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The heartfelt story of indie developer Elemental Spark and his journey to VR

Interview of Michael Sullivan about his journey to VR  :

When did Elemental Spark start?

This is such a hard question for me to answer, please bear with me, this is a long story.

The idea of the company was really started in 1997 when I, then 19 years old, moved out to live with my father.  He was an inventor, and idealist and a dreamer and my inspiration for all things in technology. He always pushed me to be great and refused to let me accept “I can’t” as answer.  One of his inventions was a 3D device he had hoped one day would allow a user to truly feel like they were in an environment, he literally came up with one of the first Virtual Reality devices and I had a million ideas for it.

In 2005, I received a call from my father.  A call I will never forget.  The first time I ever heard weakness in his voice was when he told me he only had 5 years to live, that he had contracted hepatitis C from a blood transfusion during the course of a terrible accident which had nearly took his life and that we should start making plans.  It destroyed me.   My rock, my mentor, my father whom for the first half of my life, I barely knew because of an early divorce between he and my mother and that I had now gotten to know and was my best friend was now going to face this horrible disease. Even throughout the entire process of his illness, he refused to stop developing this idea for these odd environmental 3D glasses. He believed it could change the world.  He was right.

Michael Sullivan

In 2012, now living back in the Midwest, I received the call.  My whole world unraveled. I was thankful to be able to speak with my father the night before.  We laughed, joked, caused a bit of trouble, and the hospital told us it was time to end the call. We both shared our final laughs and loves and hung up the phone. I didn’t expect that to be the last time I spoke to him.  The next day, he fell into a coma and passed shortly after. Between his passing, then both of my Grandfathers, then shortly after my Grandmother, I was starting to feel my world collapse around me.  I was growing bitter and cold and really needed something to pull me out of the mud. Little did I know, it was right around the corner.

I left my full time job, and started Elemental Spark in 2012. My wife and I founded the entire studio on $10,000 so we could continue on the developments my family left behind and to try and pursue my own dream of putting some of my music out to the world. The music was moderately successful, gained the attention of a large electronic artist who loved my story and wanted to see my dreams come to fruition.  Little did I know, he was actually just trying to gain ideas for his own live show, and ended up stealing the ideas I had for The Invasion of 2012, which was originally going to be a piece of film mixed with a live audio show.  Once again, I was devastated. Thinking I wasted my money, time and energy, completely embarrassed,  I walked away from the music scene.

Studio

Later that year, I saw an article about a group trying to re-invent virtual reality with a device called the Oculus Rift.  I didn’t think much of the ramblings at first as it brought back painful memories and was difficult to even research this technology because there was so little known about this company and project.  I started hearing more and more about the Oculus, so I finally dove in and studied the device and how they were handling 3D and backed my very first kickstarter: The Oculus Rift.

I was blown away, this was exactly my fathers vision, someone actually invented the device he so desperately wanted to bring to market.  I could hardly believe it.  My mind was flooding again with the ideas of my past, all the struggles during development he and his team faced and then one day during a dinner with my own family, we were discussing the Rift and how Virtual Reality was my fathers dream and how he’d love to have been here when my son says “Well, you are really good with computers, why don’t you just make a game”.  It all became so clear.

Invasion wasn’t meant to be a stage show, it was meant to be a game.. no, an experience and I was going to use Virtual Reality to do it.  I invested in the tools to allow me to quickly prototype my now 20 year old game idea, and thus The Invasion of 2012’s development began in the fall of 2012 using Unity 4 Pro, Photoshop, 3D Studio and put to use the software and skills I’ve learned over a lifetime because I had a father that never let me give up.  I was, and still am so determined to finish and to share my experience with everyone.

collage

4 years, 2 Oculus Development kits, and a small army of Google Cardboard devices later, I now have an award winning virtual reality company, finishing the final touches on The Invasion of 2012, producing VR music videos for David and have new projects in the work while now also bringing on new members and interns from a local college.  Things have been absolutely amazing for Elemental Spark in 2016, and I don’t plan on slowing down.  The drive I have is driven by the Spark my father gave me, the kindness my mother gave me, the drive my Grandparents instilled in me and every connection I have with the elements around all of us, thus: Elemental Spark.

You do a lot of different things from software development to artwork to music and writing and all kinds of other stuff. Which of your talents do you think is the one that most defines what you do?

Perseverance. It’s a talent I promise.  At least for me, because it was something I was struggling with my entire life. The process of this company, and really learning who I am again, has been absolutely eye-opening.  My talents were always noticed by others, but I, up until recently, have rarely given myself credit for anything I’ve done in life, so I’m really still re-discovering my talents and if I were to actually pick one to define me, it would be problem solving.  I think very quick on my feet and can often foresee solutions to problems, far before they actually become a problem.

How is your game, The Invasion of 2012 coming along? And tell me a little about the beginnings of the project.

