kallen: In grad school, I had the opportunity to take an XR Studio class. At the time, I had no idea what XR was, but I very quickly fell in love.
That summer, one of my professors asked me to intern for their startup, which had just gotten an XR stage. I was like, ‘Great. That sounds cool. How does it work?’ And they responded, ‘We don't actually know; you're going to figure it out.’
That’s how I landed my first job. And then when I saw the opportunity to work with a larger team on a more integrated stage at Gravity Media, I took it. And now I'm here.
What does a day in the life of a worldbuilder look like?
LK: One misconception about the title of worldbuilder is that I'm building the worlds from scratch. Oftentimes, I'm being handed worlds from agencies and my job is to integrate them and make them work for the stage.
I take more of the troubleshooting workload. So, I spend a lot of time working on lighting and getting the signals to communicate properly with the wall. But I primarily do the integration onto the stage.
Once it's in there and it's up on the wall, I'm looking for things that might cause issues during a shoot. Having that attention to detail is really important as I go through and make any updates, I make sure that it still fits brand guidelines and aligns with the world's creative intent.
So that last pass of the world to make sure it looks the best it can on stage, that’s my role.
MFWE: Tell us about the kind of projects that you do. Do you have a favorite?
LK: There’s a VR game that just recently got released that was super fun. We got to work with one of the lead game producers as she did a developer deep dive on the stage.
This was really valuable because I got to collaborate with some of the VFX supervisors and figure out how we could integrate these worlds into our stage. I'm a VR enthusiast, so to be able to see the VR game on the stage was really rewarding.
The developer deep dive was pretty special because it was working with actual VR game environments designed by a whole team and organization. And to see that level of that quality of work was really fun to work with.
MFWE: What are the business use cases for 3D worlds that you work on most often?
LK: We use 3D worlds in video production, but these same 3D worlds could be used for interactive media like games. You could also extract it and animate with it and have your own little animation sequence.
We also use it as a tool to pre-visualize experiences or architecture. I teach a VR-focused class at San Francisco State and we use it as a way to simulate VR design experiences so that they can prototype interaction designs and experience designs inside of VR without having to actually go and build an actual prototype. They can do it through a VR headset and they can experiment with things they can't currently do in the real world.
MFWE: What are the key business advantages to building these worlds in extended reality rather than 2D?
LK: How easy it is to change things in the virtual world. When you render a video in traditional methods, it can take hours. With XR, you can change things on the spot. So, a director can be like, ‘I don't like that vase. Can we move it over here and put something else there.’ And you can do it right in front of them and watch it move across the screen. It allows for rapid ideation.
It's a lot quicker to prototype and test things out on the spot. But in contrast, it takes everything that used to be done in post-production and puts it in the beginning. So, you have to make creative commitments earlier, but you also get flexibility on set to change things.
MFWE: You’ve been a pioneer in extended reality, figuring out this technology from the very beginning. How has that experience been for you?
LK: I love it. I'm the type of person who constantly wants to be learning new things. And when you're in an emerging media, you just have to be comfortable being uncomfortable and be in a constant state of learning.
It's perfect for me because as soon as I feel like, ‘Oh, I kinda got that,’ now there's the next thing to go learn. So I never feel like I’m just doing the same thing over and over again. There's always something new to learn, and always ways to grow.
MFWE: What is it like at San Francisco State teaching a course that is constantly evolving?
LK: Definitely busy. When I was getting ready for San Francisco State to start this semester, I was like, ‘Let me see how much of the toolkit I made for them last semester is broken in the new version of Unity.’ Well, all of it was broken.
It allowed me to learn new skills and new tools that weren't around last year. So teaching forces me to stay as current as possible. I'm the type of teacher who wants to make sure I'm giving them the closest to the most current technology possible.
As Leah demonstrates, using extended reality to design virtual worlds and immersive experiences are just some of the ways this innovative technology is opening new horizons for business. Check out how creativity and design solutions are helping to revolutionize the way we work and maximize potential.