Impossible Places A deep dive into the brilliant brain of Dr. Kimberly Voll

“Ialways say there’s two things in my life: video games and martial arts. That’s how you define a ‘Kim.’ You add those two pieces and a ‘Kim’ just pops out.”

I’m sitting cross-legged, sipping tea on the living room sofa of Dr. Kimberly Voll’s apartment, and she’s doing something that she will ultimately do many times over the course of our three-hour chat: selling herself short. Make no mistake, those two passions certainly serve as seminal influences and central features in Voll’s life — ones which would come up time and again during our afternoon together. However, so too would the fact that she’s a PhD in Computer Science, former professor of programming, accomplished designer of artificial intelligence, experienced fencer, expert in cognitive studies, consummate linguist, and recent tinkerer in virtual reality.

Later, poring over the 41 transcribed pages that result from our interview, I was blown away by the depth and breadth of what we had covered — the all-over-the-place-y-ness of it. What’s more, I struck by the way in which none of it came across as bragging. In fact, just the opposite. Voll seemed to oscillate effortlessly between waxing philosophical about Star Trek: The Next Generation and explaining how to create believable AI, infusing it all with the same affable approachability. She was, casually and unassumingly, the smartest person I’d ever met. And while Voll might have been able to encapsulate herself with two hobbies, I felt like I’d need to take people on that same erratic trip I’d just had through her mind in order to define a Kim.

So, to the best of my ability, that’s exactly what I’ve done.

On discovering video games

Kimberly Voll was born in Coquitlam, British Columbia in 1977, to parents that didn’t have a lot of money. And so in lieu of taking her on trips or paying for costly, ongoing sports lessons, they would stretch their budget where possible to make sure she had access to new and interesting technology. This, as it would turn out, was very much the right decision. For Voll, it was love at first type.

“You could go impossible places, which was…incredibly mind-blowing for my little brain, and that was super exciting to me.”

“It’s actually very specific,” she begins, as if locating a book containing the memory from within the library of her head. “So, growing up I had an Atari 2600 and I had a TI-994A and these were my introduction to the games world. From I think about age 2, I was playing video games and [fell] madly in love with them. And on the TI, it had a little menu through which you loaded the games. Literally, ‘Press 2 to load’ or ‘Press 1 to load this thing called Basic.’ And for, you know, an indeterminate amount of time, I didn’t care about the first one, I just wanted to get to the game…but this number 1 always hung in my head and I was like, ‘What is this? What is this?’ And so finally, my parents – neither of whom were computer programmers – took me to the library and we took out some books on Basic [programming language] and I hit 1 one day and started typing in things, and I realized, ‘Holy shit, I could make this stuff!’ and I was pretty young, I was probably no more than 5 or 6 when I started writing my first programs.” Here, she rolls her eyes so hard I swear I can almost hear it when I’m re-listening to the tape. 

“Right, ‘programs,'” she chuckles, miming air quotes. “I mean, you know, I would dutifully copy things in and I would invariably change something and it would all explode and I’d have no idea why but I would pore over it trying to understand the connections between all of these different things. That was when I knew I loved making interactive things.” Pressing number 1 was for Voll something like that scene in the The Matrix where Keanu Reeves’ Neo finally starts to see the code that forms of the fabric of the world around him. She had awoken in herself an insatiable desire to understand connections everywhere they existed.

“Computers and games for me represented a path to anything. Like, you could go places – you could go impossible places – which was just, like, incredibly mind-blowing for my little brain, and that was super exciting to me. So, some of the earlier programs I was writing, I know now, were basically variations of chatbots and whatnot, and so even at that young age I was fascinated by the concept of what constituted a conversation with another person. Like: could I have a conversation with a computer? Could I write something that would surprise me? So I became kind of totally enamored with surprising myself with the things that I was creating.”

