Makers of The Metaverse: Maxx Berkowitz Of NOWHERE io On The Future Of The VR, AR & Mixed Reality Industries
Learn new tools and know when to use them. This industry is by definition cutting edge, as a result, tools are constantly evolving and changing. Every project can bring the need for a very different skill set. I have often accepted projects that relied on software that I had never used before. It is important to be able to have a broad base of knowledge and an openness for exploration to be able to adapt and figure things out on the fly.
The Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality & Mixed Reality Industries are so exciting. What is coming around the corner? How will these improve our lives? What are the concerns we should keep an eye out for? Aside from entertainment, how can VR or AR help work or other parts of life? To address this, we had the pleasure of interviewing Maxx Berkowitz.
Maxx Berkowitz is the co-founder and head of product and design at NOWHERE.io, a video-on metaverse gathering and events platform. Maxx is a multidisciplinary designer and technologist with a passion for crafting digital products and experiences that improve people’s lives through intuitive elegant products and experiences. Maxx has been creating digital products and immersive XR experiences for start-ups, brands, agencies and entertainment since 2011. His work has been featured at Sundance, SXSW, Panorama Festival, and has won an Emmy for Outstanding Interactive Media.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?
Ihad a childhood that was different from most that prepared me for a lifelong love of learning and approaching the world differently, which I wouldn’t trade for anything. I was homeschooled until college, we considered ourselves “unschoolers”, meaning we did not follow a curriculum or use textbooks. We led a free-flowing life with the opportunity and encouragement to experiment, build, explore and learn from the world around us. For example, I became an animal tracker and wilderness survivalist, built my own kayak and stereo speakers, made skate videos, played music and spent time with and learned from people of all age groups. I was fortunate to have had a breadth of experiences that were shared with a diverse mix of people in my community. This upbringing taught me to be an autodidact, a lifelong learner, to think about things from different angles and to forge my own unique path. I went to college at Syracuse University where I earned degrees in Graphic Design and Information Management and Technology, which have positioned me well for my career.
My first job out of school was at Showtime’s print advertising department where I created key art, bus wraps and billboards posted in New York City’s Times Square. I absolutely loved this job but I felt a need to explore the world of digital. After a few months at Showtime I took a job at a digital production company called Bajibot, which really let me cut my teeth by trying out many creative mediums, from motion graphics to action script banner ads to online mini-games. I left Bajibot to strike out on my own as a freelancer with the goal of developing a fuller understanding of how production houses and top ad agencies operate while getting to work on diverse projects. After five years in the ad world, I took a position as Design Director for the early stage start-up Outernets, creating a networked system of interactive storefront windows using machine learning and computer vision. After that I went back to freelancing, now working on a mix of product design for start-ups, motion graphics, live shows, projection and interactive installations. From these experiences I realized that I wanted to focus on creating digital products and immersive experiences.
Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I read Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” when I was a teenager and loved the poetic tales of adventure and fantastical stories of mythic cities and cultures. It was a book I couldn’t put down. It sparked my imagination and led me to think about distant lands, the human connection, and possibilities for the future. I reread it after starting NOWHERE and, once again, I found it to be inspiring and applicable in thinking about an interconnected metaverse.
Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the X Reality industry? We’d love to hear it.
In 2013 I was hired to take over creative directing for the Macy’s NYC holiday windows, which gave me the experience of overseeing a high-production project. I learned what it takes to craft and direct a complex multi-faceted display that included animatronics, scenic design, animation and interactive displays. I knew after this experience that simple websites and advertising was not the direction for me, and instead I was inspired to dive into immersive experiences and emerging technology. I developed a passion for creating moments of wonder for people and rethinking how humans and machines interact. I am very grateful to have had the Macy’s opportunity as it guided me to a new and exciting direction.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?
