Science and Tech Event Blog

Arlene Kalem's blog about all the tech and science stuff she gets herself into. Browse the archive by month or scroll down to search by tag. 

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Animal Kingdom's Avatar: Flight of Passage

I just waited two hours in line for a four minute ride. As a former Cast Member, I'm usually pretty set against waiting longer than 30 minutes for anything. But I waited. 

Was it worth it?

I'd wait five hours. It was that good.

As a VR and AR enthusiast/developer/fangirl, I'm not sure I could love it more. Plenty of articles on the internet, and decades of research, and fervent developers, have more or less concluded that VR could be improved if it was a more immersive experience, engaging ALL the senses instead of just the visual.

I think this ride realizes that dream. Right now it's the pinnacle of all the hopes and ideas stemming from military ops in the 60s to the ground-breakers in the 80s. Flight of Passage gives you smells, and sensations (squirting water), and most importantly: the feeling of movement. 

This is not the first time a machine has been built to mimic motion; other VR systems have attempted this in the past (even the Orlando Science Center has something similar - the gyrosphere). However, I think this is the first time it's done fantastically well (at least commercially; I'm not sure what military or research simulators are out there). For Flight of Passage, you're essentially riding James Cameron's alien version of a dragon (called a banshee), and the machine beneath you glides like butter. It even breathes. 

The system is based off the popular Soar'n ride, which takes users into a huge domed environment, lifts them off the ground, and gives them a crazy hang-gliding experience. This is also lifted off the ground, and is essentially a flying simulation, but it's personalized. You get your own banshee and there's no one else's feet or head blocking your view. You get a front row seat and boy is it exhilarating! It's a 3D experience, so you have to don glasses. 

The glasses part is really my only complaint. The ride is smooth, it feels like you're flying/falling (I actually screamed and put up my hands at some point - it feels like a roller coaster even though it isn't!), and the music and animation is so wonderfully emotional. The animation is DEADLY. I also think the resolution has to be 2k or 4k it was so clear. 

Well, it's clear unless you have a smudge on your glasses. So that's why it's my only complaint. The glasses slip and fall off your face as you're riding,and the smudges break the immersion. I'd love to see this ride using a HMD. That's probably not practical, due to needing probably insane amounts of computing power (so many models!! I don't even want to think about how many days/weeks/months it took to render). I'm not sure any HMDs on the market could reliably run it. Also, guests might need more help fitting them/adjusting them, which requires more loading time. Plus, it's another way tech stuff can go wrong (four HMDs might be harder to monitor and troubleshoot than one screen - especially if one headset stops working and you gotta get the guest another one and restart the experience). Plus, safety. The guest is basically unable to see their real surroundings, so hello accidents and disorientation.

Like, I get it. I get why they didn't use HMDs. I'd still like to try it though haha! But Flight of Passage is still a crazy awesome experience just the way it is and I cried during the ride because I love the movie and I love the genius of all the software engineers and modelers and designers who built this thing. Building experiences like that...I could see myself doing that with my life. 

Can't wait to experience new VR rides! It can only get better!

Thesis Update #16

Enough time has passed that I feel like I can look at this project again haha. I finally made a video that describes how the game works and the technology behind it. Check it out!

To see photos from the exhibition and some screenshots from the game itself, you can head over to the KORE project page.

Learnings:

To answer the thesis question of can you build immersion in VR asymmetrical games, our answer is yes. As long as we got people talking to each other, they were engaged in the game (and things often got loud!). We noticed that kids who played the game (not young kids, but like 8-12 range) generally solved more challenges than adults or at least solved one challenge faster.

We can only hypothesize as to why. Do kids just feel less self-conscious about shouting out information? Adults tended to be quiet and tended to overthink things, however there was a notable exception. When we got people who knew each other to play together, they performed the best. I suppose the degree of comfort they share with one another allowed them to effectively communicate. They were able to understand what the others players were referring to faster than groups which consisted of strangers. 

We noticed that our balance between the three players wasn't quite perfect. The Manual Master and Laboratory Leader were constantly talking and engaged with each other, exchanging information back and forth. The Sensor Strategist was kind of the oddball out; they had quick flurries of action (like when lights were needed or the oxygen was almost empty), but they talked a lot less and engaged with the other players a lot less. We think this is because they did not have to relay any information, only receive. While their role was constant button pushing, it didn't really achieve the sort of engagement we hoped for. However, the players who were kids usually enjoyed the role anyway because it was physical. 

We would definitely simplify the game the next time around and we would redesign some elements to give the sensor strategist information to give back to the Laboratory Leader. However, we've realized that this game is more like a board game. It's not really something you just pick up and play, but something you learn and get better at over the course of an hour. Groups that played longer, and groups that switched roles, generally got faster at the game. If we had time to give it a good polish and redesign how we give out panel information, I think it would be a fun party game or icebreaker game. 

(all that really matters is that Ken Perlin liked it okay.)

Thesis Update#15 - Science Gallery Exhibition

And finally, here we are full circle. My first post in this blog was about the previous IDM class's projects. Now here I am showcasing my own. It's essentially the end of my degree, the end of my time here in Ireland, and finally the end of this bloody project. I'm not even sure what happened this weekend.

We were open to the public on Saturday and Sunday at the Science Gallery, a supremely nice venue that is very close to my heart after spending so much time in there during the hackathon. Then on Monday morning we were graded by the professors and gave our final presentation. On Tuesday, we had one last showcase, this time a smaller one just for all the graduating computer science students (we brought our projects, the rest of the students brought their super smart sounding poster boards...so basically ours were cooler). 

I did a lot of programming on the fly, including providing more feedback on the buttons. I was able to make them change color when pressed, and back again on Clear Input and on the start of a new challenge. It didn't work the first time and it was embarrassing, but I got it to work in the end. I admit I wasn't in top form - stressed and ill (yay mono!) and a little annoyed at everyone. 

But we did it. We finished. And I met Ken Perlin. My idol who worked on Tron and created that sexy algorithm. He was our external examiner. Naturally, our project kept breaking when he tried to use it (3 bluetooth connections didn't always like to connect). Embarrassing, but at the end it was all worth it. We went out to a pub and I sat right next to him and talked to him for like three or more hours. He said he thought our project was the most interesting because we broke the most rules; we didn't do anything safe, nothing guaranteed to work, nothing standard like a website. 

So that felt real good. And then we shared a pint and I was satisfied with life. 

I'd completely redo the way I handled the project if I had a choice, but damn did I learn a lot! And really, that makes me a smarter leader and developer for the next project. I made a lot of mistakes, but I learned a ton. That certified unity developer certificate is well earned. I'll probably make a separate post for pictures and videos, but most of it on the KORE main project page on my website. I'm not sure I have it in me to look at this project again any time soon, even if it's just to post pictures and videos haha. Talk about burnout! But I accomplished what I wanted. I wanted to do Unity and VR, and for three glorious months my only job was to learn that (and more! hello unexpected bluetooth and arduino).