Secret Sky 2021

Active Theory
Active Theory Case Studies
9 min readJul 6, 2021

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Recap Video

After a long anticipated build up following the success of Porter Robinson’s Secret Sky 2020, on April 24 we went live with Secret Sky 2021. The festival — presented by artist, songwriter, and producer Porter Robinson — ran for over 10 hours and featured 16 artists including Boys Noize, Baauer, and REZZ.

Over the course of the festival, 160,000 attendees from 163 countries joined us in the digital auditorium, exploring the festival’s four unique and immersive environments and audio chatting together across mobile, desktop and VR devices.

Building on 2020

With many events pivoting to virtual activations in 2020, we launched our Dreamwave Platform. As part of this, Secret Sky was born. Having worked with Porter Robinson on previous multiplayer listening experiences like Virtual Self and Nurtu.re, Secret Sky was a natural evolution during the pandemic as music festivals shifted online.

While Secret Sky 2020 was a great success (with over 750,000 people attending our auditorium), we did have some learnings we wanted to incorporate into the 2021 event.

Secret Sky 2020 featured scribble avatars and a single 3d auditorium environment

Creating a Festival Vibe

At Secret Sky 2020, we saw a lot of excitement from attendees who rushed into the auditorium. That being said, the space itself was relatively small and there wasn’t that much to do, so users ended up just sitting around and enjoying the music.

The Secret Sky 2020 space was a single auditorium. We wanted to expand on this in 2021, giving users more things to do.

For 2021, we wanted to give users more reasons to engage with the festival and explore the environment. To make this happen we needed to give people things to do and places to go (similar to installations and tents at real festivals). This led us to a layout with a main stage area and spin off zones you could portal to and explore. We also included audio chat to bring to life the social aspect of the occasion. Finally, we wanted to include the festival stream in the 3D environment (rather than simply as an overlay), to make the experience more immersive and avoid the need for users to go to a different platform to watch the stream.

Laying out the Festival

From last year, we really liked loading in front of the main stage from afar, and gradually moving in, building anticipation. For 2021, we use a tiered terrain where users would load up high and gradually move down to join the party. This also worked with Porter’s sky theme, as starting up high gave lots of space for sky in the environment. From the main stage area, users could move from side to side and portal to different environments to explore.

Attendees would start high up and gradually explore down to the main stage

Environment Exploration

We found a starting point for the visual exploration of Secret Sky 2021 in the Second Sky 2021 announcement video. This existed in the same world as previous Nurture work that laid scribble and portals over stylized natural environments.

Early inspiration was pulled from the Second Sky 2021 announcement video

Performance was a big consideration for us as we needed the experience to not only work on desktop and mobile devices, but also in a virtual reality context for devices like the Oculus Quest 2. With this in mind, we tried for a low poly approach but looked for ways to make it feel stylized (and not low poly). We pulled references from games like Sky and League of Legends to show how we could create playful rock and land formations that would be performant as well as variable and interesting.

References from games and anime were used as a creative north star

To ensure the visual style would work for a performance standpoint we developed prototypes and experimented with some different effects to bring the landscape to life both on the ground and in the sky.

Early prototypes exploring landscape and clouds visual interactions

For the stage itself, we experimented with a few different iterations. We wanted it to exist seamlessly within the magical landscape we were creating, but also be reminiscent of an actual main stage at a real festival (e.g. we moved away from the idea of a floating stage).

Early renders exploring different stage visuals

Avatars

For avatars, we wanted to create figures that were young and playful, but not overly childish. For references, we drew inspiration from games like Journey, as well as Studio Ghibli and Porter’s and our own 3D explorations.

Avatar inspiration from Studio Ghibli ( left), Porter’s own creations (middle) and our own internal experiments (right)

In terms of actually creating the characters, we iterated through Cinema 4D and Octane and paired it with elements from Porter’s discography including the kaomoji eyes from his Worlds-era logo and scribbles featured prominently in the art direction for Porter’s latest album, Nurture.

The kaomoji eyes gave the avatars a sense of character and playfulness

Once ready for the environments, we gave the character some animations and developed a custom Houdini pipeline to parse the point data into a JSON and a texture that could be read from within the build and set up arm data for VR. As a finishing touch in Houdini, we also stored an attribute within the character’s export data to specify where we could animate wind. Within code, a procedural layered noise was then applied in the shader to give the cloak a subtle directional idle movement.

