Nils Smith & Sonterra Labs on VR, Museum of the Bible & The Holy Land | Episode 016
For today’s episode of the Future.Bible Podcast, DJ Chuang and Kenny Jahng sat down with Nils Smith, the Chief Strategist of Social Media and Innovation at Dunham+Company based in Plano, Texas and served as a pastor across churches in Texas.
Listen as Nils shares about the VR or virtual reality and how the Bible can be explored through it. He will also share how he came up on the idea of using VR for the Bible.
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Kenny Jahng: Welcome to the podcast, friends. This is the place where DJ Chuang and I get a chance to interview leaders, innovators, entrepreneurs, and people at the intersection of Bible and technology and we love looking at hand, but we also love seeing what’s happening right now at that intersection in this space. Today, it’s gonna be a fun conversation. We have someone to talk about Santero labs with us. Nils Smith, welcome to the show.
Nils Smith: Thanks, Kenny. Glad to be here.
Kenny Jahng: Nils, we asked you to come onto the bigs. I think you’re going to be able to give us a little glimpse of an exciting installation that’s now available to every visitor that experiences the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., first of all, just to call out for that. If you’ve never been to the Museum of the Bible, you must stop and plan a trip, a vacation, some excuse to get out there, but when you walk in on the first floor, this installation, called Explore, a virtual reality tour of the lands of the Bible. And so, Nils, you’re going to help us learn a little bit more about that. I think there’s going to be super fun shot. Let’s just get started. Tell us first what we’re going to see when we visit the Museum of the Bible. We walk in and just tell us, literally share with us just the visual explanation of what it is, what people are going to be able to do in terms of activities and then we can zoom out and then talk about the project at large, the vision, etc.
Nils Smith: Yes. So when you walk into the museum, the first thing you see to the left is the counter where you check in and then the first thing you’ll see to the right after the counter is our exhibit. It’s a room you know, so you have to go through a glass door. And then when you get in that room, there’s about 40 stools and so there’s these pods that are set up where essentially eight people at a time can experience virtual reality together and so you can sit down with the people that you came with and you’ll each sit down on a stool. You’ll put on an Oculus Go headset and the person that will help you get that set on will put it on and then you’ll have about a 12, 13 minute virtual reality experience where you can spin around on that stool and see things all around you and then you’ll go into places is if you were touring in Israel where you’ll go to the sea of Galilee or you’ll go to the Jordan river or the Western Wall and you will see it in virtual reality.
Kenny Jahng: Will you see the other people with you? Is it like you’re on a tour bus and you’re with a whole group or you’re just alone in that world?
Nils Smith: You’re alone in that world, but one of the fun things and in watching people get to experience is there talking to those people that are sitting on a stool next to them and so they’re like, look to your right, you’ll see this or do you see that? So it does have a communal nature to the experience because you’re sitting around friends or family, but in the experience itself is basically just a video that everyone’s watching simultaneously. That’s in 360.
Kenny Jahng: Wow, that’s pretty cool. And it is an Oculus Go headset, is it off the shelf or is it custom or supercharged?
Nils Smith: It is an Oculus Go headset set off the shelf. But it is, I guess it is supercharged, we’ve kind of put our own software into it and it’s integrated into this tablet technologies so that everybody watches simultaneously. So it’s, I guess a hacked, Oculus Go headset that is.
Kenny Jahng: Why don’t you share with everybody. We’re talking jargon now for a lot of people. What is Oculus Go and just can you share what is virtual reality? Literally what are these headsets doing for people? Who are the people? I would assume that the clear with jargon of people listening in on today’s conversation has not put on a VR headset yet, whether it’s Oculus or some other brands.
Nils Smith: Yes, so maybe to answer that question, I’ll go back to the beginning of how this conversation actually started with Santero labs of my technology mentor who was an elder Community Bible Church where I was the innovation pastor called me. He’s like, you got to come over to the office and see this thing that I just got and this was an Oculus rift, the original floors out developers headset. And he sat me down in his chair and he took me into this virtual space and essentially what happens in virtual reality is you have two different views in both eyes which gives you depth and dimension, and as you turn your head you see different things and so it creates a virtual environment for your eyes to see as if they would see in a physical space. And so it’s hard to describe and explain it to you actually do it.
Nils Smith: I remember the first time I saw it, I thought “this is going to be, this is the future”, you know, I saw into the future when I put that headset on. And then every time I get to see somebody do virtual reality for the first time, it says same experience of like, “wow, oh my goodness.” And we see that, at the Explore exhibit because a lot of people, that’s their first virtual reality experiences they put on these headsets and they experience it for the first time. So what has happened in five years is a lot of technology has developed now. Google came out with Google cardboard where you could put your phone into a little cardboard device and you could experience virtual reality through your phone. And then Facebook acquired the company Oculus and they’ve created what is now the least expensive high quality virtual reality headset and the Oculus Go.