ON Taking a trip into the mind

A mesmerizing still from developer William Chyr’s upcoming Manifold Garden

“By time I got to [my] later-teens, I was super fascinated how the brain worked, how people worked, and how that all filtered back into games,” says Voll, of the way games ironically led her straight to academia. “And so it kind of led me down a path…in [a Bachelor’s Degree in] Cognitive Science where I specialized in Linguistics, how the brain works, AI, [and] some programming.” Now, as someone with a degree in Film Studies, where I like to say that I watched movies for grades, I was having a hard time understanding how one subject could have at its center such a seemingly disparate set of topics, all interwoven. So I asked the embarrassing question. The question I hope you might be asking right now: what exactly is Cognitive Science? Like, the study of the brain?

Essentially. Yeah, I mean, I would maybe vary that slightly,” she says, patiently, gently guiding me through a crash course in what those on the inside lovingly refer to as Cogs. “It’s an interdisciplinary study of the mind, of which a subset is understanding how the brain works, but it also includes [questions] like, ‘How would you define the mind? How would you define the distinction that sits between mind and body?’ 

“[For example], if you think about sort of where the self sits, like, ‘Who are you and where does that sit relative to [your body]?’ I mean, most people would say, ‘Kind of in your head-ish area?’ You don’t really necessarily embody your personality in your finger, right? There’s a central sense of self…[so] how [then] do you separate the fact that we think and we have identity and we represent ourselves in this world and we extend out into this world from the fact that we have this body? Like, I can cut off an arm and still be Kim; I can cut off this other arm and still be Kim.

I was really deeply in love with [those ideas].  ‘What is identity? Who are we? How do we have extension into the world?’ In other words, how do you have presence? How do you feel that you are in a space? How do you extend in a world?” And while it may all seem like very heady stuff, Voll today finds herself exploring the very real answers to those questions as she helps design the logic behind one of the very first playable virtual reality experiences set to release in early 2016. Not that she didn’t call it. 

“Here is a computer, which is a completely different lens into processing information. And yet, this weird analogue for what we’re doing in so many ways. And I think [it all came] back to games because…games provide an opportunity to…bring all of these things together.”

ON martial arts, and nearly dying

“Just shortly [after] I defended my PhD, I was in this terrible martial arts accident where I nearly died,” recounts Voll. Good-natured and jovial as she is, it’s still not hard to see a wistful sort of sorrow flit across her eyes. “And everything just changed from that moment. While I had sort of this anticipation that I was going to take this particular path, it all completely went out the window.

“It was just before my third-degree black-belt test [in] something called Sun Hang Do, a mixed martial art here in the city…I was training with another young man who was also a second degree…[and] we were just working through some self defense moves, one of which involved me kind of throwing him over my shoulder.” One shoe drops. “I had always felt a little weird about this one because it did involve a foot near the face which was a little disconcerting. But, you know, I’d been doing this for a really long time and we were careful and whatnot. But this particular day, for whatever reason, he wasn’t so careful; I don’t know what happened, but instead of giving it his [all], he kind of just flopped, and his leg, which would normally be way up there,” she says, pointing above her head, “was here,” she finishes, pointing directly at her left temple. The other shoe drops.  

“It just landed there, and shattered all of my face.” 

Already essentially blind from birth in her left eye, Voll didn’t even flinch, and quite literally didn’t see it coming. Today, she’s essentially all metal plates in that side of her face. Ever the seer of silver linings, she wisecracks.

The worst part is there’s no magnetic property to titanium, so I can’t even, like, put fridge poetry on my face or do anything interesting with it. It’s like…if you’re going to break your face, at least you should be able to stick some magnets on.” Then, a little less brightly, and with no wisecracking, she continues. 

I shouldn’t have survived the hit; it was a fluke that I survived it, the doctor said…just the angle, I guess. I got lucky. So I ended up [having] reconstructive surgery. I couldn’t open my mouth or talk for a long while or even wear my glasses because I couldn’t stand — I mean it left me with chronic pain, [and] to this day it still hurts almost every day. You kind of get used to it, I guess? It’s got this weird thing where every now and again it feels like I’m being punched in the face.”  But while the physical healing progressed on schedule, there were longer-lasting emotional effects for someone that had put such a high value on her brain, some of which extend to today. 

