January 30, 2018

From USC to Virtual Reality

By Phenia Hovsepyan

Scott Stephan graduated with a Masters in Fine Art from the interactive media and games division at USC Cinema in 2015. From an early age, he was exposed to computers and the raw elements of technology by his father; and although he rebelled against his inevitable path while getting his undergraduate degree at Juniata College, he is now on the forefront of virtual reality innovation.

After attending the small liberal arts college, Stephan found himself working a string of odd jobs: From cooking in restaurant kitchens to developing payment software for a peanut butter company, nothing seemed to stick long term. It was then that Stephan decided to take an English teaching position in South Korea. He had always wanted to travel, and a generous government program made the move financially feasible. Like many things in life, it is only in retrospect that the true consequence of this move can be understood; for it is in South Korea that Stephan made the decision to go to USC!

Deep down Stephan had always had an interest in video games, and while in South Korea he started to teach himself game programing. In a serendipitous moment that illustrates the reach of the global Trojan, Stephan met USC alumni who told him about the interactive media program; for the first time his eyes opened to video game programing being a viable career. “I chose the program at the USC Cinema School because it has more of a creative focus,” Stephan says. “You are expected to know the technical, but it is more than that. You learn what can be done with the technology to tell stories, how the technology affects culture, and how to use the technology responsibly.” The School of Cinematic Arts not only taught Stephan how to engineer video games, but also made him look at his work as an artistic medium rather than just an entertainment platform. As he points out, “it is different when you ask the questions of why am I doing this? And what does it mean to me?”

While at USC Cinema, Stephan took a wide range of classes. Some fine-tuned and expanded his technical knowledge, others exposed him to aspects of traditional movie making, and some seemed irrelevant until he looked back on the bigger picture of his education. As he sees it now, “I developed a large range of skills beyond computer programing. I wanted to explore my creativity, and this was the place for that.”

Making video games is an “insane endeavor,” as Stephan points out, and he was lucky enough to begin studying the virtual reality technology at SCA from the very inception of his academic program. He was at the right place at the right time, and immediately after graduation started working for the virtually reality company WEVR based in Venice, CA. There he started working on the very first Vine headsets ever manufactured, and was part of the creative team for the making of theBlu: Encounter demo. An interactive deep-water experience, theBlu was one of the very first room-scale virtual reality experiences.

For Stephan, the excitement of virtual reality is in the encompassing nature of the storytelling. “In video games, there is an abstraction between the person and the screen, that is not the case for VR. It is a more intense experience for the viewer, and also adds much more responsibility for the creator.”

From his first day at WEVR, Stephan has been part of developing the company’s storytelling prowess. He started working there full-time the day after he graduated from USC, and his creative as well as technical skills were an asset from the very beginning. Stephan had found his unique intersection of curiosity; where he could be artistic and creative while innovating new technology in an abstract medium. Stephan hopes his work can help people connect to their emotions. He saw this happening first-hand when they took theBlu experience to a nursing home: Virtual reality gave senior citizens in wheelchairs the ability to experience deep water diving, complete with a whale encounter! It solicited an amazingly child-like and spectacular response, and was a clear example of the limitless potential of VR.

Today, Stephan is working for FoxNext, a division of Fox Studios created in 2017 to create interactive experiences based on the studio’s portfolio of hit films and television, as well as develop new titles. He is working inside their virtual reality studio, and although their first project has not yet been publicly announced, Stephan has once again found himself at the right place at the right time. “It is interesting to be working in a medium of storytelling that is new, in a studio that is all about storytelling,” he says. With the potential to bring new life to existing franchises, create interactive spaces for fans, bridge the gap between movies and interactive, and even create entire virtual reality theme parks, the possibilities for creativity are endless. Stephan says he is not interested in making technology that replicates real life; he wants to make new realities, and FoxNext is a great opportunity to explore what that means.

Looking back at his path, Stephan is quick to point out that he did not have a master plan. “It comes back to being very lucky, doing the best work I can, being respectful and thankful of the people who supported me, and seeing what is next. USC prepared me for the opportunity when it came along.” Like many students, he graduated with what he calls a “ridiculous amount of student loans,” but says he does not regret any of it. “USC prepares you to make decisions, execute them quickly, and go from there. It prepares you for the world without being afraid of it.”

As he embarks on the next chapter of his exciting career, Stephan has two big pieces of advice for students starting out at USC. The first is that your reputation begins at USC. “I hire people from USC and I have been hired by people from USC. I recall people for the positive as well as the negative, and you really have to think about who you are and what kind of person you want to be.” Furthermore, the most overarching thing he remembers is that USC was a really good place to fail. Being in school was last time he could do what he felt was exciting and interesting without having to worry about paying the rent. His next bit of advice: “Grow your skill set and follow your interest without worrying about risk.” Yes, pursuing a career in entertainment can be risky business. But as Stephan proves, it’s well worth it.