Nils Smith: So it’s a standalone headset. You don’t have to plug in, no wires. So it’s $200, which while expensive is very inexpensive for, you know, that first headset that my friend that was a $5,000 headset in the truth is it wasn’t even as good as what that Oculus Go is at $200 price point today. And so the technology is really advancing tremendously. So Oculus Go is really the first mainstream of Oculus virtual reality device that people are really beginning to use and coming into homes and it’s creating, making it an opportunity to create the experiences like these where we can bring virtual reality to experience.
Kenny Jahng: Dj, have you ever done VR before? Have you ever had goggles and the whole experIence?
DJ Chuang: I don’t have one personally, but um, so I’m a late adopter on this one. I didn’t put on a VR goggle like the Oculus until this past summer in August when I happened to be at the same conference where you and Nils were in Lexington, Kentucky. And he invited me to put on a VR experience, a handful of different scenarios where I was dropped into, where was I? I think underwater with swan, riding roller coaster, sitting, sitting on the couch watching Netflx. I don’t know if this reality tour of the Bible lands is available to people outside the museum, but certainly you’re making it available and in the museum, but. And the one at the loop. And so it’s, let’s see, how would I describe it. It’s like you get teleported to a place and then you’re standing around on one spot and then you can rotate 360 to look all around you. And I don’t remember if you can like zoom in or walk forward, but we won’t. But pretty sure that’s coming.
Kenny Jahng: Yes. I’ve got a Google cardboard goggles from the bay when it first started and there was actually, there is a video on the internet somewhere when I first put it on at the Liquid Church offices and it’s just like any of those other experiences knows that you must’ve had seeing people for the first time, you know. “Woah!” It’s like riding on a roller coaster. It’s quite funny. And I got an Oculus Go ahead set as well. It is amazing that how immersive it is and that even like I think, were we those that we were doing a tour somewhere and the application was in a building for architecture, right? So architects were building a building before they actually put up the building. They set up a 3D version of the building and that we were able to tour the different routes and the views and then it’s almost like I was trying to push you out the window and it was right. That feels scary.
Nils Smith: I thought it was gonna fall off the second floor of a building.
Kenny Jahng: And we’re just standing there. We’re standing the ground. How fun it must have been, but we both were scared of heights were like four or five stories up looking out a window and it really felt like we’re going to fall off.
Nils Smith: What’s crazy is that was an animated space. This technology becomes so immersive that in a matter of minutes, I actually, one of the interesting, and I don’t want to get too far into tangent here, but there is a virtual reality church that is fully animated and I get to attend their first baptism and I fell into their virtual swimming pool while I was waiting for the baptisms to virtually walk out of the swimming pool walk by the pastor and the person that was being baptized in my virtual. You know.
Kenny Jahng: I’ve heard stories of that guy who fell in during the first virtual baptism.
Nils Smith: I’m that guy. There are worlds being creative, but I think there is also an in what happens in this experience at Museum of the Bible is you actually feel like you’re in the real space because this is an actual video footage and it’s as if you have 8, 10 cameras that are off seamed together from all views. So you get to choose your view instead of just seeing what’s in a box that a camera you chose. That’s right. You know that photographer chose. You’re not looking in all directions and what’s so amazing is there’s a big wow factor to it, but a lot of people, what we see when I take off the headset, there’s tears because there’s a lot of people that dream of, you know, “I want to go to Israel, but I can’t afford it”, or safety reasons or whatever reason. They can’t go to the Lands of the Bible and see them themselves, but one of the places is very emotional people whose garden of Gethsemane, is a part of that virtual reality tour of when you see that, you know, as if you’re there and you’re looking around, you begin to just picture that differently. And when you read the Bible. And so to be able to bring people to the Holy Land or to the Lands of the Bible is really, it’s amazing to see how people respond. And I think a lot of that is how real it feels when you’re watching it through one of those virtual reality headsets.
Kenny Jahng: I wonder if someone else told me, you know, the Facebook portal devices that just came out, which is basically, video conferencing device. Someone told me they would dream of the next step would be to be immersive, that you’d be able to go and actually see and be a part of the other experience holographically. Holograms are definitely here. I just saw on Linkedin a, a big fortunately 100 conference where they teleported someone in from Asia into the conference on a panel. She was sitting on the director’s chair just like everybody else sitting next to everybody else. And she was answering questions. She obviously could interact live. So anyway, this VR stuff is quite amazing.
