Virtual Reality is a stunning media platform with all kinds of application, from entertainment to education and interactive training. With the simplest of VR headsets you can for instance watch short immersive films — Youtube is full of them, watch icebergs melt, see what it’s like in refugee camps, get distracted during medical procedures by swimming with dolphins, or you can go more interactive with playing games. With high end headsets and controllers the possibilities are endless, and this has only just begun with VR and augmented reality getting closer and closer to practical use. What was crucial in this particular project is that VR can literally bring things closer, thus creating more impact and urgency.
Last year a surprising assignment came my way. It started when Gasunie asked me to think along in ways to get Gasunie employees ready and engaged for the future. After a Google Sprint, they opted for an immersive VR experience to really bring this home, to get everyone to feel the urgency and think about their place in the future of Gasunie. I hooked them up with some of the many people I know to be involved in VR, but they wanted me to stay connected to this project in a storytelling capacity.
Over the past few years I’ve done several explainer animations for Gasunie and the subjects are quite diverse, from company processes to the natural gas issues and the advent of hydrogen.
I’d already been looking into the storytelling capabilities VR, mainly with character animation like Allumette. Being located in a building with tech companies provided me with access to high end VR like the Vive so it was fun to also be able to check this medium out at that level. The interactivity of stories like Windy Day also caught my fancy since they could play on my iPhone and it was more attainable for a personal project. VR popped up everywhere. Friends had setups at home for gaming, Youtube offered more and more 360° videos, and I visited several VR events with friends. Some of them had even been working on VR arcades. And then this happened.
The goal in this instance was a VR app that could run on the employees’ own phones in combination with a cheap-ass VR headset — one you can get at many stores these days for a few bucks. The hope was to get this ready for a Christmas release so their Christmas gift package would even hold one such headsets.
Developments, however, were going at breakneck speed so we ended up with a less extravagant version and a more localised use than originally intended.
Several instrumental departments were involved — many things were going on at once — and we had to closely monitor how this all fit together in an engaging and interactive story. Key was a persona in the form of a quintessential Gasunie pole (see picture below) whose voice guides you through. It became a cartoony female pole, voiced by recurring voice artist Kristel van Eijk.
Now I can’t code worth a damn, so along for the ride I had already dragged my resident wizard Mark Winkel, knowing that some app, 3D modelling, and interactivity might be needed.
Since this was quite a project we needed more manpower so we enlisted Peter Loef from New Game Studios. He and his young padawans did a lot more than is visible in the walkthrough you can see here. I have seen things it would have been wonderful to incorporate, but there just wasn’t time. A solid story needs less spectacle, but still: next time … next time 😉
Meanwhile, you’re welcome to come try the phone version, or Peter’s Vive version, which allows you to walk and transport around in a world quite different from the simple VR headset version you can see in the walkthrough.
Both the simple and the Vive version premiered at the Gasunie Destination Future festival. For the simple version we had 5 rotating comfy seats, each of which holding a VR headset with a phone and headphones already attached. For the rougher but more interactive version, Peter had one Vive setup which he guided people through.
It was quite satisfying to see people in their rotating seats sitting through the whole thing, looking around at the world they inhabited for about 8-12 minutes. Of course — and let’s not forget — we also had a 2D version for people who can’t handle VR: some people get dizzy quickly, probably migraine patients the most.
For many it was something new, although the festival held a lot more booths with VR. But the storytelling interactive element made ours shine! — No, I’m kidding. I’m sorry to say I just didn’t have the time to check out those other booths so I can’t really say. But I do know people responded well, stayed long, and even one of the skeptics was quite taken with our VR experience.
Several of the simple phone VR headsets have since been used at their local training centers. Developments hardly stand still in Gasunie’s many efforts for a sustainable future, so this VR app is now already outdated for a large part.
Meanwhile, we’re working on a indie VR point-and-click adventure game. Whereas I’d love to learn Unity and related software, I’ll stick to the animation and storytelling part for now. There’s only so much time in a day 😉