"Everyone you meet is just as human as you are, regardless of their current circumstances, and deserves to be treated with dignity." Jackson Berry's work in technology is supported by his deep interest in meditation and spiritualism. Here, he talks about his experiment in using virtual reality to produce mystical experiences, and much more...
Tell me a little bit about your journey to the Academy? What were you looking for in an undergraduate program?
From theater to wrestling to video game design to entrepreneurship, I found that my mind worked best when I was doing a lot of disparate things. I understood that there was much more value in working across disciplines and melding them into something new. The Academy was just about the only school I could find that also seemed to understand that. My unspoken plan was either:
A. Go to the USC Iovine and Young Academy, or;
B. Go to a small liberal arts school tucked away in the forest for two years then drop out and move to Silicon Valley to work on tech and games.
Luckily, I got in.
Describe a passion project you’re currently working on or interested in?
When not working on my startup Splish, I’ve been de-stressing with a project I named Gestations; a surrealist VR experience about being born. You start in complete darkness, slowly develop your senses inside the womb, then get pushed out into the world. It’s designed to be experienced in an isolation tank.
What inspired the project?
For a while now, I’ve been researching the potential for virtual reality to produce mystical/spiritual experiences (akin to what sermons, meditation, spirit walks, et al. have shown to produce). Gestations itself is a long way off from achieving anything like that, but it’s been a good experiment for me in learning to develop deeper experiences. The idea for Gestations specifically was inspired by a dream an acquaintance's mom had, and by an ongoing personal interest in birth and death. Most of the experiences I make are centered around one of these two inspirations – generally both.
Is there a leader or mentor who inspires you?
Lately, I’ve found a lot of inspiration in the thought leaders of tech. People like Kevin Kelley (founder of Wired), Jaron Lanier (creator of VR), and Naval Ravikant (founder of AngelList). I find inspiration in their ability to thoughtfully assess the direction of society and build companies to purposefully affect it. I think it’s probably the most pivotal skill for future leaders in tech to develop.
Is there an inspirational quote you live by?
“The unexamined life is not worth living; yet the unlived life is not worth examining.” -Variously Attributed
What advice would you give to a freshman?
Take very careful note of what you consume and whom you interact with. The information you take in determines what you think, which determines how you act, which determines who you are. If you consume all the same information as everyone else, then you will become like everyone else, and you will provide no more value than anyone else. So, don’t limit yourself to one group of friends, one interest or one source of truth. Los Angeles is one of the strangest and most diverse cities in the world. There are so many crazy things going on around here. Get out there and try everything, then pinpoint something you enjoy and chase it down the rabbit hole. If the argument that it will make life more interesting isn’t enough, then do it because it will make you way more valuable.
Describe one thing most people don’t know about you?
With all this talk about spirituality, meditation and such, it usually surprises people to hear I grew up in a conservative household in Arizona. I did a lot of horseback ridin’, wrastlin’ and watching The O’Reilly Factor at home. Oh, and we had lots of guns. If you walk around the house I grew up in, you’ll see an AK-47, a 12-gauge, a revolver, or at least a large knife on most every countertop or table.
What is one thing your parents taught you that you’d like to share?
Despite the associations you might have with gun-loving conservatives, my parents are very nice people. They are very confident and outspoken but are equally patient and kind. They treat everyone they meet with dignity, and I never once in my childhood saw them look down on or act superior to anyone else. There are a lot of great things they taught me about success and hard work and all that. But if I could pass on one thing, I guess it would be this: everyone you meet is just as human as you are, regardless of their current circumstances, and deserves to be treated with dignity.
What are the essential things you always keep in your backpack?
Whatever books I’m reading, a journal, a pencil and my laptop. I like to keep it light. I also have a Tamagotchi right now. For research purposes.
Favorite app or website?
NYT Op Docs, For the most part, Twitter is my most-used app, but I’ve also been playing around with this sensory meditation app called “non” a lot lately. Super well-designed, interesting concept. As for websites, I frequent a lot of blogs. Farnam Street, Brain Pickings, Aeon, to name a few.
Favorite class at USC and why?
Experimental Games with professor Richard Lemarchand. No other class gave me as much freedom to explore unorthodox topics. I made AR Snapchat lenses for #MarchforOurLives, some interactive existential poems, VR experiences designed to make you fall in love, the list goes on. Also, Professor Lemarchand is one of the most interesting and intelligent people I’ve ever met. I don’t think he is teaching Experimental Games anymore, but if you can get in any class taught by him. I highly recommend it.
Favorite way to de-stress:
Conversations. Just sitting down and talking to someone interesting or passionate. Could be over coffee or at dinner. Even better if it’s while surfing, camping or hiking. If no one wants to talk, I’ll usually dive into a book. Or, if I’m really feeling stressed, I’ll rent an isolation chamber for an hour or two.
Thank you, Jackson!