Kenny Jahng: So tell us a little bit about, so what does it take? Is this, you know, it seems like if it’s real, live or what do you call, it’s not animated. If it’s reality footage, it seems like it’s a huge undertaking to go in and set up cameras with 360 views everywhere that you can navigate around, etc. Is this something that technology has allowed them to figure out how to just go there on one trip and film it and bring it back? Or is this one of those like, you know, almost a decade old projects that you’ve had some, you know, people slaving away in the past and now they finally commercialize it and bring it to the public benefit?
Nils Smith: So, I’ll give you a little backstory on what happened with Sonterra labs and then maybe even how virtual reality technologies developing, but there was a group called the Octagon project who had been working on this for about five and a half years of really seeing. Garrett Crossland was the founder and he had done a lot of tours in the Holy Land and taught these and then heard about virtual reality technology and said, this is what’s needed with, with, with these tours in Israel of people need to use this technology to experience this place in a very real way. So he was such a forward thinker in that way. And I went to Israel for the first time about three and a half years ago, and I called the guy a Tray, his name, who had done the virtual reality, which showed me that original Oculus headset.
Nils Smith: And I said, “Trey, I found the best use for virtual reality. It’s in Israel, like we should be taking people to Israel in virtual realities, like, you’re not going to believe this. I just connected with somebody else, in San Antonio who’s already creating that footage, let’s connect them, connect the dots. So we connected the dots, and they basically formed up Sonterra labs out of that. And out of that simultaneously things, so they had been for years creating virtual reality content but without a place to really distribute publicly. And then through some dot connecting, we connect with the Museum of the Bible who was interested in a virtual reality experience. It was a natural fit. And so those dots connected to where we’ve been able to take some of the content. And there are naturally lots of plans have more experiences both at the museum.
Nils Smith: And then public experiences that people can download those on their devices and so there’s gonna be a lot that will develop out of this, our initial, you know, release of the content and so is, is there at the museum, but you know, their experiences they’ve been creating of the, you know, the steps of Jesus or you know, the Christmas story and, being able to connect a lot of these experiences in the Bible to the lands in a virtual reality environment. But what’s in technology in five years is tremendous. And so what it takes to create virtual reality is having lots of cameras in all directions. And then it also creates a lot of computer power because you’ve got to seem all of this together. So instead of what it takes to produce one regular video is quite a bit of computing power and camera and high quality cameras.
Nils Smith: Well now you’re needing to do that with 8 or even up to 20 different cameras that are all connected and then seem together. So it is, it is a significant process to capture the footage, to then download it, to edit it, we have, you know, the storage that we have of these video files is tremendous. And then we’re also seeing technologies out of this of augmented reality in some laser scanning opportunities to the technologies for capturing the space is really, it’s developing at a really fast rate and so it’s exciting, but it’s also causing us to do is have to go back to these lands and capture them in higher quality, higher definition experiences to be able to do more long term. And that will always be the case. I think the more we can capture it, if you think about cameras 50 years ago, to what camp, what we can do with an iPhone today in comparison to what we could do with a high quality camera, the iPhone blows it away.
Nils Smith: And so that will continue to happen as these technologies continue to grow and develop.
DJ Chuang: Yes. And that’s the amazing thing about technology. And so as you talk about filming, the Bible lands, not only can be our take you to places around the world, VR can also take you places into history so you could do a reenactment of the nativity scene and as we’re talking, it’s around Christmas time. That would be such an incredible immersive experience instead of just seeing the activity seen on the lawn, in front lawn,
Kenny Jahng: Now, Nils, being able to work with some of the stuff. From your perspective, what are the use cases are there? You and I have been to a VR world in Manhattan, supposedly largest installation or virtual reality experience in North America. We’ve been to the, the VR labs, at Samsung downtown in Manhattan. So we’ve been around VR for a bit early on right now. What applications do you think, besides travel and besides these games, is there anything else in terms of discipleship, scripture, engagement, what are, what else is coming down the pike? Because it cannot be only travel.
Nils Smith: Yes. You know, I think I was actually just talking to an organization, a Bible engagement organization this week about how to use virtual reality and I think there’s a lot of brainstormed ideas and I think there, the reality is that Mark Zuckerberg has said that his goal is to bring 1 billion people into virtual reality. So he’s just got a big goal and right now he’s only one million, so he’s like, we’re only one percent of the way to our goal. So he sees this as a mass meeting engagement. But the problem is 1 million is not that big from a market standpoint for a lot of content, right?
Nils Smith: So I think there’s yet to be a lot there. One of the things that’s Oculus has recently come out with is you can actually connect your headset to your computer screen. And so basically when you go to work, you just put on your Oculus Go headset and you’ve got your keyboard in front of you and your mouse and you don’t need a bunch of monitors. You’re just using this now, unlimited viewed, screened monitor right in front of you. And so when you begin to think about oculus, go as almost as if you have eight monitors or what you could do with big gigantic screen like an IMax except all around you. That creates a lot of opportunities. And so I think about things like Bible engagement tool where somebody could read the Bible in front of them and they can look at a map over here or they could, you know, turn on an audio or see sermons teaching here.
