Diving headfirst into the fledgling, fast-developing realm of virtual reality, which immerses headset-clad viewers in imaginary, interactive worlds, 16 Texas A&M graduate visualization students spent the summer creating four virtual reality games from scratch with guidance from industry experts at Lucasfilm’s ILMxLAB, an industry leader in immersive entertainment production.
The Department of Visualization’s Summer Industry Workshop, now in its 17th year, allows students to work with industry professionals from award-winning studios like Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks and ILMxLAB. The workshop mimics a real-world animated film production pipeline, with experts from each step in the process mentoring student teams as they create engaging animated shorts around a central theme. This year, ILMxLAB veered the workshop in a new direction with a foray into virtual reality and game design.
To reach their goal, a fully functional interactive VR experience, students mastered technology and software allowing them to realize imaginary worlds in detailed, 360-degree participatory digital environments that others could engage and explore. Their solutions included four games: one set among the macabre trappings of a New Orleans voodoo shop, another that finds the player on a sandy desert beneath hovering stone monoliths, one staged in a mutant-menaced high school gym, and yet another set among ethereal islands of violet-hued crystal.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” said Ann McNamara, associate professor of visualization, who manages the course and facilitates interaction between students and visiting industry experts. “No one really knows what VR is going to be at this point, but a lot of studios are exploring this realm. I think we’ve only seen the tip of the virtual reality iceberg.”
The industry class, she said, helps keep visualization students, or “Vizzers,” on the cutting edge of modern technology and makes them competitive when they graduate. Though an experimental medium, virtual reality is rife with promise and opportunity in and outside the entertainment industry. Numerous fields, including the medical profession, architecture, education, journalism, psychology, and even the oil and gas industry are exploring VR applications.
“The workshop offers students an amazing opportunity because it is a one-of-a-kind experience in the country,” said McNamara. “No other university is doing this.”
Creating virtual worlds is a labor-intensive process, said Vizzer Mallory Kohut, 23 of Houston, who, like most of her classmates, had never worked in virtual reality before.
In addition to the rigors of creating a detailed immersive environment, students must quickly master an array of new technology like HTC Vive, a virtual reality system; learn to program in C#; use software like Unity, a 3-D game engine, and Substance Painter, which texturizes objects in 3-D.
“It’s a new and interesting challenge to think of things in this 360-degree way versus just a 2-D animation,” Kohut said. “It’s refreshing.”
One of the four games, “Leiloa,” is a hero’s journey to adulthood where players travel between crystal islands representing heart, mind and soul, solving puzzles along the way.
The journey starts with a young boy who hands the player a wand, which is used to teleport around the crystalline world. On the first island, the wand is used to manipulate a floating disk that directs falling orbs into small craters. Once mastered, the player moves to a new island and engages a color-matching game. Once lights and tones are duplicated in the right order, an elevator transports the player through the sky to a prism-filled peak where light is aimed through hovering crystals to unlock the mountain’s magic. With the tasks completed, the young boy from the first scene rises through the mountain and matures into a man amid a dazzling light display.
The crystal island world was created by Meg Cook of League City, Texas; Leo Liu of Baoding, China; Nathan Lindig of Frisco, Texas and Danicka Oglesby of Houston.
The other games (showcased in the accompanying video) task players to summon a witch with magic potions, wield a wand of light to complete a 360-degree puzzle map, or use their mutant superpowers to defeat an irate high school security guard.
Though verbal clues aid navigation through all of the games, players can opt to move freely around the richly designed spaces and marvel at the intricate details.
These virtual worlds evolved throughout the intense ten-week course with feedback from five visiting ILMxLAB experts who provided team and one-on-one coaching while on campus, as well as video coaching from their San Francisco studio.
“Their tips saved us a lot of time,” said Nathan Lindig, 23 of Frisco, Texas. “We have an elevator in our game and they told us that people don’t like to descend in VR.”
The visiting virtuosos from ILMxLAB include Maggie Oh, the content pipeline lead at ILMxLab’s Advancement Development group; Barak Moshe, associate technical director at Lucasfilm; Roger Cordes, digital production supervisor for the Advanced Development Group at Lucasfilm; Willie Hartman, experience designer at ILMxLAB; and Lewey Geselowitz, senior engineer AR/VR/ on-set interaction technologies for Lucasfilm.
“Working with artists from ILMxLAB was truly an amazing experience,” McNamara said. “It is so exciting to watch the artists closely mentor each team and give our students strong insight into how a professional VR production evolves. This is an invaluable experience for our graduate students, to work personally with professionals from the very industry they hope to break into after graduation.”
In addition to reproducing the production pipeline experience from conceptualization to completion, McNamara said the visiting pros encouraged students to balance their creative and technical skills.
“What they produced is stunning, high quality, entertaining work, which is what our masters programs in visualization is all about,” she said.
The finished games, showcased August 30 at Viz North in downtown Bryan, will eventually be available online for downloading to VR-enabled devices.