A writer & creative director I was working with recommended that I go to a Burning Man fundraiser party in Brooklyn to meet Jon Morris and Ana Constantino from a company called The Windmill Factory (in what would become a fortuitous meeting, as they would become my NOWHERE co-founders). I showed up at this backlot party in an industrial part of Bushwick and after going through the entrance gate, I passed a painted bus with industrial art mixed with LED art and crowds of people. I found Jon and Ana, introduced myself and, after talking for a while and learning more about their company, I really wanted an opportunity to work with them. I assumed that my online advertising background would not be of much interest to them as most of their work consisted of live and interactive installation projects, but a few months later I followed up with Jon and in a moment of kismet they had just gotten an inquiry to create a pitch for a company called HEED who were looking for help creating an app with an automated After Effects pipeline to make sports content mixed with data. After helping them to create the pitch that won the bid, they hired me and I was able to work on many exciting projects, from Pixel Vortex (wireless LED mapped balloons spinning in a surround sound colorful dance experience inside or a 40’ dome) to The Infinite Hotel (a live film shoot, interactive, music and theater show) to giant screen content for AWS Berlin. Meeting Jon and Ana and getting to work with The Windmill Factory changed my life and was the break that let me transition most of my work to interactive and move away from standard websites.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In 2016/17 I built an interactive, dance and live music show called “birds sing a pretty song.” along with my partner, choreographer and dancer Rebecca Margolick (who later became my wife). It was the first big live interactive piece I had worked on and while we pulled off a great show I definitely tried to do too many things at once. I was playing guitar on stage and I had a stage manager running the interactive and video queues, instead of managing the queues myself or bringing a tech with us (which we later did). At one of the first shows in Vancouver, Canada, at a point in the show that’s very projection intensive, the show computer crashed and instead of the intended content, projected on the ground was the snow covered mountains of the default Mac desktop image. I noticed it immediately, but, being on stage, I couldn’t do anything about it. I just stood there trying not to look at the stage filled with mountains. After what felt like forever, we got the show back on track, most people did not notice that the snow image was a mistake (in fact I got a comment from one audience member after the show pontificating about the meaning behind the mountains, during which I just smiled and nodded). The big lessons learned from this were, 1. Make sure you have a backup plan, 2. simplicity and minimalism coupled with good execution will make your life significantly easier, and 3. If you are presenting live it is good to make your desktop background solid black and hide your desktop icons.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Priscilla Gomez, who was one of the first Art Directors I worked for while I was at Bajibot and I see her as a mentor and friend. I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work for her, she is one of the best and most thoughtful designers I know. Her leadership style, career choices and design skills have greatly influenced my own. Priscilla would trust me to take on big projects, let me make mistakes and then give me feedback that pushed me to become a better designer, all while making me feel that I owned my work (even when she would strongly guide me in a better design direction). She also inspired me to think more holistically about a project, which gave me a glimpse into UX and how design impacts usability. She also opened my eyes to a multi-faceted and immersive learning career path. I am incredibly grateful for the time we worked together and all of the advice and feedback she has given me in the years since.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Nowhere is all encompassing, but I’m very fortunate to have one of the best teams I’ve ever worked with building this project with us. We have an exciting new partnership with Disguise that has the potential to unlock amazing immersive and hybrid experiences. In addition to the next level of user experiences that this integration can bring, I am very interested in exploring more meaningful ways to bridge the gap between people in virtual and physical spaces, in how they can better influence each other’s experiences in meaningful ways, how they can communicate, trigger excitement, and give the feeling of presence across contexts. I think we have only scratched the surface of how dynamic and immersive the metaverse can be, and I am excited to be a part of creating the experiences of the future.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The VR, AR and MR industries seem so exciting right now. What are the 3 things in particular that most excite you about the industry? Can you explain or give an example?
- I believe AR is about to explode. The power of devices is getting to a sweet spot with mass adoption, and wearable tech is getting close to being a viable and integrated option in our lives. I am super excited to see and explore new ways that will allow the seamless interaction of the digital and physical world around us.
- I’m very interested in exploring avenues of hybrid experiences that bridge the gap between a virtual and in-person audience, and how these two types of audiences will meet and feel like they’re sharing a singular experience. How well will they influence things happening in each other’s spaces? What will make a fun and interesting experience? How can the interaction be used to inspire creativity and innovation?
- The possibilities of where virtual art is heading is interesting to me. I look forward to seeing growth in this area that further develops the artistic experience around viewing a collection that is for sale or instead of a picture of a 3d model for an NFT’s actually get immersed in a minted world.
What are the 3 things that concern you about the VR, AR and MR industries? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?
- I’m nervous about web2.0 models of data mining, privacy, and targeted ads and how that can get even more subconsciously invasive in immersive experiences. I think companies need to be thinking about how they can use new, more innovative models to support their products, whether it’s web3 or memberships to avoid the deep advertising reliance and greed.
- As an avid outdoorsman, I am concerned that people are losing touch with the world around them and how this technology could drive us to spend even more time in virtual spaces. But I also see the potential for AR and MR to bring connection and awareness back to the physical world, whereas the current ecosystem of computers and phone screens are all encompassing and force you to look at a small screen, I have hope that more seamless technology like AR glasses may let us look up and actually be in the world while still interacting with technology. Time will tell what direction this will go and how society will shape around it, but I have hope that the people leading the charge in these industries will think more about the health and happiness of their users and community rather than solely the bottom line.
- From the exploration that I have done of other metaverse products since beginning NOWHERE, I have come to see bullying and bad actor behavior in many of these spaces, especially now that we’re getting more immersive, and the spaces are feeling more like real life. It is critical that we think about how we can create healthier digital public spaces that discourage this kind of negative behavior and instead encourage compassion, support and having fun. NOWHERE’s belief is anonymity will be reduced by showing people’s actual video presence and this will encourage people to use their real names which will help reduce bad actors.
