The Madison VR Experience

 

 Recently I finished up working on The Madison VR Experience at AVR which the team and I have been cooking up for the past five months. It’s great to be able to start giving the project some air time and showcase the effort on the team’s part as it's been a challenging development process for all of us involved. We were tasked with creating a VR experience for The Madison, a new residential tower in Canary Wharf, to immerse potential buyers in an accurate virtual representation of the finished building from apartments to available amenities. There were a number of challenges on the project from the scale of what we needed to produce, a changing team and my own role expanding over the course of production.

 The Madison is the largest VR experience we’ve produced at AVR, something like seven different virtual spaces with features such as changing from day to night and other user interactions. These have been interesting hurdles to overcome and learn from over the past months, the answer not always being an easy one or simple to reach. I feel my role has evolved from mainly being responsible for the project's visuals and asset creation to a wider involvement across the whole of production. There's been a large part of my time developing features and growing my technical understanding of lighting and Blueprinting in Unreal. In general I've become more responsible for building the underlying systems and features in the simulation. This expands into the project's User Experience (UX), thinking about how the end-user explores and interacts with the simulation and trying to design an intuitive and engaging experience. This has meant developing a User Interface (UI) and the journey the end-user will have in the VR head-set.

 With my role shifting to what I feel is a broader one on projects my general responsibilities on the team have also changed. As team members have left and new ones join I've stepped up in the managerial side of things, helping to run projects, pitch to potential clients and making sure the other artists and the VR department are running smoothly. This has given me more agency in the office and the ability to be able to have a greater voice in the direction of the team and our projects.

 The Madison has ultimately been a huge learning experience for me creatively and professionally. I've come out of it with a greater competence ofUnreal Engine and content creation for VR. As I branch out further with UX and UI design, elements I believe should be core to what we create, I feel we have a lot of room to improve out workflow and end VR experiences. As a team I believe we’ve hit a benchmark with this project and looking forward that leaves me super excited about the potential we have and the momentum going into the next projects. Both personally and as a team there's a lot I feel we've gained from The Madison which has left me confident in out ability to create, what I hope are, industry leading VR experiences in the architectural sector.

 

Update 19/02

 

 It's been a busy start to the year and over the past soon to be two months I feel I've been building up momentum with my work. Following from my last entry where I discussed the clear direction that I want to spend my time growing my skillset it’s been my focus to create a routine that supports it. Alongside this I’ve tried to be clear and concise over what it is I want to study or work on week to week and month to month.

 Part of that over January has been continued practice in Substance Designer, something that has carried over from last year. It's been a mixture of both following tutorials and authoring my own materials, though the latter has been mostly at AVR. With the time I’ve spent working on these my confidence with Designer has grown to a level where I’m feeling pretty competent with it. I mean you'd certainly hope so after the hours I’ve sunk into it. It's fast become my texturing tool of choice, it's fun to use and to explore in which isn't something you can say about a lot of software, 3Ds Max springs to mind, and I feel it produces fantastic results.

 Substance Designer is something I’m wanting to keep as a background thing to keep practicing going forward with, if I’m not using it a lot at AVR or in my own projects then I’ll aim to author a material or two to keep in with it. There’s a lot of room still to explore with it, I’m no expert, notably organic materials such as wood and dirt are an area that I’m keen to push forward with in the future.

 For now however I’ve started on a new environment project based on Masashi Wakui’s photography of Tokyo as I mentioned in my new year post. At this point it’s little more than a blockout and an asset sheet so there’s not much to really show though hopefully in the coming weeks you’ll start to seem some output from it.

 

New Year, New Look

 Another year reaches its end and with it I’m back home for the usual serving of festivities, train journeys and pensive attitudes. 2016 has been a bit of a whirlwind looking back, there’s been ups, downs, graduations, new jobs and new cities. Over the course of the year there’s been some real tough points during the FMP and more recently at work but the effort has been worth it to get to where I’m standing now. It’s been a year where I’ve developed a lot creatively and professionally going from a lowly student to a working professional in an industry I’ve been aspiring towards for years. Transitioning from the end of my time at DMU and moving forward with the next stage of my life working at AVR is something I’ve found incredibly rewarding. Looking ahead to 2017 I feel confident in the direction I want to grow creatively, where to push my art work forward and where to develop my skillset further in the new year.

 Kicking 2016 off with my FMP feels a world away from the day to day of AVR that I’m ending it on, the simple thought of working in industry was a far off thought in the depths of the FMP. My mixed afterthoughts on the project have been well articulated by this point but although my overall negative tone there’s quite a lot I’m proud of. It being what I feel was my first full project I’ve artistically directed myself from inception to submission the outcome I arrived at has some real highlights. I tried to exercise a number of lessons I’d picked up before returning for third year from stuff like thematic design, a greater understanding of colour theory, lighting and cinematography to push my work to a more competent and deliberate level. I feel those really pay off and come through in the final outcome with the design of elements such as the corridors, holo-table and the overall mood and lighting are aspects I’m most pleased with. I also believe I was able to exercise a lot of technical competence such as with my materials and geometry alongside the artistic decisions I made over the project. In the end what I feel let the FMP down was the execution as my management and workflow was shambolic to say the least. I think my biggest issue was a lack of understanding and experience in the software I was using that resulted in an unclear pipeline for asset creation which I left real late before ironing it out. It was a big learning experience managing a project of that scale and I knew going into it I was probably inexperienced with what would be required, even with my time at BMW. While I felt effective at prioritising tasks and running the day-to-day of the project I struggled with the long term planning such as time estimations and meeting milestones. Ultimately I kinda dropped those aspects of planning as I felt there was good short term progress which was more of an easy out at the time that swelled into a bigger issue the closer I got to hand-in.

