December 5, 2017

Building Inspiration with Stonehenge VR SANDBOX

By Brian Rowe

VR has the power to transport us to far-flung regions of the globe, into the pages of history, and beyond the limits of our own physicality. Experience is only one side of the coin though. VR can also be a gateway to learning, forging personal connections otherwise impractical or even impossible.
Energized by their own experiences with VR, Jessica Villarreal and Christian Bretz immediately recognized that potential and shifted course to co-found VoyagerVR. But first, they had their own groundwork to construct. Filmmakers by trade, neither had any experience in software development before embarking upon their journey to create Stonehenge VR.
Initially fueled only by inspiration and DIY spirit, Stonehenge VR has since exhibited at the Pacific Science Center and currently resides at the Museum at Prairiefire. Thanks to an overwhelmingly positive reception, VoyagerVR recently released Stonehenge VR SANDBOX; a standalone title that expands upon the original with the ability to build, paint, and share your own monuments.

Tell us about VoyagerVR and the history of the studio.
Christian Bretz - We were at E3 in 2013 when I was pulled into a private demo of the Oculus DK1 with an early build of Eve Valkyrie. Sitting in the cockpit of a spaceship and looking down to see myself in another body was an instantaneously life-changing experience.
Jessica Villarreal - It was so early in the VR cycle that we couldn't find anyone who shared our vision in wanting to be at the forefront of something revolutionary, or willing to take on our ideas. We knew we wanted to change careers, but we weren't developers, nor did we know any.
Christian - My first instinct was to approach companies that had financed our past projects, but none agreed. In 2004, before YouTube, I had created one of the first viral videos, "how to be: emo." I had to explain to studio executives what a video "view" was, and there I was doing the same thing with VR.
I knew there was a small window of opportunity to make a mark. Instead of waiting for the executives to catch up, I decided to do it myself. I deleted my Facebook account, locked myself in a room, and watched every Unreal Engine tutorial I could find. Three months later, we had our first build of Stonehenge VR.
Jessica - We never anticipated the heartwarming feedback we got. We heard from a man who was able to show his terminally ill father a place he had always wanted to visit. We heard from a woman who grew up near Stonehenge in real life, and was always going there on school field trips, but had a changed perspective on it after seeing it in VR. It was stories like theirs that motivated and inspired us to keep pushing forward with our ideas.
Christian - Throughout the whole process we've done whatever it took to make it work. When we installed our first VR exhibit at the Pacific Science Center, we loaded up our car with the computer and the Vive and personally drove it from Los Angeles to Seattle. I've always made the analogy that starting VoyagerVR was like that scene in Indiana Jones when he has to step onto the invisible bridge, just believing the next step will be there.

Why did you choose Stonehenge as the subject of this project?
Christian - I have a vivid memory as a kid of my dad flipping to a picture of Stonehenge in a history book and saying, "This is why you need to study, so you're not the type of person that looks at this and says, 'It's just a bunch of rocks in a field, so what?'" That always stuck with me.
There was also practicality from a design standpoint. I was eager to start a project of my own, but I knew the scope had to be something I could accomplish completely on my own with no budget. Had I picked something like the Roman Colosseum, there's no way I would have done it justice.
Jessica - Stonehenge also has several benefits to being viewed in VR. The scale of the stones is part of the appeal and in VR you get to see what nine-meter-tall stones look like, which simply doesn't translate to video. We've also heard from some people who have visited Stonehenge in real life who said that they like our version better, because the atmosphere of the real location can be ruined by all the other tourists and you can not get close to the stones.

What sort of research went into recreating Stonehenge for VR?
Christian - The whole thing was recreated based on real measurements, aerial photographs, 360-degree photos taken from the ground, and documentary footage. I did all the research for the script and wrote it myself, which was a bit more complicated than might be expected.
Jessica - So little is actually known about the monument because it's all pre-history, and it is very difficult to find facts that you can definitively say are true. There ends up being a lot of "it is believed" and "evidence suggests" type statements.
Christian - I was nervous taking it to our first museum, the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, because I had done all the research myself, built it in my bedroom, and there we were installing it in one of the most iconic museums in the country. I later had archaeologists from the University of Manchester review the script. To my relief, they approved and enjoyed it very much.


How did the idea for SANDBOX come about, and what can players do in the mode?
Christian - There's a credit sequence when you complete the original Stonehenge tour. To add a little entertainment, I included a table with a miniature version of Stonehenge to play with while the credits scroll. Some people would knock the whole thing over and others would try to rearrange the stones. Many guests suggested we add a mode for people to build their own monuments.
Jessica - The concept of being able to construct or destroy your own version of the monument came about very organically. It's funny, because just recently we were watching a Twitch streamer play the game and she suggested the exact same thing when she got to the miniature version.
Christian - At first, I added the ability to spawn and place stones, but then you had to have a selection of objects, and if you were going to spend all that time building then there had to be a save system, and if you wanted to make a large structure you needed to be able to change the size of the character. The concept snowballed for months until it became what it is now.
We also wanted to give people as many ways to share their SANDBOX Mode creations as possible. For instance, we just added a new feature using NVIDIA's Ansel plugin that allows you to export stereoscopic 360-degree photographs of what you build. These photos can be shared on Facebook and viewed on mobile VR devices. This is just one example of the great tools that are supplied in the Unreal Engine.

