As a writer studying Integrated Digital Media, I come to most projects with an agenda in mind. How can I integrate the written word with digital media in new, exciting ways? How can I create visualizations or experiences that relate to the written word somehow?
I really do believe that combining the written word with digital media might just be the key to getting people to read more, to engage with valuable stories more often. That’s why brought me to try to create a visualization of a key location in my novel, Mandatory Kindness, about mortal issues in the medical field.
The Dream Clinic is a literal shared dream where people can explore the clinic in VR and see the disparities of modern medicine in a fictionalized setting.
Creative Brief & Design Constraints
A definition of VR: “Hope for a medium that could convey dreaming.”
— Jaron Lanier, Dawn of the New Everything
The prompt for this project was to create “a shared dream.” Prior to diving into this project, we kept a dream journal, shared dreams with other students, and built a visualization of another student’s dream in Mozilla Hubs.
For this final project, we were given an exciting degree of freedom to explore the prompt however we wished, as long as it culminated in a social VR experience or multiplayer game. Though I have a huge soft spot for gamification as an avid gamer myself, I wanted to create an experience-based off of my book and bring the clinic where much of the story takes place to life.
Ideation & Conceptualization
I actually started brainstorming (and doing some truly terrible traditional sketches) rather early in the semester. I’ve always been interested in the science behind dreaming, which is what sparked that novel idea so many years ago.
Placemaking: A Sci-Fi Dream Clinic
I’ve been fascinated by the idea of someday having the technology to manipulate a person’s dreams.
I kept diving deeper into the ideation process and came up with a pitch for the project.
I’m Recreating a Place From My Novel in 3D
I’m going to create a visualization from my book and turn it into a social VR experience.
Before I took to building the environment in Unreal Engine, I wanted to refresh my knowledge on current technology for recording and manipulating dreams. I started this project several years ago and the technology that has been developed thus far for interpreting and recording dream has actually come a long way.
4 Research Studies About Recording and Manipulating Dreams
To continue ideation and research for my Dream Clinic project, I set out to dig a little deeper into the technology…
While the technology in my book is still far more advanced that it is still anchored in the concept of being near-future sci-fi, I feel like it’s always helpful to stay up to date on research. Beyond that, reading medical articles reminds me of my own time working in medicine. Jogging those memories, while unpleasant at times, does help me get into the mindset to work on this proejct.
Every good creative process involves a feedback loop. One part of the process for this project that I really enjoyed was creating a survey about the project and having classmates fill it out. I tried to get creative with the questions I asked and dig deeply into what features would make the experience compelling. I also got some excellent suggestions on how to emphasize the stratification between the statuses of different patients receiving treatment at the clinic.
Accumulating Assets for the Social VR Dream Clinic
Making a literal shared dream calls for quite a few assets to create the illusion of dream hopping.
Ultimately, I decided to concentrate on making this experience a social commentary on moral issues in modern medicine. I wanted to show how rich patients could afford the treatment just as a way to live out a realistic, immersive fantasy. I also wanted to show how simple the dreams of people who truly need the therapy could potentially be. I also got some excellent suggestions on how to emphasize the stratification between the statuses of different patients receiving treatment at the clinic.
The True Key to Iteration; Feedback
In any creative endeavor, getting critique can be a game-changer.
Continuing to Build
With that feedback, I kept building and iterating. However, I did find myself grappling with finding the right 3D assets as the weeks went on. I nabbed an asset collection called Modular Sci-Fi Hospital when it was on sale in the UE Marketplace which gave me the backbone of the clinic. However, the environment was very dark, which wasn’t at all consistent with my vision for this well-funded research clinic.
Creating 3D Environments Isn’t for the Faint of Hand
You need some heart, too, but your hands and your graphics card are going to do the real heavy lifting.
I took the building blocks from that asset pack, like walls and floors, and built the atrium of the clinic like it was 3D virtual Legos. This ended up taking several weeks since I had to pull assets from other places as well and just generally become competent at arranging something so large scale in a 3D environment.