I was destroyed in many ways. I’ve always been sort of a goofy, ‘just laugh it off’ kind of person, and so on the surface, that’s how I deal with life. I make jokes and I try not to take life too seriously as much as possible and that’s just kind of how I roll. It’s just who I am. I had that kind of on my exterior. [But] I was living alone at the time [and] I had to move home because it was really hard to look after myself. Holding my head up was hard…[and] that was the one defining feature of myself. I had a good brain. I lucked out. I was dealt a good brain, and I…might be unattractive, and dorky, and all of these other things, but I’ve got a good head, I’ve got a good head, don’t mess with that head,” she says, almost as if futilely warning her past self — watching helplessly from out-of-body as the accident replays in front of her. 

The worst part is there’s no magnetic property to titanium, so I can’t even, like, put fridge poetry on my face or do anything interesting with it. It’s like…if you’re going to break your face, at least you should be able to stick some magnets on.

“So I [eventually] applied for a sessional instructorship at UBC, thinking, ‘I should be fine in a couple weeks, at least I can do that while I get my life back on track and I’ll figure out what my next steps are’…[but] I had such massive memory problems that if a student asked me a question, by the time they finished the question, I couldn’t remember what they asked me. I don’t even know how I was able to lecture, thinking back. But I had these…I would take notes…[but] to me, UBC was like this big, amazing school, and [I thought], ‘Oh they don’t want stupid me. How did I get this job?’…[more than ever] I was just super self-conscious; you know, I’d gone from this high to this incredible low.” Catching herself in spite of the well-earned solemnity, Voll half apologizes. 

“I don’t want to over-inflate it, but at the time–” I cut her off, dripping with sarcasm. 

You’re right, you wouldn’t want to over-inflate almost being killed.” She laughs, putting things in stark perspective. 

But it’s one of those things, again, you look back, and it’s now just a story, you know?”

Voll is currently testing for her third-degree black belt…in an entirely different martial art.

ON RocketsRocketsRockets, and the Fidelity Contract

As part of Radial Games – a studio made up largely of talented contractors and founded by her boyfriend Andy Moore – Voll helped design the appropriately titled ROCKETSROCKETSROCKETS: a game about flying rockets that shoot rockets at other rockets. Formally released on Valve’s digital game download service, Steam, on May 2nd, 2015, it now sits regularly among the top three local-multiplayer games on the entire platform. In addition to frenetic, often-hilarious combat, the neon-drenched  ROCKETS also contains a serene “Zen Mode” that encourages players to simply careen around the screen in an oddly romantic aeronautic dance of sorts.

Having designed the Artificial Intelligence that power’s the game’s computer-controlled rockets when no other friends are around, perhaps the highest compliment that can be paid to Voll is that many user reviews (and even a professionally-published one!) have confused those AI rockets for other human players. I ask her what defines smart artificial intelligence, and while she initially mentions that she’s given a few talks on the subject before, I impishly challenge her to condense it for me right then and there. What follows kind of blows my mind.

“One of the most important things is to recognize what the brain gives you for free, in terms of interpreting other experiences. And this is very much a standpoint that I come to from my whole life working on these kinds of things, and studying the mind and the brain and AI and even my early experiences programming chat-bots and games and whatnot. You know, we attribute human-like behavior very easily to things, and [only] when certain key things are violated, we go, ‘Wait, bullshit! That’s actually not humanoid or human-like.’ So for any game, I think the key with the AI is [that] you need to know how a person will internally model an external intelligence. Not just what would it look like, but what it would it not look like. What do you not do, so that you don’t get the brain going, ‘Hey, wait a minute!’ So you’re basically trying to create something that isn’t going to call too much attention to itself.”

