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Ask James Kane to describe his “career path,” and you’ll end up feeling pretty silly.
Most folks, when relaying their personal history, can map a reasonably straightforward line through their life—childhood, school, work—landing you sensibly in the here and now.
That’s not James. As we’ll come to see, James’s here and now is several iterations beyond yours and mine. And he certainly doesn’t do “paths.” Case in point: his job didn’t even exist until he showed up at Paradowski.
James, on what it means, exactly, to be “Immersive Tech Lead”: “It’s a new position focused on emerging tech like augmented reality, virtual reality, AI, machine learning. So basically like the interactive R&D department.”
I’m still on shaky ground with this, so James proceeds to spend fully half our interview time patiently trying to make me understand what he does at the company where we both work. Let’s just skip ahead here about thirty minutes to the part where certain inalienable facts start to dawn on me.
Every field has its own wealth of acronyms, but James’s are indisputably the coolest: AR [Augmented Reality], VR [Virtual Reality], XR [eXtended or Cross-Reality], AI [Artificial Intelligence]—as he puts it, his work comprises “really anything that falls under the umbrella of interactive, immersive, spatial computing, where the software UX [User eXperience] involves real-world 3D space [you know this one].”
James breaking all of this down for me is an example of his real superpower, something he calls tech evangelism. Though I’d call it tech empathy, or the ability to bridge the gap between computer logic and human logic. Where developers can sometimes struggle to make their work understood by normies, James’s niche is putting those complexities into everyday language for your average moviegoing Joe. He’s given talks, served on panels, written for popular tech publications and, here at Paradowski, he’s kind of our resident guru for all things VR.
The word skills are not by happenstance. In a not-so-distant previous career, James was a journalist. In fact, he holds a journalism degree from Webster University. “I self-identified as a writer from a very young age,” he explains. “And I thought that journalism would be a good way to make an honest buck as a writer.”
Yeah, not so much. The economy of the late aughts wasn’t a walk in the park for anyone, but as you might imagine, it was particularly tough on a fresh journalism grad. As a freelancer, he did a lot of work he’s proud of (including some wise and hysterical music writing for the Riverfront Times) but in a move of sparkling self-awareness and practicality, decided to change course. See, James had this other thing up his sleeve.
James, on growing up “normal” in North County: “Well, I was an orphan, so. Very Dickensian. A lot of gruel.”
A beat as I realize he’s messing. Nice delivery, James. He takes pity. “Just kidding. I have a nice, lovely family.”
“So you’re normal?”
Here, a true guffaw—“No, I’m not normal.”
Nobody in his family is particularly techy, though his dad did have early-model computers around the house when James was a kid.
“I was on his old command-line DOS computer before I could actually read. He taught me the few keystrokes needed to run the dinosaur game. That was, you know, early 90s. I think I grew up right when the internet was coming out. I felt stuck in the suburbs, and it was a way to see into the world.”
Two decades later, struggling to find steady journalism work after college, that early affinity came in handy.
“Eventually I just saw that my tech skills were much more in demand than just my writing.”
James enlisted in web and app development training through LaunchCode, a St. Louis-based nonprofit that teaches tech skills.
“They basically retrain people from other disciplines into tech jobs. They really go to bat for you with employers and hype you up, in addition to this five-month, nine-to-five training. I had some coding experience when I was young so it was a lot of modernizing that and getting a wider view of the tech landscape.”
He started out coding at an event planning agency. “They did a lot of Fortune 500, large conference and trade show-type events. VR was such a buzz word at the time, that's how I was originally asked to look into this technology and see what it's all about.”
Surprise: it took. He’s been holding down jobs ever since, but he’s made his biggest leaps independently and freelance. On his website, you’ll see a lot of work that, at first glance, looks like game development: a virtual pet (think Tamagotchi but in your ACTUAL HOUSE), spell-casting (with your ACTUAL HANDS), a Star Wars character that responds to your movements and vocal cues.
But something that is on the surface “just a game” may have powerful implications. Consider Healium, an app James helped develop for an XR startup last year: using an EEG headset to measure stress levels, it creates a personalized guided meditation in which the user helps virtual butterflies hatch from a cocoon. The more you relax, the more butterflies you release. In an alternate version, as your breathing and heart rates slow, the sun glows brighter and brighter.
[Author’s note: you need to try it. It’s beautiful. It’s hopeful. It had me weepily beatific at eight in the morning in our office lobby.]
It’s so well-done that it got nominated for a 2019 Webby Award, for Best Use of AR. (If you’re unfamiliar, the Webbys are like the Oscars for the internet.) Though a Webby was never something James consciously aspired to, he’d known about them since he was just a whippersnapper online.
“I'm really proud of it because we got nominated for that award alongside brands like CSI and The Walking Dead. Major, major efforts from top producers.”
So yeah, James had some chops before landing here. Now he leads a team of three and is, among other projects, organizing STLXR, a community group working to share the possibilities of immersive tech across Greater St. Louis. They’ll be hosting inclusive events and networking opportunities for artists, designers, developers and domain experts across all kinds of industries. He’s excited that Paradowski has an eye on VR as an accelerating field, which he sees as pretty unique to agencies so far, especially between the coasts.
Lately, some of those crazy ideas have come to life at Paradowski as a virtual farm tour for Rabo AgriFinance (you can visit a dairy in Florida, a California rice farm, or hydroponic glasshouses, all in one experience) and a virtually animated farm progress survey for Climate FieldView. In other words, virtual experiences with tangible, real-world applications. In other words, not so crazy after all.
Because James is, above all, a practical guy. Here he is on utilitarianism: “I can't read music at all. I tried. It's kind of a useless skill if you're a rock musician.”
In the conversational space of one cup of coffee, I can already see that one of James’s most likable qualities is how totally obvious it is when he loves something. And music is a pretty major something in his life.
He’s a guitarist primarily, but does some keyboards and vocals too. He’s been playing with Bo and the Locomotive for nigh on a decade and recently started playing in a new act called Vancouver China.
When I listen, I want to call the music sweet, but not sugary. It’s driving and groovy, chill enough to play in your headphones while doing actual work.
James, characteristically self-effacing, says, “I’ve contributed lyrics and music to a few Bo songs over the years, but mostly I just make myself available to talented people who let me swoop in for the fun part—performance—after most of the hard work—composition—is done.”
Folks, should we believe him? One one hand, he casually drops that he started learning piano while studying abroad in Vienna, the [ahem] classical music capital of the world. (“I did that on the side, but I took a bunch of classes about classical music composition and history and stuff like that while I was there. It was really cool.” [Emphasis mine.])
On the other hand, when he talks about tech, there’s no trace of self-consciousness. He completely forgets he’s telling me his life story, lost and lit up in the uncharted territory that is VR in 2020:
“If you look at film history, right when the camera was first invented, turn of the last century, there's this era called the Cinema of Attractions where there's no hardware standardization and there's no best practice for how to make a movie. And you just see this wild experimentation, and some of it's amazing and some of it's very bad. That's where all of this tech is right now and it's just very exciting to be working in the field.”