Each week, staff writer Paul Wood profiles a high-tech difference maker. This week, meet ALEXANDER MEJIA, the creative director at Human Interact, a company he started in Champaign after seeing what virtual reality could do. Before that, he was a video producer and game developer at Champaign-based Volition. He has also won awards in advertising.
How did you become interested in this field?
My first experience was when a friend brought his Oculus Rift in to work and said "Hey, you have to try this." I slipped on this helmet and I was suddenly transported to a roller coaster that felt like I was moving, even though I logically knew I was sitting still in the office. When I took off the VR headset, I was flushed, shaking, full of adrenaline ... and I had never even left my chair! I knew I had to be first to jump onto VR software development. There were no rules yet for what VR experiences should look like, and playing field was wide open for someone to move first.
What was the next evolution?
We started asking ourselves, what would a movie in VR look like? Many others had tried setting up 360-degree video, which is a rig that has a bunch of cameras around it to make films, but it presented a huge problem. The power of VR was the ability for you to interact and be a part of the story. With 360-degree video, you were just stuck in one place, unable to speak or reach out to any of the characters in the story. We started our three-year journey into solving the problem.
How do you have a conversation with artificial characters?
I have been around in the AAA (highest development budgets) game industry for over eight years, and I had close friends, people I really respected, telling me "Don't do this, Alexander. This is an impossible problem to solve." But the team and I pushed ahead anyway, and we started making our own voice-recognition system that would carry this mythical gameplay experience I had in my head. It would be like placing you in the middle of a movie, and people would come up to you and talk to you, and the story would be driven based off how you reacted to the characters.
How did you team up with Microsoft?
Turns out, my friends were right: Solving natural language interaction on a computer is a very hard problem. But I had some friends at Microsoft who were working on a system called Cognitive Services, which was still in the very early alpha stage at the time we were developing "Starship Commander: Arcade." We met up in Redmond, Wash., and they loved what we were doing, and we saw the accuracy their machine-learning-based neuro-linguistic programming was doing. It wasn't long until we were working hand in hand with the developers at Cognitive Services to get it up to speed for working in the Unreal 4 engine and making "Starship Commander" a reality.
Was your work with Microsoft a success?
Microsoft loved it so much, they used our application to talk about how we had achieved human parity with speech to text at a word-error rate of 5.9 percent. This is better than most professional courtroom typists! Now we just have to show the world that you can have real conversations with a computer, and they can be meaningful. The future of cinematic VR is here, and it all has to do with conversation.
What about funding?
Investor interest has been high ever since we made the announcement with Microsoft. I was able to quit my job, and we're getting ready to hire more engineers and game developers for our upcoming projects. We're also planning on keeping an office in Champaign. I've grown up in the Midwest; there's something nice about Champaign that you don't quite get from other cities, and the people are the most down-to-earth you'll ever meet.
Tell us about your team.
"Starship Commander" is an original intellectual property that I created. It was further enhanced by later hires like Sophie Wright, our chief operating officer, and David Kuelz, our lead writer. We took influence from modern political events — as well as my history of being an Army brat moving around and seeing what the military does to families first-hand.
What happens in 'Starship Commander'?
It is set in the future, where Earth is united against an enemy called the Ecknians, an alien race that struck first against humans when they were exploring the galaxy in a ship called the Traversal. During this incredible struggle, corporations looking for an easy way to score publicity points on Earth formed a group called PEACE to rescue survivors on the Traversal. There is only one survivor, a young girl named Sarah Pearson. Earth unites around a common cause, and PEACE becomes the unifying government of Earth because people of sovereign nations are willing to give up control in exchange for security.
But there's more to it than that.
Depending on how deep you're willing to dig into the story, you find out that the initial attack was from a rogue element of the Ecknians, pirates that the Ecknians wish to be rid of. This message is almost completely missed by the people of Earth due to the fact that PEACE controls the major messages and news cycles. The Ecknians would have not have provoked an attack, but people are scared and under the influence of corporate interests, which find war very profitable and good for their image.
What's your best advice for a startup?
If you are looking to start your own business, the one piece of advice I would give is that time is your enemy. No matter your resources, no matter your talent, over time, they will no longer exist. You need to be diligent and able to move quickly, and never be too attached to one idea or purpose. I was lucky to be 80 percent of the way there with the idea and thought for this business, but many of my other entrepreneur friends I have made over the years were not so lucky. The ones I see succeed keep a positive attitude no matter what is thrown at them. If you can find the positive in everything, then you might just have what it takes to do the impossible.
What else interests you now?
I have a big interest in livestreaming classic adventure games and VR games. We do a lot of fun events on Twitch, and we will be celebrating the classic of all first-person shooters, "Doom," the week of Dec. 3. You can jump in our Twitch livestream and even play with the developers of "Starship Commander" and some other special guests we will have on. Best of all, the game has been open-sourced, so it's completely free to play as long as you have a PC and don't mind downloading a few things.
TECH TIDBITS ... from ALEXANDER MEJIA
Whom do you follow on social media? Among those on Twitter, I follow @Reverendkjr, editor-in-chief of Upload VR, the largest VR publication; @wrestlesgaming, a Youtuber who talks about the history of video games and does some serious journalism; and @Grundislavgames, an adventure-game developer contemporary. He has a game called "Lamplight City" that he released this year to critical acclaim.
Any wearable electronics? I wear my gym shoes so I can go running on a regular basis. It's more important to have good health then it is to track your current health.