on VR portfolios and prototyping in VRchat
VR artist Kevin Mack says in his artist statement: “The fundamental innovation of virtual reality is spatial presence - the sensation of being present in a place. The ability to directly communicate the first person subjective experience of spatial presence brings an entirely new dimension to communication.” One of the biggest challenges when working with virtual reality is that it is impossible to convey to anyone what an experience will be like unless you are inside VR. Still images or video simply doesn’t cut it. This makes it challenging to pitch ideas or projects but it also makes it difficult for people who have not experienced any of your VR creations to understand what your capabilities are.
Teaching VR to anyone
This January I have been part of a team teaching first and second year students VR at the Westerdals Institute of Film and Media at Kristiania University College. The challenge in teaching an elective VR course is that we have a very diverse group of students coming from areas like e-business, intelligent systems, VFX, sound design and 3D graphics. Apart from 3 or 4 none had any prior experience in Unity, and to create an interactive VR experience you pretty much have to use either Unity or Unreal.
VRchat is the most popular social VR platform and its SDK is built on top of Unity. A major reason for the popularity of VRchat is how easy it is to take 3D content and create both worlds and avatars. Choosing VRchat as the platform for the course was the solution to our challenge of having non-3D artist and non-programmer students making an interactive VR experience in less than a month. Using high quality low poly asset packs from Unity’s Asset Store, the five student teams have been able to build complex and interesting environments with simple puzzle based interaction in no time.
A virtual portfolio
I had previously experimented in private getting my “I Know Kung Fu VR” dojo on VRchat because it was so easy to do it. With the VR course as an excuse I took the opportunity to publish a new version that included a Japanese themed soundtrack and fixes to lighting and reflections on avatars. When showing students and fellow teachers around in my dojo it dawned on me that VRchat is a great portfolio platform for designers of virtual environments. True, there is Sketchfab which also supports VR but with VRchat your designs, or spaces, are online with the ability for you to meet with others - prospective clients and collaborators - in your designs to discuss your work. The few people that make a living of designing avatars for others in VRchat use a similar approach in that they walk around with their own custom avatars that show off their “mad” shader design and character design skills - they are pretty much their own living billboards.
Virtual rapid prototyping
It is crucial to quickly get something into VR for testing when developing an experience. VRchat as a platform for prototyping multiplayer experiences is both a blessing and a curse; a blessing because of the aforementioned ease of getting something quickly out there for random or specific people to try at the same time. It is a curse due to the limitations in scripting imposed by the developers for fear of hacking and misbehaviour. Such limitations can also be refreshing much as other types of limitations are in the real world for architecture, because they make your designs much more focused.
Kimusan’s dojo (my VRchat nick) is by no means state-of-the-art in terms CG quality on VRchat but it is among very few that is polished and fairly realistic in terms of looks and architectural design. In many ways it is very similar to photogrammetry scenes in that it uses ‘complete maps‘ where both the surface and the lighting are baked into the surfaces. Since the scene was never designed for such close up inspection possible in VRchat the surrounding walls and art are not as high resolution as they could have been and I never designed a staircase to get up on the mezzanine. What it does have is a great atmosphere or ambiance - it is simply put a very nice place to hang out. It shows my skills as a virtual architect and my ability to create a comfortable VR space infused with visual storytelling, more so than my still “in progress” Unity skills.
Unconstrained by reality
If you are curious about how it feels like to hang out in Kimusan’s dojo the location in VRchat is listed below. Before you critique my tatami mat layout as lacking, know that it was designed that way for a reason, as a nod to the seminal movie that inspired my architectural design in the first place. I would like to end with another quote from Kevin Mack, which points to where I want to go next in my explorations of virtual architecture: ”Art is particularly well suited to this new medium because it is experiential. Throughout history, artists, like architects, have used spatial presence to mediate experience in reality. VR makes it possible to mediate experience unconstrained by the limits of reality.“