Slap on a pair of goggles and get ready to enter another reality, far from our physical one. Except you won't leave the Twin Cities, or even go outside. Instead, you'll see virtual realities created by six artists.
Friday at REM5, a VR laboratory and event space based in St. Louis Park, Twin Cities artists will race against the clock and their own creativity in Tilt Brush Battle, a 30-minute timed VR-art creation challenge.
A live audience will decide who moves on to Round 2, and who's crowned the winner.
The format — competitive reality TV show meets VR — is the brainchild of REM5 Studios director Brian Skalak, who is also an artist working in VR.
REM5 has had artists-in-residence who took 10 hours to create a VR piece, but Skalak wanted to shorten the time and make it into an event.
"The artists need to be strategic, "asking: What can I get done quick enough and what is going to look good?" he said.
Despite its virtual nature, the event is in-person only and won't be livestreamed, though there will be video content at a later date.
Artists will work in Tilt Brush, which Skalak calls the "O.G. of three-dimensional painting" — a Google product that's a code word for "forever-ago" in tech time.
Artists Sherstin Schwartz (@Lifeofapaintbrush), Linnea Maas (@insidetherobot), Philip Noyed (@philipnoyed), Matt Semke (@catswilleatyou_art), Ross Auger (@rossauger), and Alex Narva have mixed experience with VR. Some have up to five years' experience, while others are newer to the program. All will be compensated, and the winner takes home a hip championship fanny pack with the icon of a gold medal on the front.
Maas, a painter and illustrator, started making three-dimensional art using Tilt Brush in 2016, the year Google introduced it. She felt intrigued by the opportunity to create an entire world rather than just an object. She started out with an audio-reactive brush that glows with the beat of the music she's listening to.
Noyed and Schwartz also have experience in VR, but that's not the point. It's really about playing the game, strategizing to ensure that a fantastic VR artwork can be completed in 30 minutes.
Skalak felt inspired by the competitive TV show "The Shot," which pits photographers against each other, as well as tattoo and body painting competitions.
The in-person audience — REM5's first since the pandemic — will be able to mingle, eat, drink and listen to live music while watching the artists create in their individual VR pods. After the artists are done, audience members can "pop on the headset and step directly into that world" created by the artists, said Skalak.
During the contest, he'll function like a sports commentator: "I'll be like, 'She's bringing in the sparkle brush, what's she gonna do?!?' "
The audience will up the ante.
"It's like 'Fight Club,' " said Skalak. "It's underground, you've got to be in the know, and it seems like it would only be happening in a movie, but it's here in the Twin Cities."
Nic Zabel ’21 and Erica Schultz ’21 just graduated into an economy where technological disruption is not the exception but the rule. A technology-focused marketing course, MKTG 430 – Marketing Management, aims to better prepare students like Zabel and Schultz for this reality via real-world experience consulting with local tech firms.
The course is one example of the University of St. Thomas Business in a Digital World (BDW) initiative in action. The initiative is a holistic approach to equipping students with competencies in emerging technologies essential to all future professionals. For marketing majors like Zabel and Schultz, this learning came in the form of a semester-long capstone project pairing teams with local tech entrepreneurs. Zabel and his team consulted with REM5, a Minneapolis-based virtual reality lab and event space. Shultz and her team focused on ReMember, a first-of-its-kind restaurant loyalty mobile app platform designed by Matty O’Reilly ’19 MBA, a 28-year veteran of the restaurant and hospitality industry.
Marketing Professor Gino Giovannelli teaches the capstone course. Being an engineer by training and having founded his own digital marketing consulting firm, Giovannelli is uniquely qualified to guide students through this hands-on experience. For Giovannelli, there is no magic involved in the emerging tech space. “It’s about recognizing that while the technologies may be new, the key is to not be intimidated by the unknown. And it is important for students to really dig in and understand the business first and the technology second, and to not cut corners in the process of understanding the business,” Giovannelli said. “These students couldn’t cut corners because the products were foreign to them.”
Lisa Abendroth, director of the Business in a Digital World initiative, explained that the students are responsible for knowing the bounds of their technological competency. The impetus is on the university to provide a psychological environment where students feel safe enough to admit what they don’t know. “[As a student] I have to have the humility to say, ‘I don’t know some of this stuff and now I need a safe space to be able to explore it.’ We provide students with that psychological safety,” Abendroth said.
The class had a significant impact on the students and business owners alike. Over the course of the semester, the students developed a comprehensive marketing strategy for their business partners and presented it via Zoom. For some, it was their first experience serving as consultants. “This is the first time I’ve ever collaborated with a company. I felt like I was making a difference and getting real-life working experience as a professional,” Zabel said.
REM5 co-founder Amir Berenjian was impressed with both students and the work they produced. “We had an extremely productive and mutually beneficial engagement with the St. Thomas students,” said Berenjian. “For us, it was a great way to get raw insight and perspective from the demographic that is on the doorstep of driving digital innovation for decades to come. For the students, it was valuable exposure to disruptive technologies like VR and AR and also an exciting look behind the curtain of entrepreneurship and start-ups. Programs like this really help bridge the gap between textbooks and the real world, so kudos to St. Thomas and the students for driving this initiative forward.”
O’Reilly was equally impressed by the students and their presentation for ReMember. He came away from the experience with some key considerations about prioritizing the onboarding of restaurants over end users. “Very thorough and really well done … Awesome job all around,” said O’Reilly.
As important as it was for the students to immerse themselves in their chosen technology, Giovannelli explained that whether the product is tech-based or not, the success or failure of the effort will come down to relationships. “It’s about an ability to work effectively in teams with a client … Once you get past [the technology], it’s just marketing, and it’s just working with people,” said Giovannelli.
Giovannelli is passionate about preparing his students for the reality of their world after graduation. “It’s like the dress rehearsal to the big show. This time it’s for a grade, soon it’s for real,” he said. But he is confident that his students will be successful because he sees in them a drive and a hunger to learn and grow. “This generation is the generation that just figures it out. They don’t need to be told how to do it. They just need to be told to do it, and they go out and get it done.”