Episode 7: Gregg Young – Product Owner for Horizon 2020 projects at VRT

Virtual Reality is finding a home in the traditional broadcast environment – through workflows that aid set design and provide new ways of telling stories online. In this episode of MediaRoad SkillBytes we hear from Gregg Young, who works in the Innovation Department of Belgium’s Flemish-speaking public service broadcaster, VRT. Gregg talks about the importance of working in an agile environment, allowing him and his colleagues to explore ways of exploiting game engines, 360-video and augmented reality.

In this episode, Gregg relates VR and AR developments to the early days of the film industry, with pioneers pushing the boundaries of technology, to find new ways of telling stories. Gregg also relates the recruitment of game developers at VRT to the first days of the internet, when broadcasters were bringing in coders and web designers. 


Episode 7


Eoghan: You’re listening to MediaRoad SkillBytes with me, Eoghan O’Sullivan. The MediaRoadProject is supporting the transformation of the European Media Sector by building an ecosystem for innovation. SkillBytes is a podcast series where we’re exploring changing skillsets and career paths in today’s media technology environment. Our guest for this episode is Gregg Young, who is the Product Owner for Horizon 2020 projects at VRT, the Flemish-speaking public broadcaster in Belgium.

Gregg: I work for the VRT Innovation Department, which is of course an island within the big broadcaster. There are a lot of people with great ideas who are really creative within the organisation. For any organisation it’s really necessary to develop your talent.

E: Hello Gregg.

G: Hello, hey.

E: So, at the start of every episode of SkillBytes we like to set you a challenge, which is to summarise you career so far in thirty seconds…

G: I started out in the film industry in Belgium. I started as a DOP actually (a Director of Photography). It was like the period where everything transferred from analogue to digital –it was a really exciting time. We were also editing and starting to do colour-grading –and you could have your production on one laptop. From DOP, I was actually transforming, together with some other people, in to a collective where we started working with interactive installations for different brands that came to us. And that was also the moment when you saw VR or 360 video was coming up. So,at certain hackathons we did together, it became clear that I was moving away from the movie/TV industry where I was doing a lot of production as well… to storytelling. During certain events I met a lot of people from different areas as well as the broadcaster VRT, which was also (at that moment) looking at 360 video. And this how slowly I became a researcher and now product owner for the Horizon 2020 projects at the broadcaster VRT.

E: Do you see yourself more as a creative person who like to work with technology, or as a geek or likes to work on the creative / filmmaking side?

G: That’s indeed one of the main questions I think. A person today working in VR, you have to have this creative side because it’s a new technology. You can look back to the start of filmmaking as well… creative people checking out which kind of technology to use for the kinds of storytelling you want to make. And in this case, it’s VR. The technology, it’s not really there yet, so we’re still… year-by-year new technology is coming out, so you have to adapt very quickly to this new technology. At the same time, you also have to have your creative side to see what is possible, what is the language in VR. It’s not standard –there’s no standard language yet –so there’s a lot of exciting things happening in a lot of areas. Technology is a big part of this way where the storytelling will also guide us.

E: On the SkillBytes podcast we’re particularly interested in how all of this technology is going to affect jobs and careers in the future. So how to you see VR and AR… I know you also work with Augmented Reality… how do you see these technologies changing the nature of media jobs and the workplace for media?

G: It’s already happening now actually. What we do in VRT, is we actually try to set up a workflow… we have two workflows. One is a 360 pipelineand we made a 360 hardware set. So there are journalists who pick it up and, on a regular basis, make really nice 360 video stories for the news, that get published on our main website. So it’s really beautiful that the Innovation Department has nothing to do with it anymore. Another pipeline that we’re trying to establish is within the Design Department, so we have a fully-equipped VR set placed inside the Design Department where they can experiment… and especially with all the 3D designsthey have, there’s no better tooling than Virtual Reality. Now they can really put it in 3D. If they’re making maybe a set for a TV programme, they can really go through it in VR. We also have a new building for VRT which will be built very soon. So, weactually made the whole building in 3D, put it in VR and let a lot of architects walk through it. So, there are a lot of pipelines we tried to set up especially for 3D visualisation and 360 video… they are really established now.

