Interview: LeVar Burton on gaming, Star Trek and why Silicon Valley will need to catch up with him

The former "Star Trek" actor talks about the new Bridge Crew VR game, being recognized for "Community" and the possibility of Reading Rainbow in virtual reality.

Sean Hollister Senior Editor / Reviews
When his parents denied him a Super NES, he got mad. When they traded a prize Sega Genesis for a 2400 baud modem, he got even. Years of Internet shareware, eBay'd possessions and video game testing jobs after that, he joined Engadget. He helped found The Verge, and later served as Gizmodo's reviews editor. When he's not madly testing laptops, apps, virtual reality experiences, and whatever new gadget will supposedly change the world, he likes to kick back with some games, a good Nerf blaster, and a bottle of Tejava.
Sean Hollister
5 min read

What does gaming mean to LeVar Burton? A whole lot actually, but maybe not for the reasons you may think. We caught up with the actor at E3 this week to talk about the new Bridge Crew Star Trek VR game, and being the accomplished actor and producer he is, a few other points of interest came up as well.

(Editors' note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)

What do video games mean to you? You don't develop or star in games, but I've seen you hanging around E3. They must mean something to you, yes?

Yeah, they do. I'm a casual gamer in terms of what I play. They mean so much to me in my life because it was one of the ways that my daughter and I spent time together as she was growing up. We started with CD-ROM games like Candy Land and graduated to Lara Croft: Tomb Raider games, and she kept going -- to the point that she's now on the Achievement Hunter squad for [YouTube gaming channel] Rooster Teeth. She makes a living playing video games.

So video games have a real special place in my heart.

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LeVar Burton, unofficial host of Star Trek: Bridge Crew.

Josh Miller/CNET

You got to try Star Trek: Bridge Crew before anyone else. What was it like, being in virtual reality on the deck of a Star Trek ship?

As an actor, we have to do a lot of make-believe, right? That's our job. But here, you don't have to imagine anything: you're in a finished universe and all of the details are there. You interact with the consoles, you pull levers, you push buttons, you make things happen in that reality.

Just how much of it was make believe when you were on the set of Star Trek: The Next Generation?

A lot. Much more than you would expect. I mean, all of it. We had the consoles and there were blinking lights, but all of the functionality we made up. When we were talking to somebody on the view screen, what we were really looking at was the entire crew assembled out there. So, this is really very cool. And the gameplay really reflects the Star Trek ethos.

On Star Trek, in addition to your role as the engineer you were famous for wearing a piece of technology: a visor that allows the blind to see. We've seen other Star Trek inventions like the communicator and the PADD make it to reality (in the form of smartphones and tablets, respectively): when's the visor coming?

The visor is on its way. There are several more iterations that we will need to go through in order to get the technology into that small of a device, but we're definitely heading towards giving sight to the sightless. We're getting really close.

How far have we come? What's the furthest you've seen?

Well, there's a device that interacts with the optic nerve, which bypasses the, what would you call it, the biology of the eye. That's pretty cool. I think that's part of the value of Star Trek, one of the things Star Trek has brought to all of us, is getting us to continually reimagine the world.

Watch this: We flew a Star Trek starship in VR

Back to the VR game: So we won't actually see Geordi La Forge, or you, LeVar Burton, in it, right?

Not unless we're playing together, right! I can't wait. I've played with Karl [Urban, who plays Dr. McCoy in the new movies] and with Jeri [Ryan, Seven of Nine from "Voyager"]. I want to play with Brent [Spiner, aka Data] and Jonathan [Frakes, Riker] and Michael [Dorn, Worf] and Patrick [Stewart, Picard]. I really want to have that experience with my friends.

It's just so...meta that I think it would be awesome.

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Josh Miller/CNET

Do you think that we'll see you in the new Star Trek series?

I don't know! I don't know. I have no idea. I am encouraged. I think that Bryan Fuller [the new show's co-creator] is a smart man and he is an avowed fan, and that's a good place to begin.

An avowed fan of Geordi, perhaps?

Of Star Trek. Of Star Trek. There are other incarnations of Star Trek where it has been stated by those in control that they'd never seen an episode, and I find that odd.

At this point, do you think you're more recognized for Star Trek, for "Roots," for Reading Rainbow? For "Community"?

That really depends on the age and the frame of reference of the person doing the recognizing, right? I get a lot of "Community" references these days, a lot. And "The Big Bang Theory," as well.

Look, I've been doing this for more than a minute, and to have reached that point in my career where I have this body of work that people seem to appreciate...I'm grateful.

Do you ever feel you get typecast as the good guy? Would you ever want to play a bad guy?

I think if the right villain came along it would be great to go against that type, yeah.

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LeVar Burton: Badass bad guy.

Josh Miller/CNET

What would be your type?

It would have to be the right villain though, in the right piece, the right vehicle, but yeah I would absolutely go there. As an actor you want to express the range of of humanity, the full range, right?

What kind of a bad guy would you like to be?

A badass bad guy. There's no sense in being a bad guy unless you can be a badass one.

What do you think of the current wearable space, all this virtual reality and augmented reality?

You know, in the vein of stroll, walk, run, we're in the walking phase. It's a little awkward. We're toddlers. We're just getting on our feet. We've been waiting for a long time for virtual reality to be really applicable in the gaming space. I know I have, right? And so this year it's the thing at E3. Everybody's got a VR game that they're launching.

I'm happy that we're here, because it means that the technology is finally catching up to our imaginations. I'm excited about where we go next?

Do you see yourself using VR for education, a la Reading Rainbow?

Absolutely, without question. We are deep in discussions about its educational applications.

Watch this: Take a look: LeVar Burton takes us behind the scenes at Reading Rainbow

(Editors' note: Last year, LeVar Burton gave us a tour of what goes on behind the curtain at Reading Rainbow, which you can see in the video above.)

You personally?

My company, yeah. Look at the opportunities. Reading Rainbow is famous for our video field trips -- taking kids on adventures that they might not ordinarily have access to, as ways to excite their curiosity and imagination.

So, just take it that one step further: Reading Rainbow virtual video field trips, where we can literally put you in the environment of, say, the White House, and LeVar takes you on a tour.

Do you think you'd go back to Kickstarter for something like that? When you spoke to us last year, it sounded like you'd had a hard time convincing Silicon Valley that your content was worth investing in. Has that changed?

Here's my belief. My whole experience with Silicon Valley taught me this: how important it is for me to stay in my lane. I'm gonna continue to do what it is I do. I believe that Silicon Valley will eventually pivot in my direction, and I will have been there the whole time.