To celebrate the launch of Curious Alice, our award-winning virtual reality experience, I caught up with immersive games studio PRELOADED, our partners on the project alongside HTC Vive Arts, for their take on how we produced a unique immersive experience for the Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser exhibition. Jon Caplin, PRELOADED’s Associate Creative Director, explains how we created an in-gallery VR experience as well as an extended ‘at-home’ version featuring three interactive chapters, all in the middle of a global pandemic.
Jon Caplin is Creative Lead on Curious Alice. Over to you Jon!
Tell us about PRELOADED
We are an immersive games studio based in London. We collaborate with global partners to develop playful experiences across a range of formats – everything from mobile games, XR to location-based installations – always with the audience and purpose at the heart of the experience.
What was your initial reaction to the Curious Alice brief?
What could be more appropriate than extending Alice’s adventures – in all their significance and persistence – into a new virtual reality? We were so excited about the idea of creating a new immersive experience as part of the Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser exhibition, in which visitors’ own curiosity are rewarded in VR.
What was the first step in creating Curious Alice?
Well of course it was Carroll’s epic stories – an inspiration for creators ever since they were published. Specifically for the exhibition, the V&A had also commissioned illustrations by Kristjana S. Williams, inspired by 19th-century paper peepshows as well as John Tenniel’s famous Alice illustrations. Kristjana’s illustrations were packed with fantastic details and from an art and experience perspective, it made complete sense we started there.
Tell us more about the technical side of creating VR. Was it challenging working with pre-existing 2D assets?
Kristjana’s artwork was packed with creative possibilities, but from an art point of view, the main challenge was coming up with a solution for transforming the ‘flat’ drawings into a three-dimensional world. For example, in the White Rabbit’s house illustration, there are examples of furniture. In order for these pieces of furniture to have a sense of form and depth in VR – allowing a player to look around them – they needed to be modelled into a 3D mesh. Taking the single view from the illustration as reference, a mesh is modelled and the other sides of the furniture are created in keeping with its aesthetic look and some creative interpretation.
Textures are then created from the original illustration and wrapped around the 3D mesh. After this process you end up with a fully realised 3D model of the 2D piece of furniture ready for exploring in VR. For extra believability a custom ‘shader’ was written and applied to the objects which emulates light and shadows – displaying these tones as etched lines in keeping with the original Victorian etched prints. Bringing all these elements together and set dressing each scene allowed us to transport players into the illustrations in real time.
What other technical considerations or challenges were there?
When approaching a VR project it’s always an exciting prospect as there are no constraints like in the real world such as scale and gravity. By its immersive nature, VR can present experiences in such a visceral way to surprise and delight the player.
Ensuring a player’s comfort always takes precedence – considering player locomotion, their scale and line of sight so as not to disorientate them is vital and something we’ve worked hard on with this project. A player’s interaction with the virtual world around them must also feel natural and for this project hand tracking was used to allow players to naturally reach out and grab objects to interact with. This leads to far more immersive experiences and low threshold onboarding (being able to use the experience through natural movements and gestures that we use in everyday life).
What’s been unique about working on this project with the V&A?
We began concepting the VR installation for the exhibition earlier this year. Soon after completing physical workshops with the V&A team – word came that we would be working remotely and the country went into a time of lockdown. So we all set up shop in our bedrooms, spare rooms, kitchen tables and set about designing and creating the experience with our team working remotely, using what tools we had at hand for virtual collaboration and in the process developing new ways of working.
Playtesting reviews were streamed to the wider team showing what the player was seeing, allowing us to feedback and spot issues. Interim playtesting involved roping in family members and a strong sense of everyone coming together, taking the V&A on this journey as the concept developed and production began.
Curious Alice takes the player on a journey, defeating various obstacles. Is there anything you learned from the creative journey?
I’ve learnt a lot about the thematic nature of Alice in Wonderland and how that’s been interwoven into the project. We ended up with not only three interactive chapters and character focus, but also a defined purpose to what each chapter thematically conveys: The Queen’s Croquet Ground is about authority, The Rabbit Sends in a little Bill talks of curiosity and time and Advice from a Caterpillar is about change and identity.
Do you have a favourite moment from the experience?
I think it has to be just at the beginning as you reach forward for the book only to begin your unexpected descent into the rabbit hole, queued with the amazing theme music. A combination of being able to do the physically impossible in the real world with the unexpected!
‘Curious Alice’ is available to download through VIVEPORT and other VR platforms, priced at £4. Visitors to the Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser exhibition can experience a shorter version, ‘A Curious Game of Croquet’, via VR headsets within the gallery. Book your ticket now!