How the immersive VR film Tree was created

New Reality Company worked across games development and video effects to bring about a virtual reality immersive experience

During this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, the critically acclaimed virtual reality (VR) experience Tree was showcased to global leaders via HTC Viva Pro headsets.

Tree is an experiential piece of interactive storytelling from VR studio New Reality Company, premiered at the 2017 Sundance New Frontier festival.

In Tree, participants take on the body of a growing tree and are taken on an emotional journey, says New Reality Company co-founder Winslow Porter. Through the VR story, a seedling grows into a towering kapok tree in the Amazon rainforest. 

In conjunction with the Rainforest Alliance, the project aims to encourage the planting of seeds around the globe.

Speaking of his time at Davos, Porter says: “VR  is generally common to a younger crowd. We wanted to show Tree to policy-makers because it resonates with people.”

Porter says Tree also shows how VR has evolved beyond simulations and violent video games, and demonstrates the immersive power of the medium. “We empathise with the tree,” he says. The immersive experience touches all the senses – there is wind, heat, touch and a feeling of movement, he adds.

For Porter, human memory is not just a two-dimensional screen. “Your own eyes and ears, touch and smell is how we trust and experience life,” he says. In Tree, these sensations combine to enable the audience to “feel” deforestation happening, he says.

As the tree’s branches flourish, participants experience the impact of global climate change all around them. The floor and their vest vibrate, there are wind and heat simulations and a custom scent track, all  combined with powerful visual effects that come together to bring the issues of deforestation to life.

New Reality Company worked with cosmetics ingredients firm International Flavors and Fragrances to bring the smell of soil, the smell of the jungle and smoke to the VR experience.

Linking games development and video effects

Tree’s immersive storytelling uses the Ubiquity Games Engine. New Reality Company used a Quadro P6000 GPU built on the Nvidia Pascal architecture to process the complex environment, lighting and shadow effects in Tree. The P6000 GPU hardware has been able to consistently deliver at least 90fps (frames per second), according to Nvidia.

During the development of Tree, New Reality Company needed to collaborate with multiple video effects studios across the globe, says Porter. “To give a sense that the tree is growing, we had to create over 70 blend shapes using a combination of the Houdini and Maya [3D packages],” he says.

The team had just two months before Tree was due to be premiered at Sundance, says Porter. “Given the speed to get it ready, there was very little room for error,” he points out.

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The Tree project involved merging the strengths of video game and commercial/film VFX houses and harnessing them for VR storytelling. To accomplish this, the team needed a flexible system that could enhance collaboration around the globe while also supporting a variety of file types and multiple iterations.

“We needed to have a really quick iteration cycle and be able to implement inside the video games engine,” says Porter. “One person created the tree, then we had to put in the games engine.”

Engineers and artists working together

To create Tree, New Reality Company coordinated a diverse team, in both geography and skillsets, blending different studios with more than 100 contracted artists and engineers to create high-quality visuals and robust functionality to a tight deadline.

Perforce Helix Core was chosen as the collaboration platform to connect everyone involved in the development and production of Tree, says Porter. The tool enabled version control and allowed artists and engineers to contribute their work via a managed environment.

“I have seen projects held up for three months because teams couldn’t communicate,” says Porter. But with Perforce, he says it was possible to collaborate on Tree between the head office in New York, two VFX studios in London and  the VFX studio Konvrgence in north Hollywood.

“We could check on their work,” he says. “People could also work on multiple levels. The sound engineer could work on sound while teams could check things in or go back to a previous version if something didn’t work. It was really easy to go back to different versions, using version control.”

Porter says the teams also worked organically, communicating via Slack, Gmail and the Google Suite as well as phone calls, to tweak different look and feels.

For Porter, the last 20% of any project tends to take 80% of the time. But the Tree project was challenging because linking games development and VFX in such a way had not been attempted before, he says.

Always being updated

Because nothing in the video games world is ever complete, says Porter, Tree is always being updating and so New Reality Company continues to use Perforce. “The project is always where we left it, even if we haven’t worked on it for three months,” says Porter.

This allows the team to keep going back and optimising it, he says. “We want to show Tree to as wide an audience as possible. How do we get the minimum spec computer down so that we open up the Tree experience to hundreds of thousands of people?”

New Reality Company is now working with the University of British Columbia on a new VR storytelling project about a rainforest, which Porter describes as “trying to understand how technology can make people get closer to nature”.

The idea is to use augmented reality (AR) to enable the audience to map their own environment using just a smartphone, iPad or Android device. “We want to make it social, and explore how, as a community, we can grow virtual rainforests,” says Porter.

There is also a sense of persistent AR, he adds. Just as with a Tamagotchi pocket pet, even when the virtual rainforest is not being watched, it still grows.

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