“We mustn't keep poor Yorick waiting,” admonishes a voice from nowhere, yet everywhere.
The small, cluttered room is packed, every flat surface piled high with dusty leather-bound books whose gold leaf catches a soft orange flicker from the fireplace. Beakers, an antique boat, a marble bust, bottles of green and red. Every inch of floral wall paper is blotted out with old maps that don’t seem quite right, wood engravings of unlikely sea creatures, dark portraits of long-dead people, bugs and butterflies by the dozen. The cabinet on the other side of the room is filled with specimen jars containing murky shapes that I’d rather not examine too closely. There’s a cabinet of medieval weaponry and old medical equipment, the kind that makes you cringe. It’s how I would imagine Sherlock Holmes’ study would look, the clutter indicative of an insatiable curiosity.
In the centre of all this intrigue a jumble of bones is scattered carelessly across the desk, waiting to be unknotted and assembled.
I’m halfway through my task of building Yorick’s skeleton, but the omniscient voice, a cantankerous old Brit, just won't let up. “No point in loitering around like a gossiping simpleton, this isn’t the public bathhouses you know.” Despite the reasonably extensive anatomy training I received in grad school, I can’t figure out how I’ve attached this humerus incorrectly. My self-doubt is exacerbated by the timer on the table, whose numbers flip mercilessly onward. I’m not doing a very good job. At all.
“Quit this buffoonery!”
There’s no way I’m going to get accepted into The League at this rate.
Then I hear another voice, maybe two, distant and seemingly from another world. Annoyed, I take off the headset and I’m immediately startled back to reality, staring at the brick wall in the corner of the INVIVO common area. Alina and Janice don’t look impressed as I weakly wave the hand controllers in defense. Apparently I’m 20 minutes late for our production meeting.
Has it really been that long?
I was, of course, testing INVIVO’s latest virtual reality experience, The Enlightened League of Bone Builders & the Osseous Enigma, now available for free download on the Steam Store. What makes this project particularly exciting is that it’s an INVIVO first for the new HTC Vive VR headset, released earlier this year. We love the Oculus, but the Vive seems like something different altogether.
The idea for the “Bone Builder” app was hatched during our first brainstorming session, only a couple of months ago. We wanted to create a Vive proof-of-concept that would show off what can be done with the new technology, play to its strengths, and present something different from what is currently being developed by other groups.
For starters, we were excited to take advantage of the Vive’s hand controllers, one of its key differentiators with competing headsets. The accuracy of their real-time tracking is remarkable, and the ability to use your hands to interact with virtual objects adds a whole new world of possibilities, beyond the gaze-based interactions of other VR devices. So developing a game that requires objects to be manipulated and assembled seemed like a good start. Building a skeleton sounded like an interesting challenge that anyone could enjoy.
We also wanted to create a rich, immersive and unique virtual environment for this demo. High-tech widgets and futuristic design are all the rage in games these days, and we certainly love them in our 3D animations when explaining cutting-edge medical devices. However, we wanted to do something a little different here. Steampunk was also a little overdone, but we were getting closer.
The Vive also ships with remote sensors and allows you to set up a physical area within your room which the user can actually walk around. This allows the user to explore their VR space in a far more immersive manner.
And so the idea of building a skeleton in a Victorian study filled with scientific curiosities was agreed upon. It was interesting, relatable and full of options for exploration. There was also plenty of room for gamification: levels of difficulty could be controlled by the complexity of the skeleton; a timer could be used to create a gaming experience; and there were many, many ideas involving the various items in the room, most of which are too ridiculous to write here.
Who knows though, so keep an eye out for later builds…
“Try not to dilly dally.”
Vague concepts in place, Vitaly immediately jumped into the task of building the room and preparing low-poly anatomy models. Based on the actual plans of Sherlock Holmes’ study, the scene came together surprisingly quickly in Autodesk 3DSMax. These assets were imported into Unity, our gaming engine of choice, and passed over to Megan, our principal Unity developer on this project.
Within a week or two, a fully functioning prototype had been created. The essentials were all there: a table, a complete set of bones, and a hook upon which to hang them. A fully functioning physics system was also developed: bones could be picked up, examined, bounced off the walls or thrown onto the Big Lebowski-inspired carpet. Even without all the bells and whistles, it was an awesome feeling to experience for the first time. The bones could even be juggled accurately, according to one tester, but I don't pretend to have that skill in either the virtual or real world.