E: Gregg, you have worked in media both as a freelancer for a long time, and now you’re working as part of a rather big organisation, VRT here in Belgium. How do you see the contrast between those two modes of working?

G: It was a seamless continuation of my work, which I was really surprised about, because as a freelancer you’re going from one job to another but because I’m in VRT Innovation, I get a lot of freedom to do what I want to do actually. Of course, we’re doing this big Horizon 2020 project which is formatted,and you have to work within certain grids. But on the other-hand I work for VRT Sandbox, doing a lot of start-ups, which actually is really close to the freelance jobs I used to do. Within the Innovation Department, it’s like feeling coming home, I mean it, I feltdirectly at home and it was an open way of communicating. In my freelance (world), I was always jumping to new technologies, always looking from different angles… and it’s exactly the same what I’m doing now actually. It’s not that the projects are there;wereally have to find it –you have to be kind of an entrepreneur yourself to find these projects, to find funding, to work within this field… VRT Innovation really let me do this and I’m really thankful for that.

E: How much do you think that all of these changes that we’re seeing with digital technology have impacted on the jobs and the work life of your colleagues here at VRT?

G: The digital impact has already been there fourteen years now I think, so it’s not something that came overnight. We see itday by day that you have to have a really agile company to always adapt every new technology that is coming out… and it’s coming quicker and quicker. And especially as a broadcaster it has some disruptive effectsbut on the other-hand there’s a lot of possibilities as well that come with this digital transformation for people working for your company and new profiles will be connected with your company. So, it’s not going as easy as it might be, but it’s something thatisa part of your company and you cannot live without it.

E: What sort of profiles do you think are going to become increasingly relevant in media companies like this?

G: I think we’re going to have a lot more people –game developers –who can use game engines like Unity or Unreal: not only to make games… and that’s something that I think is really, really interesting… that the game engine is actually just an interactive tooling where you can do a lot of things, much more than just gaming. So, you see a lot of virtual studios today already that use game engines, but I think the possibilities are very open to experiment with game engines… and we don’teven have any clue today, what we’ll be doing tomorrow with these game engines.

E: There might be something of a culture clash there, with the gaming world coming together with the (in VRT’s case) world of public broadcasting?

G: I think we already saw it when the online… when we had a lot of websites and apps we started to build… and at that moment in time, we saw a lot of people also from a political point of view, asking questions like “why should a broadcaster be busy with making websites?” or “what are they making apps?”. Now, today, we have a full department –a digital production centre –with a lot of web developers and a lot of app developers which nobody questions. So, people from different backgrounds are going to commute, and this will not be like, today you have one expert, it will be team work. You see with this interactive storytelling, it’s the team that makes the good storytelling, it’s never one higher… like before maybe a director or something that will hand out all the pieces and put them together… it’s more a team effort. These game developers and people from technical backgrounds will have a much bigger say in the storytelling than we see today. And that’s one of the clashes that you can already feel today.

E: Well Gregg, at the end of every episode of SkillBytes, I like to put this question, which is to ask you: if you could give yourself a piece of advice at the start of your career, from where you are now, what piece of advice would you give yourself?

G: I think, when I started my career, I was really in to the movie part –the audio/visual part of the industry. And what I saw coming, but I was not developing myself too much, was the ICT part which became really huge. I started trying to develop my skills more and more, for instance when I started doingmulti-cam live streaming for an arts centre for instance. But I will give me the advice to… don’t go to art school… get a good informational background like computer science. I would give me this advice.

E: Good advice Gregg I think, good advice. Thank you so much for joining us on SkillBytes and for sharing these insights.

G: Thank you Eoghan.

E: You can find more information on the initiative that has inspired this series by heading to mediaroad.eu