A Brief History of the genesis of Vactor Studio by way of there.com and Forterra Studios

In 2004, There, Inc, the company that had developed the social networking virtual world there.com, split into two companies: Makena Technologies, which would continue to develop the there.com service and develop new, consumer-oriented titles, and Forterra Systems, whose mission was to adapt the virtual world platform for industrial uses, and deploy it in an array of business and government markets.

From the beginning, Forterra Systems frequently needed to perform demonstrations of its technology to potential customers. As most of today’s virtual world users know, a virtual world must be experienced in vivo in order to be understood. Merely watching a video of a virtual world is like reading a description of great food: all of the flavor, and most of the engagement that would entice you to return for more, is missing.

Unlike there.com, Forterra’s Online Virtual Environment (OLIVE) was not populated by consumers because it was, by design, private and secure. Moreover, the demonstrations given by Forterra were sometimes proprietary in nature, acting out scenarios that convey critical industrial knowledge from one group of people to another. Forterra Systems needed actors who not only would show up to rehearsals and performances on time, but who were also under non-disclosure agreements and could be trusted to honor them.

The task of populating these sequestered demos fell to Forterra Studios, headed by Laura Kusumoto, because they were principally responsible for developing the applications of the platform. Unable to directly tap into the There community of virtual world inhabitants who could readily perform in public demos, Laura called to duty her own team and company.

At first, this was fun, and glamorous. After all, who doesn’t want to be an actor, with your avatar in the spotlight for all to admire? And, who are better qualified to puppeteer virtual world avatars than the artists and engineers who created them?

The players who first populated Forterra’s early virtual theatre were the company’s employees, mostly the producers and artists, with occasional help from engineers, managers, and all-hands for massively multiplayer demos. While the employees were brilliant, attractive and funny in real life, they were not always the best in-world actors. As in-house developers, they often became fixated with remedying bugs and cooking up new ideas, whereas bringing the script alive and wooing the customer should have been of paramount importance. Volunteering their spare time for the “hurry up so you can wait” realities of demonstration performances often rubbed the industrious workers the wrong way, inducing boredom, and even crankiness. Role-playing clearly was not the best use of a company’s employees, whose mission-critical development skills had to be set aside to be “all quiet on the set” or to memorize and rehearse their lines.

These pioneering Forterra employees discovered that live performances in a virtual world were not unlike live performances in a community theatre. A certain acting flair was nice to have, but a high tolerance and ability to go on with the show amidst imperfect lighting and sets, and silly jokes and bad singing, was crucial. In virtual worlds, the additional and most daunting variable that each actor had to confront was the medium itself. During this era, the virtual worlds technology was under development and constantly changing. Its components were flaky: it was not uncommon for an internet connection to drop or audio speakers to suddenly fail in the minutes leading up to a high-profile event. Performance schedules were unpredictable because sales people and managers constantly shuffled demonstration priorities and formats in response to customers’ questions and reactions – and customers did not always realize that human beings were animating the avatars that they were watching. As the company’s sales penetrated further into corporate and government networks, a new array of performance obstacles and weak points were discovered.

The demand for virtual demos and training services increased at Forterra, doubling each year, and Studios needed to upgrade its Role-Player Troupe. To meet this need starting in 2005, Laura wrote the job description for a person who would take on the challenge of sourcing and training qualified virtual actors, and providing demonstrations and training at a lower cost compared with outsourcing producers or using company labor.

Into that role stepped Steve Hansted, the world’s first professional Virtual Stage Manager for virtual worlds. Steve fit the profile perfectly, given his 10 years’ experience in the 3D graphics and simulation business, and his more recent pursuit of a graduate degree in Theatre. Over the next four years, with Laura as manager and advisor, Steve built the relationships and formulated the processes for recruiting and retaining outsourced role-players who would perform in a professional capacity, and provide a reliable service to the company at a low cost. The Troupe not only performed in demos, but their services expanded with time to include script writing, machinima and video production, and role-playing in virtual worlds to provide training for customers.

Steve worked closely with Kura Shepard, a Broadway actress in her spare time and Forterra’s Executive Assistant by day, to establish the theatrical standards and procedures for the subcontracted Troupe. One of the earliest recruits was Frank Whiting, the founder of the University of There, who in turn inspired several There members to try out for and join the Forterra Role-Player Troupe.

The close working relationships formed over four years of operating the Forterra Virtual Stage continued when Vactor Studios was formed in 2010, with Steve, Kura, and Frank as founders and managers, and Laura in the role of Advisor to the company.

© 2011 Vactor Studio LLC