As more team members were inspired to create their own objects, the room started to take on a complex and amusing personality of its own. Much of this was spearheaded by Jenn, whose devil-may-care approach to Victorian interior decorating was instrumental in fully realizing the richness of the room. Imagination unleashed, Jenn, Megan and their consortium of 3D co-conspirators amassed an intriguing collection of curios, mostly below the project management radar. Next time you’re in there, make sure you look for the jar with the heart in it (bring it close to your ear to hear it beating), the bone-saw carrying case, the snake in the cage (don’t shake it too hard), and the magnifying glass on the writing table by the window (it actually works). Be sure to click on the phonograph to get some authentically scratchy, and slightly creepy, music from the time period. The song isn’t to your liking? Click again.
Everything that is not locked away in a cabinet can be picked up, examined, and of course, thrown against the wall or into the fire. See how Yorick looks with a Viking helmet on, or the Lennon glasses, or the short sword and shield.
Things break, things burn. Just don’t forget—the timer’s running.
“This is a perversion of science!”
While the rest of the team was working away, Paul and I started working on the script for a tutorial that would guide new users through the experience. We wanted it to be clear, yet also fully integrated into the actual experience: get people playing straight away and let them explore. The extra challenge here was that a large proportion of users may never have had the chance to put on a VR headset before, let alone use hand controllers to hang the femur in its correct orientation on a swaying pelvis. So the game play had to be simple and intuitive.
We also know from experience that, unlike a play-through animation, on-screen text needs to be delicately designed in VR, so we wanted to include as many audio cues as possible. Enter our mysterious ornery narrator, spokesman for the clandestine Enlightened League of Bone Builders, who basically wrote himself into the script. He’s a remarkably contradictory fellow who watches your every move: sometimes charming, sometimes cheeky, sometimes just plain rude. Not one to shy away from what he really thinks, especially after a sherry cobbler or two for breakfast.
With a small amount of convincing, we were able to persuade Russell to lend his voice to the experience. We needed a real Brit for this job, and Russell’s hesitation rapidly dissolved as he unleashed lines like “Stop this atrocity!” and the crowd favourite, “Where’d you learn that, down at the brothel with the other barber surgeons?” Just wait to hear his disappointment if you don’t make it onto the leaderboard. I still don’t know what a ‘timber doodle’ is, but it hurts just the same.
— INVIVO (@INVIVOcom) August 5, 2016
“You could lose an eye with that thing.”
By this point, Jeff, Adora and Andréa were involved, optimizing user interactions, making sure the tutorial was clear, and running a preliminary battery of user testing. It was interesting to see how quickly most users’ experience turned from a didactic anatomy exercise into a frenzy of smashing lab equipment with a rib cage, katar or mandolin. Given the option to either learn and build, or just mindlessly break things, it’s amazing how consistently people pick the latter in the end. But maybe that’s just us.
To add the final polish, Noémi was working on some graphic design elements, including in-game typography, icons, arrows and other visual cues. She also accepted the challenge of creating a crest for the Enlightened League of Bone Builders, a harrowing task considering the shadowy members of The League are not exactly understanding in the face of disappointment.
Lastly, to make the experience even more immersive, Jenn hit the sound effects libraries to provide audio cues and bring all the events to life. Even Mauricio got his hands dirty, creating some appropriately ominous and intriguing sound design.
“Well isn’t Yorick looking dapper.”
So that brings us back to now, and the launch of the game. In the hands of so many talented people, it's taken on a life of its own. Equal parts anatomy learning tool, escape room and rage room. Even though it started out a simple proof-of-concept, it's the most accomplished VR experience we've created. It shows what a group of talented and inspired artists, developers, writers and designers are capable of when given freedom to collaborate and create on their own terms. Once again, we've taken the newest technology and used it to do what we do best—make science engaging, entertaining, interesting, and unexpected. Teach you something. Tell a good story. Science, technology and art. It's the foundation of everything we do.
So, if you are lucky enough to have access to a Vive, go on…head over to the Steam Store, don your headset and step into the room. Let’s see if you’ve got what it takes to join The Enlightened League of Bone Builders.
By Jason Raine, Director of Animation
Visit the Steam store to download The Enlightened League of Bone Builders for HTC Vive.