Core Features

Live Stream

Throughout the show, users could watch the livestream of the different performers. In Desktop and VR, this was piped directly into the stage within the 3D experience. The livestream itself was also viewable on direct streaming platforms like YouTube and Twitch, making the festival accessible and widespread for everyone

The video livestream was embedded into our 3D environment

Explorable, Immersive Environments

Secret Sky last year existed in a single, dark auditorium space — just one environment. We wanted to add to that this year and give attendees a reason to spend some time in the space hanging out and exploring.

The Main Stage: Upon entering the festival, attendees were immediately taken into the main stage area to watch the show and hang out. From here, they could spend time chatting with each other in audio, check out the Postmates sponsor booth (free delivery) and portal to the other environments.

The Main Stage 3D environment

The Tree: For a birdseye view of the festival, attendees could portal up to the tree and climb to the top to experience a mystical and spiritual moment together. To get users back down, we built a bridge going out into the sky to jump off. While it wasn’t our intended interaction (but massive props to the Secret Sky community) we found attendees queueing up and hanging out on the bridge together.

The Tree 3D environment

Strixhaven: We created a dedicated space to ‘Strixhaven’, the School of Mages and the latest set to be released in the Magic the Gathering card game. Like The Tree, users could watch the festival grounds from the balcony, seeing attendees hanging out on the ground and getting a great view of the fireworks.

Strixhaven 3D environment

Cube World: We love building a community over time, making throwbacks and adding easter eggs into our experiences (our work on Rick and Morty was a great example of this). For Secret Sky, this was Cube World. While it might look a little different to Secret Sky 2020, the dark environment and trippy effects were our homage to the amazing event from last year that kicked off this annual virtual festival.

Cube World 3D environment

Audio Chat

In a previous event we ran for Sundance Film Festival, we implemented proximity based chat bubbles that allowed users to start live audio conversations with others nearby. By walking up to an avatar a prompt would trigger to start a chat bubble. These chat bubbles were then free form and anyone could join, causing some serious dance parties to kick off.

Approaching another users avatar would trigger a chat bubble prompt request

Taking it into VR

Last year we launched Secret Sky 2020 with an experimental VR build. This year we went all out with support for WebVR including hand tracking. Users could move around with the joystick or teleport from place to place to quickly get around the environment. As previously mentioned, the WebVR support added new design and performance considerations we needed to address throughout production. For the most part, having avatars in a 3d space translates pretty well to VR, as the VR camera can simply be the avatars perspective.

Through hand tracking avatars accessing the experience in VR were given arms.

Managing Performance

Texture Optimization

With 4 completely different environments and massive landscapes, a major problem we tackled was keeping texture and geometry sizes down to have the festival load quickly across all device browsers including VR. So for much larger objects, repeat normals and masking maps were an obvious go to. With a combination of baked lightmaps, these textures brought more detail to shaders at a very close up viewing distance (especially in VR where you can walk up to surfaces like the tree) and added a level of subtle visual interest through the fresnel calculation from further view at less than ¼ of the size cost compared to using unique maps per each object. And for unique geometries like the main environment’s landscape grass, we could also pack multiple masks into a single repeat texture through the different color channels and use them to create animated effects like wind highlights and color separation.

Managing Instances

Although we managed to pack groups of instances like the grass patches and leaf particles into single sets of draw calls, having such large environments meant that there were tens of thousands of instances to fill entire locations. So to keep performance standard across all devices, we implemented procedures like frustum culling, distance based culling, and scaling the number of instances based on device performance. This was a major save on devices like much older phones as they would take much load off the GPU to run the experience at optimal performance.

Like last year, each set ended with an exciting fireworks display

Go Live and Community Reaction

The Secret Sky 2021 digital auditorium attracted over 160,000 attendees (including 50k+ VR sessions) who explored the environment for an average of 8 minutes and 21 seconds each. This was an engagement time increase of 400% from last year and helped to push #SecretSky to number 1 trending on Twitter during the event. Fans also took to Twitter sharing their support and fan art.

Fan art was shared on social media

Thank you to all the Secret Sky attendees who continue to make this event special every year. For more information, check out our Dreamwave case study. See you again soon!

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