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Telling 3D stories about things - learnings from Jared Owen provide digital twins and Industrial Metaverse insights

George Lawton Profile picture for user George Lawton April 9, 2024
YouTube superstar Jared Owen talks about what he learned over a decade, telling engaging 3D stories about things. What he has to say has important insights for everyone trying to build better user experiences for digital twins, Industrial Metaverse and spatial computing apps.


I recently chatted with Jared Owen, who has mastered the art of telling 3D stories about things. Just ask his 3.2 million YouTube followers, who are interested in everything from how motors work to the story of the Apollo 11 moon landing. What he has learned over the last decade has important implications for anyone trying to tell stories about things using digital twins and design tools across new 3D media for Metaverse, spatial computing, and even smartphones.

In mainstream media, the most popular 3D stories are about animated people and characters where the things play a supporting role. In Owen’s work, the things are the main event. These days, he is telling stories about the inner life of donut machines, the Las Vegas Sphere, and the International Space Station. 

Surprisingly, all these were built using Blender, a free open source tool. The hardest part has not been technical. It has been learning how to do better research and tell a better story. His wife is one of his most helpful critics since if she does not understand, he needs to go back and figure out how to make the 3D explanatory part self-evident rather than a cool gimmick. 

From programmer to storyteller

Owen started his career as a hobby while working a day job as a computer programmer. His first-ever story was about a Star Wars pod race watched by a few friends. But things really took off when he told a story about the size of the solar system in 3D, which has been seen by 25 million. I asked him why he thought this was such a hit when there were already so many other solar system videos. He explains:

I think with 3D animation, you can show things in a way that you can't show in a textbook or even somebody on screen. Having an actual model allows you to animate things and do things that aren't possible in real life. So, the planet's size is actually growing and shrinking and then fading from a classroom setting into the actual size. It wasn't a space scene necessarily, but it was my way of representing, ‘Hey, this is how enormous it actually is.’ So I'd say things that are possible with 3D animation that are very difficult to do with actual live footage on a camera.

 He went on to machines as much to learn himself as to tell stories for others. One popular one, particularly with kids, was about how an electric motor works, where he himself was trying to deeply understand something that he had only really seen explained in textbooks. He says:

That's something where I see a boring textbook with maybe a diagram in there or something in college where I would bang my head for half an hour trying to understand it, realizing I could have a good 3D visualization with some narration. Sometimes, what would take you a half hour to understand what the textbook says, you can get in 30 seconds with a good visualization of it. And so I would kind of see these things in textbooks or even online or things like that, and just realized that if I put that together in 3D visualization, that you can understand it quite a bit better.

In the early days, he would come home from his software job and toy around with how to tell better stories for a few hours while still having time for his family. But in 2018, he was making enough from ad revenue to dive into his passion full-time and start fresh every day. 

Where 3D shines

Owen says one of his key lessons involved learning how to let the 3D aspect tell the story rather than the words:  

What I've always focused on over the years is what can I show with 3D animation that would be very difficult to explain otherwise. So, in other words, let the visuals do a good chunk of the talking. You need narrations over it to explain and text on screen, but make sure that the visuals are doing most of the talking. That's kind of been my way of looking at it. And yeah, I've always assumed I'm making videos for engineers or an older adult audience. But I mean, over the years, I've gotten moms that have reached out and said, ‘Hey, my five-year-old loves your videos'.

And so I'm always wondering if it's a complicated topic, but maybe I'm making it visually pleasing at the same time so that even though maybe all the technical jargon isn't getting to these like little kids, it's still pleasing to watch. They're still learning even though they may not get 100% of it.

It sometimes drives him crazy to think about how to use the 3D element better, where he thinks about actually telling a story rather than just explaining how things work. This is an ongoing learning process. 

For example, when he was starting with the electric motor, he was reflecting on the boring textbooks and how hard it was to visualize how it actually moved and how he could make it simple for others to understand. This is where his wife comes in handy:

I'll show her the video and if she doesn't get the concept, then I need to revise the video because it's not good enough. And so, we'll walk through, pause the video, and she'll tell me what she doesn't get. I'll re-explain it with words. And after a little bit of time, we'll get to a point where she says, 'Okay, you need to explain it like this.’ Because if she gets the concept, then I found most of my audience can get it. So yeah, the first draft of that video, if I would have posted it, as I originally had it, I don't think it would have as many views. So, getting my wife and other family members and friends to kind of look over these videos and make sure they get them, especially the complicated ones, where there's a really tough concept, has been crucial to figure out.

Speeding the workflow

Although the tools are improving, a lot of grunt work goes into making a good 3D video. Owen’s programming experience has come in handy here because it can help automate some aspects of the process. Better computers also mean he spends less time rendering things. Blender, his main tool, has also been continually adding new features, most of which he does not use. 

In the early days, rendering on his older computer could sometimes take a week. He would check in between going to work and coming home to see that things were on track. Sometimes, he would wake up at 3 a.m., but he does not recommend that since it's not good for sleep. These days, he has several PCs with better graphic cards. 

The most tedious part has been translating reference images into 3D shapes. And here, he learned the value of building on others' work. For example, when he was building the International Space Station, he started off spending an hour modeling all of the pieces when he realized it was going to take three weeks to do the 3D modeling. This inspired his big leap:

I realized this will work, but it's going to be really slow. And so that's when I started branching out and realizing, ‘Wait a second, you can purchase some of these 3D models and get kind of a leap ahead of where I've gotten.’ And that's been fantastic. I still think I don't do that quite enough.

