Lost in Wanderland

some thoughts on creating entertaining screen environments

I am writing this after finishing the Melbourne Virtual Reality workshop run by Academy Xi. It was ten weeks of fun. I have been privileged to join a great group of fellow enthusiasts and under the leadership of Beau and Nathan become enmeshed and immersed once more in the creation of VR environments.

Much has changed since I last played with VR. The most exciting part is it is now accessible since the price of the technology has drastically dropped so far in the last 20 years.

In 1997 at the VR Institute of RMIT , we used a 3 pipe SGI InfiniteReality computer which cost more than a million dollars (with a specially equipped gas filled fire extinguisher system since water would destroy the computer) and to create content we needed a team of eight full time staff.

In 2017 I am now using a laptop PC with the HTC Vive (around $1500) and a team of four part-timers. The system includes headset and two base stations and controllers and primarily works via a Steam VR plugin that converts your Unity (or UnReal Engine) game into a 3D navigable environment. I am not going delve into much more detail here regarding the construction or configurations, if you are interested then please contact Beau or Frank and say I sent you. They have an excellent half day VR Bootcamp as well as a whole flotilla of other useful courses.

What I am wanting to write about is a precursor to the experience that we created which we call Backyard 51. I am hoping that you will get a chance to put on the headset and grab the controllers and explore what we created. Stay tuned for a location coming near you.

The backstory to the designing of a VR experience.

At film school we were taught that the audience must suspend disbelief when your movie begins. Let me start with altered perspectives. It was natural for me to turn to Winsor McCay (another occasional animator and newspaper cartoonist) who created Little Nemo in Slumberland. I am including this clip as the first of my video links because it effectively takes us into a familiar world we know but looks at it from a very different perspective. Nemo has found himself in Befuddle Hall. McCay’s strong draughting skills and story telling let us quickly become acclimatised to Nemo’s predicament. What appealed to me was the chance to remember what it was like being a child and looking at the world from another angle. If you have yet to read the 23rd Feb 1908 cartoon strip please do so soon.

I am including the Nintendo 64 game Star Wars Pod Racer clip next as it was a very good attempt to allow you to run around inside a game. In this game you take control of a pod racer and compete against several AI characters in a wide range of race track locations. Why I am including this is because it allows me to show you how we (the player) were made to follow the track and could not deviate very far. We can’t get out of the groove that we are forced into. I always wished I had built a pod racer that I could sit in and mount the monitor on the front as a windscreen to create a more immersive experience. I still might do it. I included this clip to illustrate the concept of being on a track and having a limited choice of ways to travel.

Next I want to write about the gameplay in Medievil2 on Sony Playstation, one of my favourite games. This clip starts with a wonderful cut scene animation that sets the tone of the game and then we enter the game. We are still playing on a “track” but this time we can follow the character into a mysterious and sometimes threatening world. I am including this clip because of the use of the mast (at around 1:48 in) as a navigation device. When you find yourself immersed in the game and wander through the sunken seabed of ships, it is important to recall where you are at times, particularly if you want to climb up and out. The only ladder you can use is around the corner to the right of the mast you will see. 
This game is a good example of semi immersion. When we are play we identify with and become the main character (Sir Daniel Fortesque). My main criticism of the game was the fixed camera positioning — always behind the character as we drive him. I wanted to be able to turn around and see what was behind me without moving Sir Daniel.

Gameplay inside Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. I am including this because it was a fantastic game to play when you didn’t play by the rules. It was a massive sandbox that you could explore in a wide variety of ways. As a player you could steal a bicycle or choose from more than 120 cars and trucks to drive and travel all over the place. If you disregard the violence and typed in a cheat mode it became even more fun as your player was now immortal. Cheat mode allows you to live a fantasy life of carnage without consequences. I preferred to don a jet pack and fly away all over the world.

So now you have an understanding on the influences behind my wanting to make a suburban environment that you could explore and interact with objects. The vision was enhanced and successfully realised through the incredible talents of Team DAJA (Dale, Andrew, John and myself). additional thanks to Joel for load ins and outs and the Wellbeing team for spurring us on.