What game design taught me about life, dreams, and 3D printing of a human heart – USC Viterbi

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Born and raised in Hawaii, Gavan Wilhite, ’10 BS in Computer Science has spent his career leveraging video game technology to make a positive impact in other industries. He helped reinvent educational games at Disney, founded AltspaceVR, a social virtual reality company later acquired by Microsoft, and is a recipient of Forbes 30 Under 30. He is currently building tools to accelerate human tissue engineering via 3D generative modeling.
Photo courtesy of Gavan Wilhite

At first, Gavan Wilhite was unsure whether he was turning to movies or games.

Right before graduation, Wilhite connected with Disney Imagineering. He was recruited to be part of a secret group inside the Magic Kingdom working to reinvent educational games. They hid the physics lessons in exciting games the kids couldn’t let go of and shared their learning progress with parents.

“When I realized I could use the technology and the art behind games to make an impact, there was no going back,” said Wilhite, 2010 USC Viterbi graduate in computer science. (games).

Then came South by Southwest, 2016, and the unveiling of the Oculus Rift (originally developed at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies). Nate Mitchell, one of the co-founders, was doing demos.

“I show up and I missed his speech,” Wilhite said. “But I grabbed Nate just as he was leaving, and he let me try him on for five seconds.”

Five seconds was all it took for Wilhite to be hooked: “I knew I had to start building something for this.”

A year later, Wilhite and Nate Mitchell would share a spot on the coveted Forbes 30 Under 30 list, featuring the brightest young entrepreneurs, breakout talent and change agents.

“If you build it, they will come”

Wilhite then created AltspaceVR, the first virtual reality social platform. It quickly became home to a wide variety of events ranging from virtual reality and LGBTQI + church meetings, to large business conferences and even magic shows.

“We basically tried to replace Zoom, which is why it’s painful for me to make video calls because I know how much better it can be,” Wilhite said.

Wilhite has seen people from Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Kenya and eventually all over the world connect. He was inspired. Everyone at AltspaceVR knew they were building something great.

“In LGBTQI + encounters, there were people who had never been with anyone else before, sitting in this virtual setting with their avatars sharing their stories for the first time in their life with others” , Wilhite said.

Seeing this impact, he recalled a piece of advice he once received: “Make sure that if the project you’re working on is succeeding beyond your wildest dreams, it’s actually important enough.” to interest you. “

But when investors got impatient with the slow pace of VR development, AltspaceVR encountered a major hurdle. Wilhite and his co-founders had to tell the talented team they had assembled that the game was over.

“If it hurts to lose, it’s worth it”

The day after the lights went out at AltspaceVR, Wilhite was pacing the house trying to invent ways to piece together the rooms to keep the business alive.

That night he was supposed to be at a mini Burning Man festival where large-scale art installations are burnt down at the end, a telling reminder of Nihil perennate – nothing lasts forever. He decided to go there for inspiration.

“Things were falling apart and the people I cared about had to go their separate ways,” he said. “It’s hard to see something you’ve worked so hard to create disintegrate in front of your eyes. “

Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle was also at the same arts festival. He turned to see Wilhite crying as he imagined his dreams flaring up as well. Kahle told him this, “Never work on something that can’t make you feel that way. “

Wilhite discovered that there is an art to reflecting on mistakes without becoming obsessed with them.

“If you don’t fail every now and then then you aren’t doing things ambitious enough,” he said.

For Wilhite, art is also about removing the ambiguity of what you’ve lost when a project fails because often, he said, “we tie our dreams and ambitions to a project in a way. that they don’t have to be. At the time, I thought that everything I wanted to do in VR was related to Altspace.

Despite the setbacks, Wilhite did not give up on AltspaceVR. The company was eventually acquired by Microsoft in 2017 and is now part of the mixed reality division alongside HoloLens within the Microsoft Azure and AI group.

“Write the stories that people build”

After AltspaceVR, Wilhite wanted to push the skills he had learned in VR and games closer to atoms rather than bits, so he began to explore the field of robotics and biology. A friend of hers, Melanie Matheu, had started a 3D printing company called Prellis Biologics with a big idea: to print tissue to eliminate the waiting list for organ transplants.

He joined the start-up as Vice-President Software Engineering.

Prellis uses cutting-edge optical engineering technology to print ultra-fine biomimetic tissue scaffolds for use in organ development, tissue engineering research and therapeutic development. They 3D print scaffolding made from a special gel on which human cells can grow. The cells use part of the gel formulation, but mainly the geometry of the scaffold to understand how to differentiate. In this way, they can use kidney progenitor cells to make kidney or liver cells to make the building blocks of liver tissue.

Wilhite saw that it would take the designers of Prellis “an insane number of hours” for AutoCAD to scaffold the size of a human kidney.

“They had the printers and the biology managed,” Wilhite said. “But they didn’t have the 3D model files to put in the printer. “

He convinced them to let him use the generative design techniques used in the games or film industry to build cellular scaffolds.

“When they want to make a Spider Man video game, you don’t pay an artist to go and do every building in the game,” he said. “You pay a technical artist to design an algorithm that will make a bunch of buildings.”

Wilhite acknowledges that people still don’t really see entertainment technology as practical and this motivates him to prove otherwise. The big dream is that by doing so, the waiting list for an organ transplant will one day be obsolete.

“Life is much more interesting with a quest,” Wilhite said. “If you choose something that will have an impact, it will connect you with more interesting people and projects. “

Wilhite is also inspired by near future science fiction such as those of the Hieroglyph project. The name comes from the idea that certain iconic inventions in science fiction stories serve as modern “hieroglyphics”: Arthur Clarke’s communications satellite, Robert Heinlein’s rocket that lands on its fins, Issac Asimov’s robot , etc. For Wilhite, who grew up watching his dad, a dentist, try to incorporate technology into his dental practice when self-healing teeth and non-chemical disinfectants were pure science fiction, it starts with the stories that we tell each other.

“There are many doomsday scenarios for what could go wrong,” he said. “We have to write stories about how well everything is going. “

Posted on March 23, 2021

Last updated on July 28, 2021

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