Ralston Louie loved the world and everything in it. He was the type of person to get lost in the Crete mountains, just to be found by local Greek shepherds; the type of person to stand on the back deck of the ferry during a rocky ride, admiring and capturing the views behind him.
Ralston’s work as a student in the School of Cinematic Arts aimed to capture the world’s beautiful minutiae and is the vessel that will pass along his perspective to future generations.
USC announced earlier this month that Ralston, a third-year M.F.A. student in the Interactive Media & Games Division, died on Jan. 31 while swimming. He was 28.
Ralston joined the USC community in 2018 with an undergraduate degree from Williams College and extensive development and production experience under his belt. He honed his artistry in both China and the United States.
By all accounts, he had a unique way of viewing the world and sought to engage communities in serious social and political issues by transporting them into these spaces through a virtual domain.
Outside of the virtual space, Ralston’s friends and colleagues said they will remember him for his warmth and authenticity. He was an avid athlete — a varsity soccer player at Williams College, a triathlete at USC and an outdoors enthusiast.
In the summer of 2019, Ralston took a summer class in Greece, taught by Marientina Gotsis, director of the USC Creative Media & Behavioral Health Center.
Gotsis recalled that before every class, Ralston would go running or swimming and sit in the back of the classroom drenched in sweat, looking through his maps for hiking trails.
“He was always in two places. He was there [in class] mentally but he was always planning his next adventure,” said Gotsis. “I always found it lovable and frustrating because he could just do so much at the same time and the rest of us were just dragging from the heat and the intellectual stimulation.”
Though Ralston loved exploring many places, perhaps the one that most inspired him was China.
According to his father, Ralston channeled his passion for media and his Chinese ancestry to create interactive media experiences and films to encourage young Chinese Americans to revisit their heritage.
One of his greatest points of pride was his thesis project, “Wing Wor,” said Ralston’s father. The virtual reality project takes viewers on a time-traveling journey from futuristic Hong Kong to his family’s ancestral village in China.
Ralston first pitched his thesis to Gotsis, an advisor for the project.
“It was irresistible,” remembered Gotsis. “He really admired his dad and was trying to do good by his family and was trying to make sense of his origins and promote Chinese culture.”
Ralston also approached Vangelis Lympouridis, professor of AR/VR and mixed reality at USC Viterbi, about the project. The professor recalled when Ralston, his former teaching assistant, asked if he could borrow a scanner and go to China.
“I mean we’re talking about a $20,000 scanner here,” Lympouridis said, chuckling. “I remember saying ‘are you joking?’ and he just explained it a little bit and we tried to figure out how we could make it happen.”
The pair ended up doing some sneaking around — Lympouridis let Ralston take the scanner without informing anyone of its departure.
“He promised he would take care of things and he came back extremely excited [with his work],” said Lympouridis. “He had a passion for family, heritage, culture and he went to his father’s village and scanned every inch of it while his father took photos. He wanted to recreate it in virtual reality so people could find what it means to connect with origins.”
In the video walkthrough of “Wing Wor”, Ralston introduces the player to the game in the flesh, young for eternity. He immortalized his passion and personality through virtual reality, providing friends and family an insight into himself forever.
“He encapsulated himself in a digital replica to send a message in a bottle for everyone that will go through it, to meet him and understand a fragment of his personality,” Lympouridis said. “To understand the essence of his origin and what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it.”
Though the work is unfinished, Gotsis and Ralston’s father will be working alongside faculty and students to complete the project to honor Ralston’s memory.
“I don’t know what the future means for his work, but I know what it means for his legacy,” Lympouridis said. “The more we can do to honor his life and vision and connect the dots between the living soul and soul of the work itself, we can create a narrative of the work that can live indefinitely.”
In another project, Ralston documented his travels to China with his grandmother through archival photos, videos and a personal interview. He also chronicled his grandmother’s fight with Alzheimer’s disease and hoped his work could help preserve her memories of China.
“Through knowing our family’s history, we gain a cultural grounding in who we are and where we come from,” Ralston narrated in the Roots and Branches documentary. “We begin to understand how past generations have shaped us and how we will shape future generations.”
Ralston’s work is hailed as doing just that. It can inspire future generations of interactive designers and developers looking to shine a light on underrepresented groups, his teachers said.
“He had a vision on how to blend cinema, gaming, and technology into this new space that is emerging,” said Robert Hernandez, a digital journalism professor at USC Annenberg. “Ralston is part of a small set of folks looking to use this medium as a way to communicate the human experience at a deeper level.”
Hernandez noted Ralston’s “natural” talent in his chosen medium.
In one of his final projects, Ralston worked alongside Hernandez to scan dioramas at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County to recreate cultural habitats. The project’s goal was to overlay the dioramas with augmented reality to show the effects of climate change — and Ralston was the catalyst.
Through his training with Lympouridis and his passion for recreation, Ralston laid the foundation for other students to use the technology he loved to search for solutions to global challenges.
Though the website has not yet gone live, Hernandez gave Annenberg Media permission to share the beta version, which will later be accessible on the Apple App Store.
In another project, Ralston worked with a team at the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Sciences to document food waste and how to fight the ongoing issue.
Ralston was gifted in many forms of art, but his work in VR and experimental technologies made him stand out among the rest. He was admired by professors, colleagues and friends for his strong passion for his cultural identity and his fierce dedication to his work.
Ralston will live on through his visionary work and indelible contributions to the USC community.
If you or someone you know is dealing with grief during this challenging time, USC Student Health, Counseling and Mental Health Services are available 24 hours a day at 213-740-9355 (WELL).For pastoral care and spiritual counseling, please contact the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life at 213-740-6110. Further support is available from the Office of Campus Support and Intervention at 213-740-0411.