Freshman works with Oculus to create game

Skylar Thomas, a freshman in the Iovine and Young Academy, created his game “LittleBot” with a narrative of the titular robot character navigating a dying universe. (Sinead Chang/Daily Trojan)

Iovine and Young Academy freshman Skylar Thomas realized that he wanted to channel his creative energy toward building interactive worlds and characters after designing his first virtual reality game for the 2016 Google Science Fair. Originally a two-dimensional illustrator, the young virtual reality developer and artist found that three-dimensional mediums can enhance viewers’ relationships with art by immersing them in a different reality.

“You’re building worlds,” Thomas said. “3-D transforms to immersive environments and characters you can interact with and navigate your way through.”

This semester, Thomas is working on his current project, “LittleBot,” in collaboration with Oculus VR, a prominent VR software and equipment company. “LittleBot’s” narrative concept features a robot character navigating a dying universe.

“[The game sprawls] a dystopian universe where you’re guided by this character called ‘LittleBot,’” Thomas said. “The health of the character is tied to the health of the world.”

Based on the user’s actions, LittleBot can replace the decrepit landscape around him with growing plants and trees.

“The premise is that we are consuming more than we’re creating these days,” Thomas said. “It’s an interactive time lapse. As you scrub through, you see the world continually dying, if you go in one direction. Then, depending on the user’s actions, the world slowly revives, and so does the character.”

Thomas said he has been designing “LittleBot” for over a year, and he has changed the layout of the game many times throughout the creative process.

“[The game] was originally for augmented reality, but I realized it wasn’t really suited to that medium,” Thomas said. “I was building a world and it needed to be [immersive] and not on an iPhone.”

The sp[a]ce gallery at Ayzenberg, an art nonprofit in Pasadena known for its VR pieces, will debut Thomas’ game in its robot-themed May 2019 exhibition.

Thomas volunteered at the sp[a]ce gallery during a show featuring a mixture of virtual and augmented reality in October 2017. His expertise in VR headsets led him to get involved in the gallery as an artist.

The gallery’s manager, Wendy Sherman, is currently working on a deal with Oculus VR to sponsor Thomas’ project, which will run through September 2019.

Sherman said she loves working with Thomas because of his commitment to the craft.

“He’s fantastic,” Sherman said. “He’s up for anything and has a lot of energy.  He’s really great with people and showing them the equipment.”

The Progressors, a traveling art show along the West Coast, will also showcase “LittleBot” in its exhibit in late spring. The show’s theme is “Art for Progress.” It will encompass paintings bookended by Thomas’ VR experience.

“Skylar’s project is attached to this bigger project,” said Progressors member Isa D’Arleans. “The VR is about saving the planet. When I met Skylar … I was just fascinated by him and how bright he is. He is the perfect Progressor.”

The term “Progressor” applies to both the artworks and the creators involved in the movement.

“The Progressors are the paintings and the Progressors are the people helping with the project,” D’Arleans said. “Skylar is … a visionary. I know that whatever he comes up with is going to be amazing. I trust his vision, 100 percent.”

Thomas said he looks to other professionals in the field of 2-D and 3-D illustration — like illustrator and animator Ash Thorp or graphic design firm DKNG Studios — for inspiration.

“I drew comics and cartoons for so many years and so my 3-D style is really, inherently cartoonish, and everything is very colorful,” Thomas said.

Thomas said the Iovine and Young Academy honed his artistic skills and gave him not only the concrete tools and resources he needs to succeed in his endeavors but also a cohort of brilliant individuals to work with.

“The Academy has been fantastic in that I’ve got to meet 26 of the coolest people that I’ve ever come in contact with,” Thomas said. “They’re an amazing collection of artists and coders and product developers. They’re all so different, and they have skills I don’t have.”