Actor Adrian Grenier is best known for portraying Vinnie Chase, the center of the close-knit quartet of friends who relocated from New York City to Hollywood in the HBO TV series and big screen adaptation, Entourage. But it real life, Grenier has been active in environmental causes. One of his key focal points is The Lonely Whale Foundation.
After producing the documentary film, 52: The Search for the Loneliest Whale in the World, Grenier decided to explore the new medium of virtual reality to connect more directly with world leaders and everyday consumers on the impact water pollution is having on whales, the oceans, and other marine wildlife. So he teamed up with AMD, Dell and 3D Live Entertainment, which used Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 4 to build Cry Out: The Lonely Whale Experience for the HTC Vive.
“There are a lot of issues plaguing the oceans, but specific ones that harm whales on an everyday basis is ocean noise pollution, which is doubling every decade and disrupts their communication systems,” Grenier said. “Whales rely on sonar in order to traverse the dark depths, and to communicate around the globe. And because of commercial shipping traffic and military and oil exploration, we’re creating a cacophony of sound which can be often as loud as 100,000 jet engines. It’s not only killing fish and wildlife outright, but it’s also disturbing them generally so that they get disoriented and confused. Whales beach themselves, for example. It’s something that is an increasing problem, and one that we know very little about.”
Cry Out is a virtual reality experience that has toured from the United Nations Paris Climate Conference to South by Southwest in Austin, transporting users into the depths of the ocean aboard a submersible where they come face-to-face with 52, the lonely whale who can’t communicate with other whales as a result of ocean noise pollution. (He can only communicate at 52 hertz, which is a different frequency than the rest of his species.) The experience combines the HTC Vive with state-of-the-art theme park motion seats, which replicate the feeling of diving into the ocean and make users feel like fish are moving between their legs.
“Cry Out is an enhanced 4D VR experience in which we are combining feature film level modeling and animation with tactile effects and real motion,” Justin Molinari, lead developer on the project, said. “If we’re going to take you on an immersive moving experience, we want the visuals to be just as exciting as the motion and additional 4D effects. When it comes to graphics, Unreal is a juggernaut.”
Molinari added that as technologists, 3D Live Entertainment are firm believers in the future of immersion being rooted in game engines.
"When it comes to VR, the end user’s experience is much more immersive when viewing a real-time render versus something like a pre-rendered 360 video,” Molinari said. “The best way to build out these sort of experiences is game engines. By having built-in tools for scripting sequences and creating effects and heavily optimizable rendering techniques (needed to maintain high frame rates), video game engines are ideal for VR. The sort of reactionary and dynamic experiences that are part of games are part of what can set VR apart as well, and so the fit is natural across the board.”
Nathan Huber, founder of 3D Live Entertainment, said many users don’t even realize the experience is running on a game engine. They think it was filmed in 360-degree video.
More importantly, it transports users into the depths of the ocean to see first-hand the beauty of this hidden world. And Grenier hopes this new technology raises awareness through telling the story of 52.
“When we see things in front of us we can’t ignore them,” Grenier said. “And so it’s in our nature to connect with the world through our five senses. We’re receiving information in data and processing that, and hopefully if we’re thinking about this it’s something people want to get involved with.”
The Cry Freedom project took three months from concept to completion. Molinari said Unreal Engine 4 allowed for a very rapid iteration pace, as well as a lot of experimentation.
“We had artists able to use the blueprint visual scripting system and visual material editor to try out different approaches to scene feel and effects without engineering support which was huge,” Molinari said. “I really cannot imagine another way we could have pulled off the scope and visuals we did with any other creation platform.”
Molinari said his team was working with feature film-level models in VR, which required using highly complex skeletal meshes. Using Unreal afforded the team the ability to do this without sacrificing performance.
“Another obvious advantage is Unreal’s amazing, highly-optimized dynamic lighting,” Molinari said. “The simplicity of Unreal's VR integration is unmatched. Unreal Engine 4 is plug-and-play for VR development.”
Although Grenier was the proponent of utilizing virtual reality for this cause, he wasn’t up on just how far video game technology like Unreal Engine 4 had come.
“I have to admit I haven’t really played video games since the original Grand Theft Auto, so I’m a little behind in my gaming experiences, but it’s incredible what’s happening,” Grenier said. “And when I think about what will happen, it’s a little bit unnerving. I don’t know when people are going to have time to go out in the real world. It’s pretty incredible, and if we can somehow transform people beyond just shoot-em-up games and fantasy Pokémon games, and get people to really engage in the real world and what’s happening in life, we can do some really good things.”
Cry Freedom will continue to tour the world in the hopes of positively influencing change in both lawmakers and ordinary citizens. In the meantime, Grenier said things as simple as not buying harmful plastic bottles and using canvas grocery bags could go a long way in helping the oceans remain a healthy home for whales and wildlife to live in.