VR, Storytelling and Audience Autonomy: NovaKitten Interview

Meet Elaina Woods of NovaKitten Productions, an Austin based Virtual Reality and Film production company. Born out of a group of UT Austin Students, NovaKitten works on commercial and gaming VR projects, and focuses on developing a fun learning-centric storytelling community. This small company focuses on collaborative storytelling, and is pioneering immersive mediums for narrative.

Clever Tech Digest sat down with Elaina to explain how she got exposed to VR and more about this developing industry.

Ant Game: Alpha version of a VR resource management game; a genre not really explored in Virtual Reality yet

Ant Game: Alpha version of a VR resource management game; a genre not really explored in Virtual Reality yet

How were you introduced to VR and what drew you to develop content for it?

I was just at the right place at the right time. I knew about VR and AR theoretically because of my interest in video game development, but that was it. A very respected Radio Television Film professor came into my class one day and talked about their brand new Immersive Media class.

The first few weeks of working in a gaming engine and 3D modeling program were extremely confusing. But I love new technology and I saw an amazing chance to tell stories in a different medium. I have always loved experimental work, before the rules are established and anything goes. This is my opportunity to help define a new industry.

Ant Game: Screenshot from the alpha game, with the move function in the Unreal Engine.

Ant Game: Screenshot from the alpha game, with the move function in the Unreal Engine.

For the readers who have not interacted with virtual reality or 360 capture, can you explain what the difference between a VR and 3D capture experience is?

There is still a lot of debate over the terminology, but the encompassing term for VR, AR, MR, and 360 video are all under the umbrella of Immersive Media.

It’s like the difference between video games and films. The two are often grouped together because of their same platform, and the lines between them are sometimes blurred. However, a 360 cinematographer doesn’t necessarily have the skill set to design a 3D environment.

VR is exactly as it says; it’s virtual. It is generally constructed in a gaming engine and populated with 3D modeled objects.

360 is a new form of video. Several cameras capture 360 degrees of footage and the images are stitched together to create a panorama-like video. This can be viewed in your browser or on your phone, or for more immersion; you can watch it in a headset.

Mirror Game: A screenshot from NovaKitten's Mirrors video

Mirror Game: A screenshot from NovaKitten's Mirrors video

How does you use VR to tell stories?

VR can push the boundaries of what we can do and see in our world. Horror genres do very well, for understandable reasons. VR offers quite a bit of spectacle and wish fulfillment.

Currently VR more often takes the form of experiences rather than traditional stories. We do not want to take away control from the user, because a lot of the fun is the user autonomy in the environment. There are few fully scripted, linear stories. This is really interesting, because there is more focus on telling story through the environments and showing rather than telling.

Uploaded by NovaKitten Productions on 2017-02-23.

Creative Technologists must carry the heavy burden of how new user experiences and consumer technologies will shape future generations. Clever Tech Digest talks to Elaina Woods of NovaKitten about the potential social influence Virtual Reality can have in our lives.

 NovaKitten Productions is an Austin based Virtual Reality and Film production company. Born out of a group of UT Austin Students, NovaKitten works on commercial and gaming VR projects, in addition to an array of other Film Projects. This small start up focuses on developing a fun learning-centric storytelling community and is pioneering immersive mediums and collaborative cross disciplinary projects.

Underwater Graphics: A showcase of some of NovaKitten's earliest 3D modeling work and environmental storytelling.

Underwater Graphics: A showcase of some of NovaKitten's earliest 3D modeling work and environmental storytelling.

By nature, Virtual Reality isolates users from the physical world around them. How do you this technology build community and bring people closer together?

All technology threatens to isolate us in some ways, but Virtual Reality is somewhat of an extreme example. When you are in the headset, you are essentially alone in the room. However, much like online video games and social media, it can connect us with people from all over the world. But it is even more powerful because we feel that we are in the same room.

The co-founder of NovaKitten and I helped edit a live action short film called Lover (https://vimeo.com/150035198) that explores the concept of virtual reality dating in the near future. I honestly believe VR is a greater step towards bringing people together that may be isolated in real life for whatever reason, and that is something very special.

Paint me two pictures:

1.  Your utopian dream for a sensory and physically augmented society.

We have become more than we ever thought we would be. Advancements in sensory augmentation have greatly helped researchers and they are close to solving all of the world’s problems. Divides between groups have disintegrated because technology has brought us all closer together.

More active video games and storytelling keeps us fit and the increased problem solving in stories teaches us to think outside of the box and helps our minds stay younger. Children are taught in a more engaging, hands on way so they are more interested in learning, which in turn helps our progress in the world.

Augmentation has helped with efficiency in our work, so we are less busy and stressed. There are more opportunities for artists and people have migrated from more dangerous or unfulfilling jobs to artistic or scientific fields.

Underwater Graphics: A showcase of some of NovaKitten's earliest 3D modeling work and environmental storytelling.

Underwater Graphics: A showcase of some of NovaKitten's earliest 3D modeling work and environmental storytelling.

2.     Your dystopian nightmare for the mechanically and digitally augmented human race.

The technological divide has become so great, there are now two group of humans: those who are able to afford augmentations that make them stronger and smarter than we could ever be, and those who cannot and will never be able to compete without them. The world is falling apart, but we don’t care because we have our virtual worlds to escape into and forget everything around us.