Nils Smith: And so if you think about how much of the Bible has moved to our smartphones, are these devices, that’s a very limited screen to engage somebody. But when you’re now in this immersive environment, which you can do with audio, and now all of this screen space around you as you consume the Bible in a unique and different way, I think there are unlimited possibilities with that. So I think we’re going to read in virtual reality. I think we’re going to assume media in virtual reality. We’re going to interact in virtual reality. I think there are, you know, even with VR church and what they’re doing, people are creating these avatars and they’re interacting avatar. We will do that in workspaces as well. And I’ve had meetings in VR where you’re interacting with other avatars and so there are these virtual spaces again, be creative.
Nils Smith: But the reality is we probably 15 years ago, we had no idea that even smart phones were coming and when they came out, we had no idea really the power of what they could do. So until people start using these more and more everyday and bring them into their productivity and everything else, it’s a law. It’s that there’s a long journey ahead, for virtual reality. Some people say won’t be mainstreamed for another five years and it might not even be fully engaged for another 15 to 20 years. So I would say there’s unlimited possibilities and, and creativity, unlimited creativity, when it comes to how we can engage.
Kenny Jahng: Hope that future forward. Thank you, Nils for stopping by. Really appreciate you sharing a little bit of what is available at Museum of the Bible and just to look ahead at VR. We have to talk about her next time. That’s a whole other world that, that’s exciting and things that are popping up there, but we hope you have a chance to revisit with us again soon on a future podcast.
Nils Smith: Thanks, Kenny.
Kenny Jahng: And after listening into today’s, if someone wants to reach out to you directly, what’s the best way that they can get in touch with you?
Nils Smith: Yeah. I am a social media guy, so I would love for you to find me on social media @nilssmith everywhere you can go to my website at nilssmith.com. There’s a contact page there and more information about a lot of the organizations that I work with and the things that I do.
Kenny Jahng: Great. Thank you very much for an amazIng conversation today.
Nils Smith: Thanks guys.
DJ Chuang: And thank you to our audience for listening to the future.Bible podcasts. Please let us know your thoughts and reflections about today’s interview at our website, future.Bible. And we are always looking for suggestions for future shows. So drop us a line. Again, we’re social to on Youtube and Facebook and twitter and at our website, future.Bible. And we continue to ask for your input because we want to be the number one show where you can meet innovators, ready to talk about how we can apply the always evolving world of technology to the never changing message found in Bible offer deeper engagement with the scripture. So till next time, be blessed and remember to be a blessing.
9:12 This technology becomes so immersive that in a matter of minutes, I actually, one of the interesting, and I don’t want to get too far into tangent here, but there is a virtual reality church that is fully animated and I get to attend their first baptism and I fell into their virtual swimming pool while I was waiting for the baptisms to virtually walk out of the swimming pool walk by the pastor and the person that was being baptized in my virtual. You know.
14:22 And then public experiences that people can download those on their devices and so there’s gonna be a lot that will develop out of this, our initial, you know, release of the content and so is, is there at the museum, but you know, their experiences they’ve been creating of the, you know, the steps of Jesus or you know, the Christmas story and, being able to connect a lot of these experiences in the Bible to the lands in a virtual reality environment. But what’s in technology in five years is tremendous. And so what it takes to create virtual reality is having lots of cameras in all directions. And then it also creates a lot of computer power because you’ve got to seem all of this together. So instead of what it takes to produce one regular video is quite a bit of computing power and camera and high quality cameras.
18:51 And so if you think about how much of the Bible has moved to our smartphones, are these devices, that’s a very limited screen to engage somebody. But when you’re now in this immersive environment, which you can do with audio, and now all of this screen space around you as you consume the bible in a unique and different way, I think there are unlimited possibilities with that. So I think we’re going to read in virtual reality. I think we’re going to assume media in virtual reality. We’re going to interact in virtual reality. I think there are, you know, even with VR church and what they’re doing, people are creating these avatars and they’re interacting avatar. We will do that in workspaces as well. And I’ve had meetings in VR where you’re interacting with other avatars and so there are these virtual spaces again, be creative.
19:38 But the reality is we probably 15 years ago, we had no idea that even smart phones were coming and when they came out, we had no idea really the power of what they could do. So until people start using these more and more everyday and bring them into their productivity and everything else, it’s a law. It’s that there’s a long journey ahead, for virtual reality. Some people say won’t be mainstreamed for another five years and it might not even be fully engaged for another 15 to 20 years. So I would say there’s unlimited possibilities and, and creativity, unlimited creativity, when it comes to how we can engage.