Ever so often at work, Sarah Tan leaves the real world for at least an hour.
She enters a virtual world during that time – one that she helped create – where she socialises and interacts with its diverse and ever-growing community.
This sounds like a scene from the hit television series, Black Mirror, but what Sarah does is not science fiction. It’s reality. To be precise, Virtual Reality (VR).
Donning a VR headset to step into the world of Rec Room – a popular VR social application which allows users to play active games such as paintball, 3D charades and disc golf with others – is just part of Sarah’s job as a gameplay engineer at Seattle-based VR start-up Against Gravity.
Describing her job, Sarah, a National University of Singapore (NUS) alumna, said: “I spend a significant amount of time in VR testing my code, or just in the live game interacting with our community.
“But my main focus is growth, (so I work on things) such as the tutorial, and user generated content.
“A typical work day usually involves coding and various meetings. Sometimes, however, we get to playtest the game with people we invite to the office, or jump into VR with the entire team to do a build review. To me, though, interacting with our community in the (Rec Room) game, especially with new players, is the most enjoyable aspect of my job.”
One of Sarah’s most notable contributions to Rec Room to date has been the creation of the Share Camera, which allows users to take pictures in the virtual world with a simulated camera.
Boasting similar functions to a real camera, it can take pictures from both the front-view and the rear-view (selfie). It also makes use of VR’s ability to bend the laws of physics - using the tripod function allows users to ‘freeze’ the camera in space even after letting go of it.
These pictures can then be used as a profile picture in the game, printed out as an object in VR, uploaded to Rec Room’s website, or sent to the respective user's email or mobile device.
“It was a hit the moment it got released,” Sarah recounted. “It feels so much better to use it to take a picture than to press buttons on your controllers to take a screenshot.
“It’s the physical interactions that make VR so delightful. And I’m not done with the Share Cam yet – there are a bunch of features which I still want to implement.”
Sarah was coy about what these new features would be. “Just keep an eye out for them!” she teased.
Sarah’s success in the VR gaming field now is ironic considering she had rejected a scholarship to study at DigiPen – a college which offers a bachelor’s degree programme dedicated to game development – because she “didn’t want to do games”.
Instead, Sarah opted to join NUS’ School of Computing after finding out that they offered a Concurrent Degree Programme (CDP) with Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Entertainment Technology.
She had no idea that the course she had enrolled in would also entail the development of games.
That decision however, proved to be one of the best she ever made.
“I knew I wanted to be in the tech industry…and NUS Computing had a cool sounding CDP,” Sarah recalled. “That was the only course I applied for…little did I know that I got into a programme which specialised in the exact thing I didn’t want to do, which was games.
“But my (NUS) professors were all amazing people who gave me a ton of great advice...and I eventually discovered that I actually really enjoy game development.
“Also, because of how much fun I had at NUS, thanks to the friends I made and the activities I took part in, I always tell prospective students that joining NUS Computing was the best decision of my life.”
The skills and knowledge Sarah picked up during her time at NUS has also helped mould her into the successful gameplay engineer she is today.
“NUS Computing provided me with the technical know-how, while the Entertainment Technology course prepared me well for the culture of the American game industry,” Sarah said.
“I also took a bunch of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) classes in NUS, which taught me to always keep the player in mind while coding, and this readied me for the amount of playtesting that happens in the game industry.”
Some of Sarah’s best memories of NUS, however, were formed outside the lecture rooms.
From going for late night suppers with her schoolmates, to representing her hall, Eusoff, in various games such as basketball and handball at the Inter-Hall Games, to organising various activities for the NUS Students’ Computing Club - she was their vice-president - Sarah believes the multitude of activities she was involved in made her time at NUS even more special.
“I’m a firm believer that you don’t want to remember college for the good grades you got, which aren’t going to matter after your first job,” she explained. “You want to remember it by the friends you met, the activities you did, and the difference you made.
“If you’re just going to study and not do anything else, why are you in college? You can always do the same online, at a much lower cost.
“So, everyone should do themselves a favour and take up at least one activity. It’ll help you build up soft skills. This is something a lot of people neglect, but it is actually extremely important in the working world.”
Unsurprisingly, Sarah’s most memorable experience in NUS stemmed from one such “extra-curricular” activity in 2014.
“It was Halloween, so my friend and I got dressed up as Android Kitkat and Lollipop and went around giving out candy,” Sarah revealed. “It was hilarious! People thought we were crazy because nobody dresses up in Singapore!
“Furthermore, everybody was busy rushing to meet deadlines and cramming for exams. But it’s precisely that which made us do what we did, because we wanted to bring smiles to people’s faces amid their stress.”
That sense of fun that Sarah cultivated while in NUS easily translates to the work that she is currently doing – after all, her job now is to help ensure that Rec Room remains enjoyable and engaging for users.
In future however, Sarah hopes to bring Singapore’s VR industry to the next level – in July 2017, she was invited to share her knowledge with her peers at an Asia VR meetup that was held in Singapore.
“I don’t think anything will ever fully replace PC and mobile gaming, but I do believe that VR and AR (Augmented Reality) will start eating into those markets respectively,” Sarah said.
“Unfortunately, the VR industry in Singapore is still a few years behind America. So, I want to do as much as I can to share my knowledge and speed up its growth in Singapore and if possible, help put the country on the VR map.”
It is an ambitious goal, but one that Sarah is confident of achieving in due time.
After all, in this industry, Sarah is already comfortably ahead of the game.