Though I was piecing things together, this is the first time I did more than decorate existing environments, so it took a while to reach an acceptable level. (You’d probably laugh at how many times I howled into the night upon realizing that there was a gap between a piece of wall and ceiling or floor.)
This project was an interesting undertaking for me because it dealt with one of my greatest weaknesses as a writer — bringing the setting to life. I’m always so preoccupied with plot, character, and trying to write compelling dialogue that I never take enough time to describe settings in my writing. I’m so concerned with trying to make the story fast-paced and interesting that the biggest piece of workshop feedback I’ve gotten on my creative work is to slow down and smell the literary roses sometimes.
The biggest barrier I faced in this project was VR optimization. Since this wasn’t just one environment, but three, I faced a lot of issues with software crashing and the in-game lighting looking pretty incongruous with my mental image for this dream clinic.
These rooms were mostly pieced together with assets from the modular sci-fi hospital. When patients come to the clinic, they’re checked in at reception, then a technician brings them to the treatment room. Patients are sedated, their programmed dreams are finalized, and they’re connected to the machinery with simple nodes connected to their foreheads.
For the furniture, it was surprisingly tricky to find 3D models of furniture that looked modern and suitable for a clinic. I got some assets from Next Level 3D’s Free Furniture Pack and from the Edith Finch: Classrooms and Bedrooms package by Epic Games. A lot of these assets didn’t quite fit the look and mood, so I had to adjust textures and materials.
Going deeper into the clinic, I found myself hitting file size issues before I even had the clinic itself finished. To my dismay, I had to simplify the lights quite a lot and even bake some lights, which brings about some disastrous side effects to the light and airy look that I was going for throughout the clinic.
I found a lovely, minimalist bedroom model by Aurelija LT on TurboSquid and got to work on pulling it into Unreal Engine. I wanted this dream to be simple and really embody the idea of a person who is there, getting their treatment paid by insurance, and perhaps doesn’t have the same degree of advanced programming going into their simulated dream. I tried to make it peaceful with warm lights in the room, casting beautiful shadows of the bird decoration.
Little did I realize that this room was not optimized for VR. I ended up reducing the resolution of every texture in this little room, including every little plant along the wall. I actually went a little too optimization happy and reduced the resolution of the bedsheets, temporarily rendering them transparent. It was a rather funny error on my part.
I initially hoped to do more than two dream states, but given time constraints and how incredibly heavy this experience was becoming, I decided to stop at two. This time, looking for something more optimized, I decided to go with this stylized kingdom. It was simply constructed and embodies the idea of someone frivolous living out a programmed fantasy.
Thoughts & Goals for the Future
During the course of working on this project, I spent more time building the clinic itself than I spent on the dreams. In the future, I would like to work on the dreamscapes a bit more in order to flesh them out, customize them more, and really make them my own.
I would like to keep building this and add gamification elements to turn it into a multiplayer VR game. I’d love to have players need to navigate through different dreams to learn things about the patients. Alternatively, perhaps do some very advanced blueprinting and figure out how to let players create their own dream and use a procedurally generated environment that matches parameters the player inputs. This would be quite a heavy lift on the programming side of things, so I would need to get a lot deeper in learning Unreal’s blueprints before I could manage such advanced interactions.
All in all, I’m walking away from this project with a fresh sense of all the possibilities I have as a writer dabbling in technology. I think creating explorable 3D environments to go along with a book could be an exciting and interesting way to promote a novel. I also feel like creating experiences or games based on a story really opens up a lot of doors to leveraging technology to encourage people to read more.
I’ve been interested in dreams for years, hence why I started writing Mandatory Kindness. It was a really interesting creative exercise to bring The Dream Clinic to life and try to find ways to tell the story of the book with very few words. It’s definitely a road I want to keep exploring.