Meet Matthew Mazza, Chief Technology Officer at UP360 Inc. and a part-time professor at Humber College, where he teaches the Intro to UnrealEngine course. Not only is he a professor at Humber College, he is also a graduate of their Game Programming course.
Or is he?
Maybe you’re actually in a virtual reality world and Mazza is a character with whom you’re interacting.
Virtual reality (VR) is a fascinating process where, simply put, computer technology is used to create a simulated environment.
And that’s part of what Mazza does. He is a real person who runs his own start-up company which currently employs a team of close to 20 including 3D artists and game developers who are using virtual reality to create unique experiences for their clients.
Mazza says, “I’ve seen first-hand the hunger for VR that exists in practically every industry. Private companies love to be innovative and to experiment with new technology so VR is something they’re all scrambling to get their hands on. Most of the time our clients approach us, they don’t actually know what they want to use it for, they just want something in VR.”
The world of Virtual Reality is a perfect fit for Mazza, who was inspired by the works of such authors as J.R.R. Tolkien and Jules Verne as he was growing up and always knew that storytelling was in his future.
“Before attending Humber, I was at the University of Toronto studying film and classical literature,” shares Mazza, “(but) I ended up deciding that the medium which would best suit me was going to be games. It was then that I decided to come to Humber for game programming. I knew I needed to break into the industry somehow and you can’t just go up to a big company and tell them that you’ve got a great idea for a game. You need to show that you can bring something to the table and that you understand the process in general, so I figured Humber’s program was the perfect thing to do that for me. It wasn’t until later that virtual reality became part of my career path.”
VR is a relatively new form of technology which may be difficult for some people to understand. Mazza explains, “Essentially virtual reality itself is the rendering of virtual worlds (similar to the virtual world of a video game) in a head-mounted display that the user wears. The headset itself has two lenses (one per eye) that allow you to see this world in a completely immersive environment. This headset is generally combined with a form of input-tracking (controllers) which enables the user to interact with and move around in this virtual world.” Mazza continues, “The developers and artists work in what’s called a game engine which is essentially a suite of tools that help us to build an immersive experience. Some of these tools include methods of adding in sounds or animations, creating quests and objectives for the users, building the environments themselves, etc. In its simplest form, 3D artists will build various models and assets for the virtual environments, while the programmers work on creating foundational systems the player can use to interact with the world. It’s a bit like a car, the artists create the exterior and make it look beautiful, while the programmers put in the engine so that it can actually move, and the player is the one driving the whole thing.”
While gaming is of course the most obvious use for virtual reality technology, Mazza believes the future of VR lies in other sectors.
“I would strongly argue that gaming is actually the least viable use for virtual reality, and it’s the area where there’s the least potential for growth. VR is expensive and while prices are coming down slowly, most developers are still a bit too nervous to dip their toes into the sector,” Mazza says. “To get into specifics, the medical sector is heavily investing in it right now for research purposes. In VR they can expose patients to all sorts of stimuli in a safe environment for neurological assessment. It’s also being used at multiple institutions such as University of Southern California and University of Alberta to help rehabilitate individuals with PTSD and other forms of brain trauma. The real estate and architecture industries use headsets to provide tours of unfinished buildings, condos, etc. Educational institutes are racing to create virtual classroom environments and more interactive lessons. There are countless galleries and museums using VR to create immersive art exhibits. And most recently, I attended a presentation where they used VR to let patients visit their schools, families, and friends right from their hospital bedside. The use cases are endless. It’s all up to our imagination to determine what we want to use this wonderful technology for.”
Mazza believes that the employment outlook in the VR sector is going to keep getting better and better.
“I’ve found that there are so many clients out there, so many industries that want to get their hands on VR, that it’s impossible for any one company to take it all. There are career opportunities aplenty in the sector however very few of them relate to games,” he says. “The sheer amount of resumes that one will receive when posting a junior programmer position is staggering, and I say this from experience. This is why it’s key to make connections all the time and universities and colleges can help with that.”
Virtual reality developers have the potential to earn $100,000+ per year, while those entering the workforce as a Junior Programmer will usually start at around $50,000 per year.
However, Mazza has a word of advice for future game developers.
“I think it’s important to outline one of the biggest problems with this industry. It’s quite common for big companies to force employees to work 60, 80, even 100 hour work weeks in the months leading up to the release of a game or a milestone build (with no overtime pay). Over the last two or three years people have finally started speaking up about it, reporting the brutal conditions, and occasional mental breakdowns from their fellow employees during these times. They prey on passion because they know that they can, they know that you want to work on this game because they’ve got a prestigious name and what you’re doing is pretty cool. As such they know that you’ll be willing to work that 80 hour work week because if you don’t, they’ll find someone who will. Not all companies are like this, and it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to start my own. Because crunch time shouldn’t be a thing and the people working in this industry deserve to be treated better than they are,” Mazza explains.
But for Mazza, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. “It’s a new industry and no matter where you are in it you’ll constantly be on the leading edge,” he says. “That comes with its fair share of both pros and cons, but it will always feel as though you are discovering something brand new and that’s not a feeling that you can get from just anywhere. We’re always learning and rarely does a day go by that we aren’t hit with some problem nobody’s experienced before. It sounds scary and that’s because it is, but it’s also exciting and if that seems like something you can get behind then this would be the place for you.”
By Jackie Fritz