Interviews with XR Designers: Brenda Chen

March 03 2022

career adviceinterviewxr design

Name: Brenda Chen

Working At: Freelance Director and Consultant

Prior XR Designer Role: Creative Director / Broadcast Director / Technical Artist / 3D Generalist

 

Brenda Chen is an immersive media designer and XR artist working at the intersection of art, music, and tech to craft experiences that are vibrant, thought-provoking, and fun. Her rich portfolio consists of directed virtual concerts for John Legend and Justin Bieber and content for The Weeknd, Tinashe, Dillon Francis, and more.

She is a self-described one-stop shop for all things XR. From building and designing interactive installations and VR/AR experiences, managing large teams and budgets, working across the 3D asset creation pipeline (modelling, texturing, rigging, shaders, lighting, animation, vfx), writing code for interactions and tools using a variety of devices (Rift, Vive, Magic Leap, Leap Motion, Kinect, Arduino, LEDs, projectors) and programs (Unity, Unreal, Adobe Creative Suite, TouchDesigner, Maya, Cinema4D, Substance Painter), she's done it all.

Reel 2021 from Brenda Chen on Vimeo.

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How was your transition from traditional to XR design?

It happened by accident! I was pretty set on being an experimental animator and fine artist when I first started college but then, during my freshman year at University of Southern California, I wandered into a VR lab where I tried VR for the first time. Once I put on the headset I was hooked and my life changed forever.

My goal as an artist has always been to make people feel as if they had been transported to an alternate universe and I realized that XR and immersive media would allow me to do just that. The XR industry is also very new so there’s still a lot that hasn’t been created or discovered so there aren’t any rules for the medium. The possibilities are endless and that really excites me.

Santiago Promo from Brenda Chen on Vimeo.

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How did you start learning about XR?

I just hung out in the VR lab all the time and became friends with the professors and students working there. I made art for a lot of the students in the lab and learned from watching them build their projects. When it came time for me to direct my own piece, I recruited a lot of the students from the VR club on campus and learned from collaborating with them and also YouTube. Later on I also exhibited my projects at tech and gaming conferences like GDC, Indiecade, VRLA, etc. where I got to meet and learn from professionals in the industry.

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What was your first professional role in XR and how did you land it?

Before tackling any AR/VR projects I worked as a digital artist for VT Pro to animate music festival VJ content for artists like Martin Garrix and Dillon Francis.

My first professional role in XR was at Wave as a director/technical artist and I landed it in a very non-traditional way. During my senior year of college I saw on Facebook that Beeple was throwing a party in LA and I freaked out. I was a huge fan of Beeple’s art so you know I had to go to this party.

I convinced a group of my friends to go with me but at the party they all ditched me to network, leaving me behind awkwardly standing alone by the bar. However, I noticed that Adam Arrigo, the CEO of Wave, was also standing alone near me so I went to chat with him. I didn’t think anything would come out of it but we ended up staying in touch and within a few months I visited the office, met the team, and he offered me my first full-time job.

Wave: The Show Must Go Beyond from Wave on Vimeo.

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Typically in traditional design roles, you’re expected to present a portfolio and your case studies. What are some of the differences or similarities you found when presenting your case studies for AR/VR related projects?

It’s about the same except that with AR/VR projects you need to show that you understand how the tech works and how to play up its strengths and compensate for its limitations.

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How does your XR Design work look right now?

Professionally I offer creative direction and consulting (art direction, team building, project management, etc.). Personally I’m focused on building digital immersive experiences that are not only aesthetically compelling but are also mindful of the health and well-being of the viewers.

When working with other collaborators I make sure there's a clear understanding within the team. Developers and designers work hand in hand and a good designer understands the technical limitations of a project so they can effectively collaborate with developers. Oftentimes there can be friction between the two teams if they do not take the time to understand each other’s workflows since design and tech speak two completely different languages.

Successful collaboration comes from clear communication, good documentation — concise project outline, mood board, etc., patience, and empathy. In terms of workflow it’s usually the designers who come up with the initial concept for the project and then they have a discussion with the dev team to rework the design to fit the technical specs. Then the design team makes all the art while the dev team builds interactions, the project framework, tools, and helps the design team integrate their work.

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What was the hardest part and how did you overcome it?

The hardest part is that you’re designing for tech that is constantly evolving. There are always new techniques, software, and hardware popping up so you really have to do your due diligence to keep up. You also have to be curious and learn new skills constantly. As an artist, it may be difficult to understand certain technical concepts like shader math and optimizing at first, but if you keep at it you’ll eventually get over the learning hump and it will all be very rewarding.

When you’re designing for XR, you’re designing a whole world that you are immersed in vs. a flat 2D screen. This involves so much more thought because, from an aesthetic standpoint, you need to make sure things look good from all angles and also tune the art style to match the visual fidelity the hardware can support. Additionally, you have the added complexity of figuring out a locomotion system that is interesting, feels natural, and doesn’t make people nauseous. I’ve seen someone throw up from a poorly designed locomotion system and it was not pretty.

When you’re creating art for XR you have to optimize the hell out of your work. Billions of particles, crazy amounts of shadow-casting lights, insanely detailed reflections, etc. that you’re able to account for in a normal 3D render are usually too much for most real-time renderers to handle. I guess this isn’t an unusual problem, but it’s something that I didn’t know about when I first started that I learned the hard way.

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What are some of your favourite XR Tools?

I use Unity the most for my day-to-day work. I like to recommend Unity because it’s user-friendly and a great entry-level program to start creating XR projects in. It offers a lot of flexibility for designing and building your projects, is easy to build features on top of, provides extensive documentation, and has a large community of developers who offer advice, pre-made assets, and tools.

I also use Maya and Cinema 4D for 3D modelling and rigging, Substance Painter for texturing, and the Adobe Creative Suite for general art and animating.

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If you gave one piece of advice to up-and-coming XR designers, what would it be?

I’d say to make time to mess around and experiment. A lot of cool project ideas arise from play and you also learn a lot that you wouldn’t learn just from working.

I definitely recommend working in the XR industry. There’s so much room for innovation and growth which can be really rewarding if you are interested in pushing the boundaries of art and tech, passionate about experimentation, and not a fan of rules. My biggest piece of advice, if you are interested in exploring this industry, is to stay curious and try to build your own projects. I believe you learn the most by jumping in and creating vs. just reading and watching.

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Where Can People Find You?

Twitter: @elevatedtrash

Instagram: @elevatedtrash

Website: brendachenart.com

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Interested in designing the future AR and VR applications?

Interaction Design and Prototyping for XR syllabus.

Download the Interaction Design and Prototyping for XR

INTERVIEWED BY

Dejan Gajsek

Content Marketing Manager

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