Also, until just last year, he did everything himself. But recently, he started branching out and hiring people. Other YouTube channels have these massive teams, but only a few people know how to tell good 3D stories. Now, he has a few friends helping him, and he has been trying to figure out how he can train them on specific aspects of his workflow:

From the beginning of the video to the end of the video, sometimes it'll take me two months, and I am kind of constantly looking at going, ‘What can I train somebody else to do? What's easy?’ The 3D models are kind of the first part where it's like, ‘Hey, that's going to take me a little while,’ I can explain to somebody what I want, and then I can start working on something else. I'd say I'm still at the beginning of that journey of trying to figure out how to make these videos faster without losing that kind of Jared Owen feel to it.

The research process

The early projects were relatively straightforward to research. For example, with the motor, all the information was out there; he just had to figure out how to reorganize it into an easy-to-digest video. However, he had to seek out experts in other domains, such as the Space Station video. He starts with a Google search, and when he cannot find much of substance, he knows he is onto a good story:

If I'm having trouble finding information about it, I consider that a good thing because it means if I make a good video, then that's going to be the place people turn to.

Other times, he hits a wall where he can’t find anything online, in books, or documentaries. So then he goes looking for experts, and that has been a journey in itself: 

You try to contact people and say, ‘Hey, I run a YouTube channel with 3 million subscribers.’ Some people immediately say, ‘Whoa, that's so cool.’ Other times, they say, ‘YouTube, isn't that for cat videos?’  So, sometimes I get the respect, sometimes I don't, but finding experts to help me with that research process is helpful. I could dig for a whole afternoon trying to help find an answer. Whereas if I fire off one email, an expert might know the answer with the snap of a finger, and it might be something that is nowhere else to be found.

AI experiments

Owen started experimenting with generative AI, hoping it would speed up research. He thought maybe it would help him make things faster, or it might also make his content less valuable because other people could do stuff like his. But for now, he finds it's still up in the air. For research, he found ChatGPT was just as likely to get important facts right as wrong and was a no-go for now.

One place where it is helping today is thinking about writing code to automate parts of the process. For example, some workflows in Blender require clicking through the same menus on a hundred different objects. He has written scripts that can turn five minutes of clicking into a five-second process. He has started asking AI to suggest scripts, and sometimes it works, and other times it does not. But even when it does not it often provides something he can tweak that does work. He explains: 

Hopefully, it will get to a point where I can explain to it, ‘Hey, I'm making an animation about this. Here's a bunch of reference images. Can you set me up the building? I need this over here.’ And maybe it could at least leapfrog me ahead, even though it probably won't be able to do it all. I think that's where I see it going.

Know your audience

Another essential lesson has been figuring out that 3D stories about things are not for everyone. Owen often hears about other YouTube storytellers who imagine their audience is everyone. But he counters:

That's obviously not a very good strategy. You can please some of the people all the time or all the people some of the time. You basically have to decide who is the audience I'm going for, and I think my audience is a little bit more interested in how things work. I've had people politely say, ‘Hey, your stuff doesn't interest me at all.’ I'm like, ‘Hey, that's okay.’

He has recognized that some people like to listen to audiobooks, others learn best from people, and others like paper books. We all have different learning styles. As we evolve towards digital twins and 3D headsets, It’s important to consider how these new 3D storytelling tools can fit into and complement other modalities. He notes:

There are different styles of learning. I think you can explain something one way to somebody, and one person might get it, while another person might be confused. Maybe with some of this storytelling, I could see a point where it's explained in several different ways just to try to accommodate all the different learning styles. But I think that something I've learned to keep in mind is that not everybody is going to be pleased, and not everybody is going to get it. But obviously, you want to make that as wide as possible.

For example, his story about the Titanic involved general sailing terms like ‘port,’ ‘starboard,’ ‘stern,’ and ‘bow.’ He made a point of explaining each new concept. Some watchers complained that explaining this detracted from the video since ‘everyone knows this.’ But Owen makes his videos with kids in mind that might not. It is important to explain the basics so people can see the big picture. He explains:

Maybe half my audience already knows that, but you want to explain the basics. I think if you immediately go in there and try to teach somebody calculus, and they don't have that foundation of the lower-level algebra and things like that, you're going to lose them really quickly.

My take

Jared Owen’s true genius is making complex and difficult stories of things come alive. As a culture, we are still in the irrelevant eye candy phase when telling stories about things in 3D. This will be an essential challenge as we try to figure out how to make better user experiences for multi-dimensional digital twins connected to live things. 

I yawn every time a vendor shows me their new demo of a factory or piece of equipment that is supposed to explain why their innovative technology is so cool. Sure, the graphics are improving, but the storytelling aspect has not. You have to start by thinking about how the 3D or interactive aspect actually helps make the leap to that ‘aha’ moment. 

We also need to consider how we can make it easier to translate experts' insights into simple stories for various audiences. Today, the storytelling primitives are 3D shapes and raw data. We also need to think about providing experts with storytelling primitives that democratize the process of translating their insights into those ‘aha’ moments all of us can understand and across various modalities. 

It’s also important to find better ways of automating the primitives to explain complex concepts at different levels of complexity. An engineer does not need a rudimentary explanation for those things they know, but it might help an executive or a front-line worker. Tailoring stories across various audiences could benefit from ways to automatically show or hide different levels of detail in the stories and user interface. 

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