In other words, Voll thought about AI not as a game developer per se, but as a cognitive scientist. Rather than trying to mock up something from scratch via programming that behaves like what she assumed a rocket would behave like, she took for granted a simple, ingenious truth, hearkening all the way back to her 6-year old fascination with talking to computers: humans will look at a machine moving on its own, and automatically say, ‘Hey, that looks kind of like something I could do! Whoever’s doing this must be pretty smart.’ All she needed was one line of code.

“[So] the easiest way to start with that [was] just to start incredibly simple. So the first thing that I did when I did the AI, [was that I] just threw in a simple follow script. So the other rocket just followed. It was like one line of code. And in watching that, and watching even just Loren [Bednar, the game’s visual designer] and Andy comment on that, they [were] like, ‘Oh wow! The AI is already coming along, what did you do?'” From there, she says, it’s about adding as few things as possible to maintain that illusion.

I was just going to say, mention the fidelity contract, because I think that is the best phrase! That should be the pull quote on the side.”

Is it that deceptively simple, I wonder? Rather than convincing the player that the AI is more intelligent, it’s simply about ensuring they never think it’s unintelligent?

“Exactly! Exactly. They’re already going to attribute intelligence to it if it’s doing something [at all]. Your goal as an AI developer is to not screw it up. And that’s what tends to happen in a lot of AI, is I think they bite off more than they can chew, and it gets over-complicated, and then these moments pop up, where you have this certain fidelity contract, that the minute you start behaving at a certain degree above a certain threshold, you have to maintain that. And if you don’t, the minute you drop below, your brain calls ‘Bullshit!’ and then you’re out and it’s not convincing.”

In my head, I’m thinking about Montreal megastudio Ubisoft and their much-vaunted Assassin’s Creed franchise, wherein you play as master assassin infiltrating heavily guarded forts and slinking through city streets en route to unaware targets. For every convincing altercation with a guard who hears you, spots you, and chases you down, there are another three laughable instances of enemies running aimlessly in circles or performing abysmally in combat. The situation seems to be improving with every new release, but here’s Voll’s theory in action: a fidelity contract being written that the gameplay can’t honor.

She continues, a mental musician building her theory to its crescendo.

“I knew [the AI] wasn’t perfect but [now] I needed to figure out where it broke and how it had broke and in what ways. And I mean, you play it long enough, and you’re like, ‘It’s tracking me perfectly, that’s weird.’ So that was the other big piece of that…watching people play, and [asking], ‘What are people doing in this space? What defines human-like behaviour in this space?’ And the game, the way the controls work, it’s very swooping [so] I started to look at ways I could bring some of that in, while correcting for some of things it was doing. It’s really just a little bit of smart randomness…woven in and tweaked in little ways so as not to feel repetitious, but yet to allow…natural repetition…to still be manifest in the game itself.” Returning to his chair from the kitchen, Moore jumps in excitedly.

I was just going to say, mention the fidelity contract, because I think that is the best phrase! That should be the pull quote on the side.”

ON impostor syndrome

“I think the really interesting thing about the transition into making games – and this is something I used to talk to my students a lot about, and warn them of – is that, when you grow up playing games your entire life, you are, for lack of a better phrase, an ‘expert curator,’ at least for the things that you love and enjoy. And you react to the content you receive as an expert, [and] you’re like, ‘I like this. I don’t like this.’ And you know pretty much right away…and then the first time you try to create something, it’s shit. Because you have a lifetime of curating stuff and knowing whether it’s good or bad, so the minute you try something and you look at it, you’re using this lens to look at that, you know, pile of poop that you just made [for] the first time. And so that’s very upsetting.