I think the entertainment aspects of VR, AR and MR are apparent. Can you share with our readers how these industries can help us at work?
There’s no question that AR/VR has already proved its usefulness for training purposes (pilot training, specialized construction, military, etc.), but it has not yet shown all it can do for the day to day work experience. XR has huge potential to make remote work a much more collaborative, present, and compelling experience. Instead of the ways that we have now, like taking a meeting in a flat Zoom grid, imagine having the feeling of being at your office with your colleagues working in the same room, mixing up into different breakout groups you can interact with, while overhearing someone at another desk who needs help. Think about a project manager having several groups of people working separately in one space as they drop in on each group and interact as needed without the need for calling separate meetings. AR/VR has the potential to make work so much more fun and engaging while improving efficiency, productivity, and interpersonal connection.
Are there other ways that VR, AR and MR can improve our lives? Can you explain?
Two aspects of events going virtual or hybrid that stand out to me is access for remote audiences and the environmental benefits of reducing travel needs. Big city happenings, events, galleries, experiences etc. can now involve people in small towns and all over the world (in addition to giving remote creators an international outlet). From an environmental standpoint, we can reduce the need for air travel, one of the biggest contributors of an individual’s carbon footprint, by making spaces where compelling virtual or hybrid events are a viable alternative to in-person meetings and conferences.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about working in your industry? Can you explain what you mean?
A great deal of this technology seems complex and unapproachable at first. I have always been excited about more immersive technologies, but I was intimidated and unsure of the skills that I needed to break into this space. When I eventually started getting opportunities to work on these types of projects, I found that the transition from design into immersive technology was actually smoother and more accessible than I thought it would be. Having good design and motion sense will get you really far, plus working on collaborative projects generates supportive guidance. With the industry being so young, there is tremendous room for innovation and people who are not experts have an opportunity to make meaningful work.
What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career In The VR, AR or MR Industries?”
- Learn new tools and know when to use them. This industry is by definition cutting edge, as a result, tools are constantly evolving and changing. Every project can bring the need for a very different skill set. I have often accepted projects that relied on software that I had never used before. It is important to be able to have a broad base of knowledge and an openness for exploration to be able to adapt and figure things out on the fly.
- Be comfortable with the unknown. In this field the client will often request for end results that are far from mainstream with a lot of openness or interpretation. Choose the best tools, think on your feet, and dive into the deep end of an experiment that you think will turn out cool. You have to be creative and you must thrive on coming up with new ideas to create things that have never been done before.
- Embrace communicating and collaborating across silos (Design, motion, 3D, developers, management, fabricators etc.). Most projects in these fields require a strong mix of different creative and technology to bring a project to reality. Depending on the project, there is a good chance you will be bringing in people from a diverse set of industries that you must collaborate and communicate with, and it can be quite challenging to keep everyone on the same page, while keeping focused on a shared vision. No matter your role, it is important to do your homework so you understand the project you are working on and the fields you’re working with. A good sense of design and a reasonable understanding of development and technology is important to be able to communicate with the whole team and to express your vision and expectations in a way that will make the entire team inspired and productive.
- Have confidence to interpret direction and feedback in a way that excites you and/or makes the project the best it can be. Many times the people who commission work in these fields do not fully understand what is possible, what is cheesy, or what gives a great experience to the end user. Obviously you have to understand boundaries to make a client happy, but that being said, don’t be afraid to think outside the box and be prepared to stick to your guns with a good reason when you see that you can make something great. Sometimes you have to get it made and show the client before they can see your vision come to reality.
- Maintain a strong network. As with many fields, your network is critical. This part of the industry is still in its nascent stages and tends to be a tight community. Word of mouth and connecting with contacts of contacts has brought my most interesting projects and collaborations. Being around people who you respect and who are living the life you want for yourself tends to rub off and inspires you to reach for greater things, and being around other creative people breeds creativity.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
With my passion for the outdoors and desire to make the world a better place, I have been feeling a drive to find ways to address climate change and bring people together at the same time. How can we use emerging technology to create ways for people to gather across the world in less carbon intensive ways? How can we create events, activities and communities in virtual and mixed spaces that are inspiring and engaging enough to bring awareness, drive fundraising, push for political action and make a difference in the future of our planet? How can we use our platform to bring together climate activists from around the world to strengthen their networks, their voice and their impact?
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
I’ve found John Palmer’s writing and musings on spatial interfaces and other technology to be eye-opening and inspiring. I would love to brainstorm with him about the future of the metaverse and new ways to interact with the world and devices around us.
Thank you so much for these excellent stories and insights. We wish you continued success in your great work!