ASU student wins Special Jury Award for VR experience at SXSW

Cameron Kostopoulos SXSW Jury Prize Award

Cameron Kostopoulos

Cameron Kostopoulos, a student in the Narrative and Emerging Media program at Arizona State University, won the Special Jury Award at South by Southwest (SXSW) for his virtual reality experience documenting the lives of transgender people. 

Kostopoulos won the award in the XR Experience Competition for his piece “Body of Mine," which puts you inside the body of another gender and you can discover stories about and interviews with transgender people.

SXSW is an annual event in Austin, Texas, that celebrates the convergence of technology, film, music, education and culture.

“For the people who are questioning their identity or people who are exploring their gender, I wanted to give them a space and create a bigger platform where cisgender and straight people could listen to queer stories and try to connect with them,” Kostopoulos said.

The SXSW jury described the work as “a beautifully crafted virtual reality experience that shows how VR can provide a safe space for understanding, reflection and connection when a safe space in the real world is hard to find.”

“It has been thrilling to watch our Narrative and Emerging Media master’s student Cameron Kostopoulos take the germ of an idea he had when he started in our program last fall and turn it into a fully body experience that is so magnificent that it took the Special Jury Award at SXSW interactive where it was competing with professional projects from around the globe,” said Nonny de la Peña, program director of the Narrative and Emerging Media program. “I am delighted that ASU can provide the mentorship, the connections and the production support to help students’ who work as hard as Cameron turn into award-winning directors in immersive technologies.”

The Los Angeles-based Master of Arts in Narrative and Emerging Media program is a collaborative effort between ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. 

The program focuses on the development of a creative practice and critical understanding of emerging storytelling and immersive experience content creation in augmented, virtual and extended reality, and short-form digital, streaming and virtual production.

Kostopoulos started his project a year ago. It began as his undergraduate thesis at the University of South California, where he received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in film and television production with a minor in future cinema. 

“I already had the piece built coming into the program, but the ASU faculty really helped me with the production side and helped me get all the equipment I needed and helped me make the connections I needed to make. They helped guide the piece ethically and narratively,” he said.

The project evolved as Kostopoulos encountered new trials in his personal life.

“I had been outed as gay to my parents, and I lost that relationship. I was thinking a lot about safe spaces and what those are, and what they mean to people who aren’t as privileged to have one. I didn’t have one, so I decided I wanted to build one,” he said.

Kostopoulos didn’t have any experience building a VR game but decided he would learn. He said he spent about a year learning how to assemble a game on Unreal Engine, a game engine that provides a suite of tools for game development, including 3D rendering, physics simulation and visual scripting.

Kostopoulos referred to the team that worked with him as “underdogs” since they were the youngest with the smallest budget for their category. Kostopoulos was the director, lead developer, designer and artist.

The rest of the team consisted of Evan Siegal, an Unreal technical artist who helped build the piece; Taylor Woods, production designer of the physical installation; Prateek Rajagopal, who composed the music; and Ethan Denning, Ty Kostopoulos and Charlie Anderson, who helped run the installation.

Kostopoulos said his team’s reaction to winning was “a rush of excitement.”

“Our team kind of broke down crying because we had worked so hard. We put in so many all-nighters and so many tears, blood and sweat into the piece,” he said.

Kostopoulos plans to write and direct feature films and a short film in the future. He is also currently exploring the intersection between intimacy and technology specifically as it relates to queer identities within the realm of XR.

Written by By Sierra Alvarez

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