 
 

 Fast forward from final submission and six or so months later to AVR and it’s interesting to see how much I've improved since my FMP. At work I've gotten much more competent with Unreal Engine moving beyond simply knowing the program and how to, say, create basic lighting setups or simple blueprinting and started to develop a deeper understanding of what the engine is doing. This has pushed me down a more technical direction I guess as I'm looking at more under the hood elements such as Anti-Aliasing solutions, Global Illumination and rendering techniques, elements that would've gone over my head in my final year. This has all been through the lens of developing for Virtual Reality (VR) and architectural visualisation and between the both of them it’s forced a rethink in many of the approaches to tackling modelling, materials and the user experience (UX). It’s funny how in many ways it’s been about un-learning elements of what I’ve studied across the past four years at DMU for creating real-time visuals. This has meant returning to older techniques from past engine generations to meet the performance demands and preferences of VR content rather than some of the newer stuff I’ve come to rely on in my work. The familiar responsibilities over visuals and performance are not my only ones either. Due to the nature of being part of a small team I also have a hand in a number of other areas, from creating functionality to, as I mentioned before, the UX and dealing with client specifications and feedback alongside other management errands. In that respect I’ve slowly come round to the notion that my role isn’t solely creating real-time visuals but rather the bigger picture of crafting VR experiences in all of its aspects.

 And what a medium to be creating for! VR is such a young platform and full of potential in which I’ve developed a lot of conviction for over my time with AVR. Developing for it I can’t escape the feeling of what can be possible with the technology, every month there’s something new and ground-breaking. Ultimately I believe it can offer content far more impactful and immersive than what I feel can be offered by traditional screen experiences. To me it’s the foundation of the direction I want to go forward in and where I want to be applying the lessons I want to learn in environment creation and creative directing. Obviously that will require investment in hardware, currently I’m specing a new PC and I’m hoping to nab a VR headset sometime in the summer, to get to a stage where I’m ready to develop my own home-brew content. Obviously until that time I’ve got a couple non-VR projects in mind, the first of which I’ve already been working on for a few months freelancing for a friend helping him on his game. My main responsibility is designing the menu and HUD systems in the game which has been fun to keep spinning the graphics design angle on the side. I've got some of the development below though It’s still fairly early days but we’re beginning to lock in an Alpha HUD which is cool. It’s been great to do UI work outside of the vacuum of a personal or university project and to have actual player and client feedback to deal with and inform the design and see the design grow from that. Something that has been lacking before. Parallel to this I'm wanting to do a small environment piece to showcase the improvements I've made in Unreal and in particular try to focus in on the lighting and mood. I'm looking to emulate the photography of Masashi Wakui whose work you can find here, https://www.flickr.com/photos/megane_wakui/, though I've also attached a couple samples below. It'll be challenging, especially getting the colour and feel of the imagery on point but my major concern is management of the project. However, with the improvements I’ve made with my pipeline and managing skills from work I’m confident I should be able to run an efficient workflow which will hopefully result in a speedy period of development finishing around the summer. 

 
 

Looking further ahead to after the first half of the year I couldn’t really say what I’m looking to move onto. As I said I hope to have a VR headset by this point and have finished with the two above projects but whether I jump straight into a small VR piece or spend some time experimenting and studying is up in the air. As to what form a VR environment may take I don’t have a firm concept in mind but I’ve a clear idea of what I want to study. I feel I’ve a good grip on where the areas I’m weaker are such as in high poly modelling, digital sculpting and organic assets in general. That will probably mean sinking a lot of time into Zbrush, a program I haven’t used for a couple years now. Continuing down the train of thought of high-poly work I’m also hoping to look more into both Substance Painter and Marvellous Designer which I feel compliment the workflow nicely. Unsurprisingly painting makes another appearance in one of these though not quite as you might expect. I feel over third year I made some great progress with my technical abilities painting in Photoshop and I’m wanting to take a step back in some ways from that avenue and focus on the fundamentals. So looking at composition, perspective, form, colour etc and building up my confidence in these underlying principles of painting before bringing them together later down the line.

 Alongside all those there’s also a couple odd-job points I’d like to get round to throughout the year like Photogrammetry, learning some Corona and getting on top of the growing pile of books I’ve got lying round the room. Though before I get too far ahead of myself with every detail I want to achieve, and to keep it clear in my mind, the priority goals for me in the new year are:

-           Gaining confidence in high poly modelling/sculpting workflows, including Zbrush

-           Improving my organic assets; foliage, rocks, etc…

-           Properly studying the fundamentals; composition, colour, etc…

That’s hopefully a nice and concise list for me to come back to over the forthcoming year and more importantly to help make those goals achievable. I feel a lot of momentum going into 2017, there’s a returning feeling of being able to take on the world which I last felt at the end of second year. The cocktail of what I’ve been learning, the clarity of what I want to study, the conviction of the direction I want to be heading professionally and creatively mixed with the potential I feel for VR is proving to be a potent one. In many respects there’s something of a feeling of pioneering within the office and I guess as part of the wider CG community developing for VR that I’m beginning to feel more a part of. What I’m hoping over the next months is to tap into the energy I feel at AVR with what we’re currently working on and bring that into my personal projects. It’s not often that a new medium comes around and through dumb luck I’ve happened to have stumbled my way into becoming a part of it. As a young artist the chance to grow and develop alongside that medium of VR as it matures over time is to me an opportunity I find irresistible, the prospect to grow as part of that medium and perhaps in some small part to help shape it is one I find incredibly exciting.