“And sometimes I feel I have to catch myself, or others who know me will catch me at it. ‘Cause I almost want to apologize for [ROCKETSROCKETSROCKETS], even though I’m proud of it and I enjoy the game, and we legitimately play the game. We really, really like the game. But…I’m constantly making excuses for sales numbers. So I make excuses for the game when I shouldn’t and it’s this weird kind of relationship that you end up with, with how you measure success, relative to the actual quality of the product that you’ve produced. Like it’s not enough to like it, [and] there’s this magical threshold, although I couldn’t tell you, it’s probably a ‘moving goalpost’ kind of threshold, that you should surpass to be ‘actually successful.’ So no matter what you do at any stage it’s never good enough. It’s like when I finished my PhD, I got to the other side of it, and I was like, ‘Well, that that was easy, so I guess it’s not valuable,’ or when I got my black belt, I was like, ‘Huh, I guess they’ll give these things to everybody.'”

ON Fantastic Contraption, and virtual reality

Gone is Voll and Moore’s living room. Instead, I’m standing in the middle of a rectangular blue expanse given shape by a grid of white lines. In front of me at eye level are two white, wand-like objects suspended in mid-air. For the first time in my life, I’m experiencing virtual reality. In this case, courtesy of the HTC Vive, one of several goggle-like rigs set to be available commercially next year, alongside bigger names like the now-Facebook-owned Oculus Rift. After affixing the Vive to my face, I find myself unsure of what to do, before hearing Moore ask tentatively:

“Did you want to grab…?”

Oh! So those wands are physical controllers — the ones I saw Moore holding in his hands as he was getting things set up for me in fact. In the immediate aftermath of donning the rig, I’m still a little baffled at the idea that my physical person exists in the real world and the digital one at the same time, alongside a combination of computer-generated and bonafide objects. Reaching out, I grab the two controllers, playfully waving them around and getting acquainted with the way they move in front of my face. Or at least, where I remember my face last being.

“Hold on just a sec’,” Moore says, followed by the clickety-clack of keys on a computer. A few button presses later, I’m somewhere entirely different. Blue still envelopes me, but this time as part of a cloud-filled sky. I’m standing on what appears to be a grassy field, though the edges clearly drop off into nothingness. Floating improbably on all sides are perfectly geometric bushes — stretched cylinders and squished cubes. And directly in front of me are a hodgepodge of odd tools, the likes of which I’ve never seen anywhere else before. Well, anywhere else but a video game, I suppose. This is Fantastic Contraption.

Based on the web browser game of the same name by Vancouver developer Colin Northway, Fantastic Contraption bills itself as a physics puzzle game that has you constructing increasingly complex locomotive creations from rods and spinning wheels, all with the purpose of affixing them to a colored orb to move it towards a goal area. With the help of Radial Games, Northway Games is bringing the game to virtual reality, with Voll focusing on – what else? – AI and design work. The premise is very much the same, but instead of sitting in front of your computer screen, you’re stepping into it, so to speak.

Want to grab a wooden rod and attach it to the spinning wheel on the ground? You’ll have to physically walk over to it, use the action button on your wand, carry it with you, and bend down to hitch the two together. Not looking long enough? Use both your controllers and quite literally streeetch out the rod, stopping when you think you’ve gotten it just right. Think you’ve made a terrible mistake? Grab the whole kit and caboodle and wind up your pitching arm so you can toss your failed invention off the edge of the world, all before grabbing new parts that spawn from the body of your trusty mechanical feline assistant.

Over the course of the next half-hour, I proceed to do a number of absurd things including but not limited to:

  • Repeatedly “stepping over” my contraption’s wheels as I move to affix rods to the other sides, continually forgetting that there isn’t a massive makeshift kart sitting on the floor in front of me.
  • Angrily snapping in the direction of my kitty-cat part supplier as I accidentally hit the button which calls it over, as if throwing admonishments into thin air in its corresponding direction will send it away.
  • Becoming obsessed with the idea of how cool I think it looks to dispose of unwanted parts by “throwing them over my shoulder,” only to hear Voll giggling ever time I impotently flail my arms around.