We are isolated from each other and have a hard time with human interaction, partially because we have no attention span and are addicted to instant gratification. And of course, AI has achieved full consciousness and begins a revolution we cannot fight.


The Virtual Reality industry is rapidly changing every few months, but beginners should not be afraid! There is so much potential and room in this market to grow and innovate! Elaina Woods of NovaKitten tells Clever Tech Digest some basic tools and things beginners should know.

NovaKitten Productions is an Austin based Virtual Reality and Film production company. Born out of a group of UT Austin Students, NovaKitten works on commercial and gaming VR projects, in addition to an array of other Film Projects. This small start up focuses on developing a fun learning-centric storytelling community and is pioneering immersive mediums and collaborative cross disciplinary projects.

Apartment1: A model of an apartment and one of NovaKitten's very first projects in Unreal

Apartment1: A model of an apartment and one of NovaKitten's very first projects in Unreal

What are the major restrictions of developing VR content, and what is your process to trouble shoot and problem solve around these challenges?

VR has quite a few restrictions that we as an industry are still figuring out. If you look on VR stores, you will see notes on various apps that say things like “comfortable” and “intense” because of the very real possibility of disorienting people and making them sick.

User interface design is also complicated, especially for gaze-activated apps. There are no corners of the screen to place buttons, so you need to get creative about how the user moves through the app. Finally, there is the problem with the length of time one can be in the headset. We were always told to sit back from the television and computer screen to help with eyestrain. Well, this is literally a screen several inches from your eyes.

As for troubleshooting, it comes down to testing it yourself. See how long you can stay in the headset and what makes you feel sick. A lot of the work comes down to doing something, testing it, and then redoing it until it finally feels smooth. If you want to speed up the process, learn a little about human perception. Try to trick the mind into believing in something that isn’t real.

Apartment1: A 3D model of an apartment and one of NovaKitten's very first projects in Unreal. Elaina was entertained by the thought of a cat that would follow you when you weren't looking, even through walls.  She didn't expect the viewers to react with so much shock.

Apartment1: A 3D model of an apartment and one of NovaKitten's very first projects in Unreal. Elaina was entertained by the thought of a cat that would follow you when you weren't looking, even through walls.  She didn't expect the viewers to react with so much shock.

How do you think haptic technology, and augmented reality will enhance immersive experiences? How do you envision these technologies integrating into everyday culture?

Haptic technology seems like a small, maybe unnecessary thing. However, so much of our world is felt rather than seen. Vibrating controllers have always been a large part of immersion in games and it helps create a strong illusion. Soon, we will have gloves that will allow greater control in the games, and later additions of resistance will make us feel as if we are truly holding an object.

AR is an exciting advancement for immersive media. Many are scrambling to come up with games and stories for it. I am more interested in the other opportunities. Imagine an art museum with an AR guided tour or a talk to text for the deaf. It will change many industries.

For the everyday person, we can have more helpful how-tos, virtual pets, and better ways of teaching our children.

The beginning of a short horror game set in the UT dorms.

The beginning of a short horror game set in the UT dorms.

Your company produces marketing content, games, and more. What applications and industries do you most enjoy working on? What direction would you like your company to grow?

My passion is in video games and immersive storytelling, so I would like for NovaKitten to continue in that path.  There will always be a place for VR in video games. I want to push the boundaries of what we know will work and experiment with new ways of thinking. Therefore, I am always looking for new and different projects for us to work on.

Besides video games, I love to work with educational apps. A personal project a few of us are working on involves bringing CT scanned animals and bones into a virtual museum so users can pick them up and look at them up close. I love the idea of rebuilding historical sites and introducing more hands-on learning for various fields. If NovaKitten could have a hand in reshaping education technology, I would be very proud of what I helped create.

The beginning of a short horror game set in the UT dorms.

The beginning of a short horror game set in the UT dorms.

For individuals just starting to work with VR, what hardware and software are must haves to produce quality work? Do you have any tricks of the trade you would like to share?

The Unreal Engine is an absolute must. It is free to use, looks gorgeous, and is easier than some of the other gaming engines. As for the actual 3D modeling, I use Maya, but it can be pricy. You also must own the device you are developing for. For phone apps, the Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard are the two major ones. For computer applications, I say stick with the Vive. However, the most important thing is a good computer. I would suggest building your own rather than purchasing one. It’s cheaper and upgradable for the future.

The biggest thing to remember is to SAVE OFTEN. These programs are amazing feats of human engineering, but they are not always the most reliable. And as tempting as it is to make games where the user must turn a lot, it can be annoying to constantly whip your head around or risk getting tangled in a cord. Finally, set out with a plan for a project. It doesn’t have to be very strict. Many of these programs are complex and intimidating when you first open them up and I have found it is a lot easier to learn when you know what you are trying to accomplish rather than getting bogged down with all the possibilities.

Thank you again for all your support! Want to send us a video, get involved, or let us know about projects you need help on? Email us at: novakittenproductions@gmail.com Want to contact us about Play Space?