Were you ever concerned about the tour and SANDBOX modes conflicting?
Christian - We considered this, but a few things helped alleviate our concerns. The first is the personal connection created through VR. Our goal was to instill a greater appreciation for the monument, and in theory the ability to construct and design your own monument should make that connection even stronger.
The second is that many people have never tried VR. We wanted to show the variety of experiences it could offer. For example, the ability to be as tall as a building or to change the sun and simulate any time of the year with a push of a button. Those are amazing feelings that we didn't have the opportunity to add when first designing the tour.
Jessica - We've never wanted our educational VR experience to be strictly about memorizing a bunch of facts. It's about the emotion and connection to the subject, and the SANDBOX Mode is an extension of that design philosophy.
Why did you choose Unreal Engine 4 to help create this project?
Christian - While comparing engines, the UI seemed so welcoming and well thought out. Sometimes you can open other 3D design tools and you're presented with an all grey interface with 10,000 buttons, and it can appear a bit overwhelming for someone new. The clean interface of UE4 really makes it much more approachable, yet the possibilities of what it can do are basically infinite.
I'm continually blown away by the engine's speed and stability, and the performance of real-time rendering. One "wow" moment came while rendering our first trailer. It had a 20-second shot with hundreds of thousands of blades of grass all rendering in 4k at 60fps on a four-year-old computer. This process now took minutes to set up when previously it could have taken days.
Tell us about a favorite tool or feature of Unreal Engine 4 and how it aided development.
Christian - I fell in love with Blueprints. While I've always been heavily involved in computers, I never learned to code. My background was in directing, VFX, and writing, so for something to give me the ability to develop software on my own, in such a robust way, is insanely cool.
The Unreal Engine Marketplace was also a huge resource that opened a whole new world for our small team. We don't know anyone in the game development community to create assets for us, but they're all right there in the Marketplace. In Stonehenge VR SANDBOX, we used the Rama Save System, Ultra Dynamic Sky, and the Ultimate Rocks to get us started building our product, just to name a few.
I also have to mention the online communities, including the r/unrealengine subreddit, the Unreal Forums, and all the YouTubers that post tutorials, like Tesla Dev and Mitch's VR LAB. When I was just starting out and had no idea what I was doing, the answers I needed were a click away. Someday, I hope that we can help others in a similar way.
Jessica - Over the last two years, Christian and I have had our lives changed because of the abilities that Unreal Engine has given us. We went from an idea of wanting to start a VR company with no software development background, to creating VR software that is now on display in a museum. Since then, we were also a launch title on HTC's Viveport, where we were then featured on several prominent blogs, and have even been invited to colleges to give lectures to their design students on VR software development. There's no way we could have achieved what we've done, with virtually no budget, without the tools available in Unreal Engine 4.

How do you envision the future of VR for educational and explorative experiences?
Jessica - I envision VR giving people of all ages the chance to see, learn, and connect with something that's out of reach. Money, time, health, and so many other factors can play into why a person can't travel or explore, and VR is going to bridge that gap. The emotional response a person has from VR is vastly different from reading a textbook or watching a screen, and it is a very powerful way to absorb new information.  
Places like the depths of space, inside the human anatomy, and historic battles are impossible to explore. But, the impossible becomes possible with VR, and I envision a future where there are more opportunities for the masses to adopt this way of learning, to create empathy in people and make some changes in the world.
Christian - In the next 5-10 years or so, I see VR as a way to spark students' interest. They could virtually visit a place, take photographs, and hang out with classmates to form real memories and build connections with the material. My ultimate dream for VoyagerVR software is for it to become a deeper hub of experiences across many subjects.

What do you hope people gain from the experience of playing your game?
Jessica - Seeing players get lost in our world by learning about and understanding what Stonehenge was theorized to be has been so rewarding. We pride ourselves in giving people that "wow" experience in whatever project we do, and we hope that people walk away feeling exactly that.
Christian - My hope for what people gain from the experience, besides a greater appreciation for Stonehenge, is that they see the wonderful opportunity we have right now to make learning experiences like Stonehenge VR a form of mainstream entertainment. There have been some successful attempts with this idea in the past when other technologies emerged, such as the invention of the PC, CD-Rom, etc., but this seems different because the technology is so compelling, and we love sharing that experience with people.