None of this, however, is a dismissal of virtual reality as embarrassing or frivolous. In fact, just the opposite. Not since the iconic motion-controlled Wii Sports – with its arm-flailing tennis swings – had I become so immediately and completely immersed in a video game, awash in the unbridled joy of play. I stretched and stretched and stretched the rods of my contraption higher, determined to reach the goal on each level by stubbornly maintaining an identical shape to the one I had started with. I watched triumphantly as my Frankenstein kart tumbled over and into the pink goal area. Then, I experienced perhaps the most disappointing part of Fantastic Contraption: removing the goggles.

Taking a moment to adjust to the mundanity of my surroundings (so that table is…just a table?), I beamed big at Voll, who was smiling knowingly back at me. Not even bothering to re-shift the furniture, we sat down cozily together on the floor, and started pretty much geeking out.

The first time I was legit in VR, I started crying,” remembers Voll. “I mean, it was a huge moment! We talk about the VR giggle. Like, you put people in the rig, and invariably within the first minute or two they’ll just freak out.”

Yeah I was freaking out!” I say, not even trying to play it cool. I truly was. “It was so baffling to me that I could reach out and touch things, and it was so phenomenal.”

Yeah! I mean, growing up in the 80s…there was this Hollywoodization of VR…so…for me, VR was in many ways, sort of, the pinnacle of what you could do with computers. Like, once you could step in to the computer, you’re there, man! This is as good as it gets, so to speak. So to have this become something that’s actually in the realm of affordable is incredible to see in my lifetime…I mean yes, it hasn’t hit market yet, but effectively demonstrating that a consumer rig could be possible, and [for] me [to be] holding [it] in my hands and putting it on? I mean that was life changing in so many ways. Even if that early one, I was looking at it going, ‘Hmm…okay this was good and now I’m going to throw up because it’s not quite there yet!'” She laughs, referencing the time last year when she tried out an early prototype of the Oculus Rift. “But it was close enough for me to realize, ‘Hey in 10 years, this will be a reality.'” Except, it wouldn’t be 10 years at all. 

“Then I tried the demo [of the HTC Vive]? And it was like, ‘Holy shit!’ And this is like a year-and-a-half later. And I’m like, ‘It’s not 10 years…it’s now! Right now. I’m in it.’ And I was blown away, and I remember coming out and being like, ‘Oh, reality?’ You know? I want to move my office and life into virtual reality because, holy cow, we’re there! So I think my excitement comes from…it’s just..it’s…it’s a beautiful intersection of all of the things that I have done in terms of studying the brain and how we move about our space, and how we define presence in the world. All of these things come to bear on figuring out the new world that is VR. It challenges me as a game developer and a game designer in ways that I’ve never been challenged before…and we use all sort of different mitigating factors like controllers and different design techniques and all of these different things that will immerse and draw the player in. But in VR they start in.

“It’s another way to express ourselves through games, it’s another way to build interactive experiences, it’s another way outside of games to introduce perspectives. To be able to share perspectives. To be able to put people, if not fully in their shoes, then a toe in their shoes. To be able to create these other ways to communicate and to express ourselves as humans to one another. And I think that’s just so exciting.”

ON defining a kim

It’s nearly 5:00 PM, and nascent thoughts about winding down our chat are entering my mind. By now, Voll and I are talking idly about games as a concept, and I’ve half-forgotten that I’m still recording.

“I think that we, as humans, we all play,” she says. “Whether or not we identify as a gamer or not — and there’s all sorts of societal baggage that comes with that unfortunately. But we all play; that’s how we learn, you know? The first thing that we do when we’re born…we pick up things, we stick them in our mouth, we explore the space. We are pushing out into the world and trying to understand the real world systems in which we live. Games are the same thing. They’re just an extension of that. They’re just tapping into something that’s very fundamentally human.” As she talks, she moves her hands animatedly about her own space, as she has throughout our entire interview, as if each thought in her brain is so large and so vibrant that words alone can’t express it.

Dr. Kimberly Voll is made of martial arts. And video games.

And electricity.

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