Storytelling, powered by software

“Storytelling unites us, and providing better tools to tell stories can only help more stories be told”

From a young age, Richard Roberts was naturally interested in understanding how video games worked. This youthful curiosity has since led Richard to pursue a career as an entrepreneur and researcher for Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s Computational Media Innovation Centre (CMIC).

Richard began his academic journey with a degree in digital media design at the University, during which he also completed a summer internship with Weta Digital. During this time he gained an understanding of industry pipelines and the surprising complexity and cost of 3D graphics. Eager to further his educational career, Richard returned to University from 2013 to 2018 to undertake a PhD in Computer Graphics. In 2016, he spent a year living and working with OLM Digital in Tokyo, Japan.

Speaking about living in Japan, Richard says “Living in Japan was fantastic—I got to experience a new culture, and a lifestyle very different to what I was used to. It was very humbling. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and it helped me gain confidence as a researcher and to reflect on what I truly value about life in general.”

On returning, Richard became a postdoctoral research Fellow at Te Herenga Waka. He started on a project developing high performance interpreters for programming languages, shifted into helping research and software development for Virtual Reality experiences, and then transitioned into his current role at the Computational Media Innovation Centre.

At the Centre, Richard works on the Future Studio Solution (FSS) project under Professor Ken Anjyo’ supervision. The project has two core research topics—Advanced Processing that generates algorithms to help speed up 3D pipelines; and Avatarisation, which aims to advance, enhance, or simplify the creation, animation and rendering of 3D characters. The team is partnering with market-leading companies and, ultimately, seeks to help artists at film and game studios streamline the later stages of the animation process.

Richard’s attitude to work is to simply dive-in-at-the-deep-end. “I completed a PhD in Computer Graphics without an engineering or computer science background, this meant I was under-skilled compared to peers, but also that I had the most to learn.”

More recently, Richard was accepted in the latest intake of KiwiNet’s Emerging Innovator Programme after being nominated by Wellington UniVentures. This opportunity has allowed Richard to learn key entrepreneurial skills and dedicate time toward commercialisation of work in the FSS project. Additionally, this opportunity is helping to expand the network of people interested in and contributing to the project. Community collaboration is also paramount, and Richard ensures regular conversations with potential end users from local companies.

The commercial application of FSS will help reduce pain-points in the industry pipelines. For larger studios it can help reduce cost and artist burnout, while for smaller enterprises it can democratise advanced pipelines and help establish a competitive edge to local businesses. On a national scale, licensing the software project offshore will likely see economic benefits for New Zealand.

As the FSS project was underway during the COVID-19 lockdown last year, the journey has not always been smooth sailing. Richard recounts how the FSS team members were all split—some returned to home countries, while others were unable to return back to NZ. The time zone difference also made it difficult to stay in constant contact, “…it was either too late or too early for someone”. Like others, the project team turned to Zoom calls and practiced exercising great patience, as communicating proved difficult at best. “I’m not sure we cope exactly, but we try to form a close bond and operate like a small family unit. This keeps us happy during tough times.”

Robert’s personal attitude is centred around mental strength and fortitude, which has a massive part to play in where he is today. “I believe determination has more value than natural intellect, and I pride myself on having an undying determination. The flip side is that I rarely know when to give up on something. I’m motivated by seeing my work help someone in the world, which is often why I’m unsatisfied by the lengthy timeline before implementation (15 years between publication and commercial implementation), and therefore sought out the KiwiNet opportunity, which can help deliver to the industry faster,” he says.

Time management is a priority for Richard, whose time is split between fatherhood (two daughters), quality time with his partner, and being a good employee. In the precious down time he gets, Roberts’ hobbies include video games, typically those letting him play with a variety of friends he’s gained through his life. Party games like Werewolf and table-top games, such as DnD, also frequent in the mix, given they provide a rare chance to enjoy casual acting and improvisation. At the core, Roberts truly believes in the benefits of the FSS project, and its potential to make an impact. “The world gets a little better if we all make an effort to improve software.”