Sokhean (so-kyan) Jonathan “Jonny” Ouk is witty, affable, displays a warm demeanor, is upbeat and comes across as a people-person. Ouk is the Manager of the Immersive Media Lab in the College of Arts, Media and Design. Calypso visited with Ouk to learn about his work and the Lab which houses CAMD’s Extended Reality (XR) equipment. In conversation, he alternates between humor and, taking his time to provide deep and thoughtful answers.
Born and raised in Maine, Ouk has lived in Boston since 2018, when he moved here to attend graduate school. Ouk was a head sushi chef for a Japanese restaurant in his hometown of Portland. He worked at the restaurant for 11 years and having trained many in the work, he says he also had older colleagues and mentors who looked out for him. The restaurant was like a second family. That experience influences his outlook; he likes to give back to others. Ouk says “This is how we live on forever, through community service.” He enjoys “imparting knowledge.”
Ouk earned his undergraduate degree in media studies and communications technology and production. He earned his master’s degree in fine arts having studied cinema, media production, and cinematography. Since he became the manager he has increase capacity for what the Lab is capable of managing within Northeastern.
Immersive Media Lab
When a visitor enters the Immersive Media Lab, located on the third floor of Holmes Hall, they will first walk through a small hallway. Straight ahead is also a place where lab staff sit, to be available to visitors needing assistance. Finally, there’s a larger room containing the VR equipment. Virtual Reality (VR) falls under Extended Reality (XR) which encompasses immersive technologies, including Mixed Reality (MR), and Augmented Reality (AR).
The main aspects of VR, Ouk says, are gaming, productivity, and storytelling. He provides a recommendation that illustrates the impact of and potential for a variety of storytelling in the immersive experience. It is Randall Okita’s The Book of Distance; a 25-minute documentary directed by Okita, and developed by the National Film Board of Canada. The Book of Distance details the experience of Okita’s grandfather, Yonezo Okita who immigrated from Japan to Canada, and delves into the internment of Japanese Canadians in World War II. The audience can be “in” the experience through virtual reality allowing you to be immersed in the unfolding experience through virtual reality. The journey takes place across generations, landscapes, and varying spaces. The acclaimed documentary has accumulated awards.
In providing a tour of the many opportunities to engage with Virtual Reality in the lab, Ouk provides an overview. There are several machines with the accompanying VR headsets. We walk over to the Virtuix Omni, a circular “omnidirectional” treadmill, on which the user can walk and run in 360 degrees within a virtual world.
This is a first-generation technology, Ouk says, popular for gaming. Enrollees to the Intro to Immersive Media class introduces those who attend to “everything XR”.
Another example of how XR technologies can magnify the power of storytelling is through “Notes on Blindness” a “narrative VR experience” available on Oculus. CAMD student are to use Oculus for an immersive experience to get a glimpse of what it is like for someone who is becoming visually impaired or is visually impaired or blind.
Below you can read a Q&A between Ouk and Calypso; the content has been edited for brevity.
Calypso: You have made some short films, some of which are making the film festival circuit. What prompted your choice of careers?
JO: Growing up I wanted to be an astronaut, an officer in the military, or a scientist. I was always creative. However coming from the family I did, I knew I couldn’t ask to go to art school. But I always had a knack for art. I discovered video in high school. I also learned anime!
Working at the sushi restaurant, my creativity was directed to customer service, putting smiles on people’s faces. There, I learned about culture.
I decided to go to a brick-and-mortar college, and the idea of storytelling caught my interest. Storytelling allows you to connect to people. In undergrad, I decided to become a doc filmmaker. But since there were no opportunities in my home area for this, I decided to pursue a MFA in cinema where I was introduced to narrative filmmaking and I fell in love with that. I learned narrative storytelling, which is my passion. I learned how to articulate visuals into storytelling; I use it to connect the past to the future.
The stories I tell are based on my own stories. My work is from my life experiences. I’m Asian-American, the son of immigrants who were refugees. I am first-gen. (First-generation American.) My family left Cambodia after the genocide. Growing up, there weren’t a lot of Asian Americans around, that were my age. My environment shaped me.
I use VR to tell stories in a way people may not have experienced before. I want people to feel something from the stories I tell through film — Maybe something will create a connection with his stories. That’s my story-telling style.
Calypso: Tell us about the Immersive Media Lab – for the novice, and those who don’t know about the work.
JO: We support coursework, projects, and those wanting to just experience XR. We try to showcase how you can get started, even with no experience. You don’t even need to know how to set it up. I share with staff, that there should be no broken experiences. [For experience, equipment should be functioning at all times.] All experiences should be good. If something breaks during use, that’s going to be the visitor’s first experience. We set it up so people come in and don’t worry about things breaking. You can use the tools for various disciplines: VR; scanning objects; creating 360 videos; and just having fun. XR is not just for entertainment, it’s also for work. We find simple ways to introduce architecture, journalism, and game design, to students & faculty.
The XR disciplines are [now] being adopted by the National Football League, Olympic athletes, other businesses, and the military.
Calypso: What are the top things you would want people, who are not in the CAMD world, to know about the lab?
JO: Our current work includes design, development, and exploration of immersive data visualization, storytelling, media advocacy, healthcare delivery, immersive games to study and build problem-solving and collaboration skills, and exploration and integration of digital drawing, painting, and sculpting tools.
Calypso: What are you most proud of?
JO: Being in a position to help young people, help shape them. Helping them to grow by sharing my knowledge and life experiences!