The Invasion of 2012 is coming along nicely!!  The last year has been focused on finishing up development and testing on the story component and this year is about presenting it to the world and allowing people to understand what I’m doing.

Invasion2012

The Invasion of 2012 is an evolving experience, a test for humanity if you will.  I believe empathy in humans is a losing battle and Invasion is a test of human compassion, and the choices we make in life and how those choices can affect everyone and everything around us.  The experience runs about 30 minutes and the choices you make, will change how you will enter our massive multiplayer experience.  No spoilers, you’ll have to play it to see what happens!  Either way, this is an experience you will not want to miss.  The demo was a HUGE hit in Vegas during the Virtual Reality Festival and I’m looking forward to it’s release.  We all have the chance to be kind in this life, but you must choose to do so.  The Invasion of 2012 is all about empathy and the effect our choices we make in life have upon it, even when we feel the most threatened.  This is just the first chapter in a multi-part story, this is only the beginning.

What made you want to work on our first collaboration, “An Unseen Sky: The VR Experience?”

Like I mentioned in my mini-novel above, I’ve always had an interest in bringing music to a story telling platform.  When I was growing up, watching MTV, it was all about the music video.  When I heard An Unseen Sky, I could see the fly through in my minds eye, had a vision of what I wanted to present and followed it through.  Dave and I threw around the idea a few times and sat on it for a bit, then I basically said something to the effect of “If I don’t get this out of my head and on paper, I’m going to go nuts”, so I just started working on a prototype.  Dave loved it, loved the idea, so we just kept it going.  I had no idea we would end up where we did, we just wanted to bring back music videos!

What was going through your head when they announced we won Best Animated VR Music Video at VR Fest?

I remember thinking, don’t cry, don’t cry, these people have no idea what you’ve been through to get here.  I was shaking so badly and then had to give a speech which may have been equally terrifying to me as flying half way across the country to be there, haha.  I will never forget that moment.  Between winning the award, and all of these companies I’ve grown to know giving me praise all day, I finally could say to myself “Validation has been had, and my father would be so proud”.  We walked off stage and tears came..  We did it. We freakin’ did it. That whole week was so surreal for me, most people also didn’t know that I was highly stressed out expecting the arrival of my daughter which prevented me from all of the amazing after parties and the festivities that followed.  Dave and Gina were kind enough to share their absolutely beautiful home with me and just a few hours after winning the award, Dave kindly got me on an airplane back to Indiana and my wife..   Not more than 24 hours later, my daughter made her grand arrival.

VRFEST2016

Tell people about your new collaboration “Gravity VR.”

With An Unseen Sky we really tried to push the boundaries of what could be done on a mobile platform by rendering the entire sequence in realtime on a 5000*5000 meter landscape, one of the largest I believe ever in a piece of software and while that was amazing, changes in Android software have really hindered the experience on the Android VR Playstore so I have chalked it up as a lesson learned and so with Gravity, I really wanted to try and knock the socks off of people with this experience and I believe we have done that.

Gravity VR takes David’s fantastic self-made video and puts it on FOUR theater screens and brings the entire video to life using geometric patterns, interactive objects with a mind-blowing ending.  We are finishing up development on it currently and have some wild surprises for everyone.  If you have ever wanted to walk in low-gravity, this is the experience for you!  We really wanted to push the boundaries of what can be done in VR again, but wanted to make sure we planned for the future, so from the ground up this entire experience has been optimized for ALL devices.  Expect a first quarter 2016 release for Gravity VR!

What else do you have in the works that you can talk about?

Hmm..  I can tell you I have 3 more projects in the works, 2 in VR, one in AR (Augmented reality), all 3 are pretty phenomenal and I have not seen any other developer covering them.  One is a unique RPG, the other is my own music experience and the third you will just have to wait and see. That one is an idea I threw around to my father and he thought would be impossible.. After seeing some of the new technology at CES and VR Fest, I know now it’s entirely possible and I’m going to push to see it through.  Stay tuned. Hint: Support the movies, go to the cinema again… You never know what you may see. 😉

You just had a daughter. What will a music video collaboration look like when she’s a teenager?

Like two 60 year old men trying to figure out how to turn on the damn computer.  lol  Honestly, with how fast technology is moving these days, it’s SO difficult for me to answer that.  I mean, I’m still wanting proper flying cars and a hoverboard and neither really are where they are..  Maybe we’ll be making videos for people to watch while their car autonomously drives/flies them to the Virtual Reality Festival 20th anniversary party. 😀

To many more collaborations, and to the future.

Interview by David Rosen

David Rosen is an award-winning music composer. He composes original music for films, commercials, jingles, video-games and all other kinds of media projects. He has a vast music library of original tracks available for licensing and is also available for custom compositions.

Contact:

Michael Sullivan
Elemental Spark
www.elementalspark.com
twitter: @ElementalSpark
instagram: @Elemental_Sparke
facebook: facebook.com/ElementalSparks

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