Anil Glendinning is the BAFTA nominated Creative Director of Friday Sundae Studio, a Bristol-based creative agency, that will be working with the project team to create the VRO. Anil sat down with one of the project’s researchers, Dr Richard Cole, to introduce Friday Sundae and share his thoughts on the recreation of ancient Dodona and its famous oracle in virtual reality.
By way of introduction, can you tell me about your work around VR, gaming, and education? How did you find your way into this business, and what key things have you learned from working in this industry?
I always wanted to work in video games, but there were limited opportunities back in the year 2000! I started out working with Frontier Developments in Cambridge on games such as Zoo Tycoon and later, the Elite Dangerous series.
We formed Friday Sundae Studio around 3 years ago after returning to Bristol from Paris, where we were based for a few years working in mobile games. We envisaged Friday Sundae as a creative digital production studio, specialising in education, games and gamified content. We wanted to work in the interactive space for broadcasters, museums, agencies and educators.
We take elements of game design, including how they work psychologically, and apply that to education products. For instance, using a ‘quest’ mechanic in our educational game for the Imperial War Museums, we tasked students to research objects in the galleries so that they could answer ‘quest’ questions about the exhibition, when back in their classrooms.
What drew Friday Sundae to the VRO project? Was there a specific part of the brief that interested you?
The VRO project stood out because it took seriously the idea of virtual reality as an educational resource, and offered an exciting opportunity to create an immersive narrative set in a historically accurate period.
We were particularly struck by the emphasis on creating an emotional experience, in helping players to understand the oracular ritual, not through photorealism, but through storytelling, performance capture, and creating a connection with virtual characters.
How have you approached developing the VRO so far? What are the key difficulties, challenges, and opportunities in this project?
We have mostly been focusing on the background and virtual stage dressing at this stage. There are important things to come, including character development, voice acting, and motion capture. However, just as with putting on a play, you need a sense of “physical” space before further development takes place.
There are also artistic reasons for starting with the background. The project is targeting mobile phones and standalone headsets to run the VRO. This presents challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, there are restrictive technical limitations, on the other, certain choices are simplified upfront, such as the art style. Because we are limited in what we can do, we have to make clever choices.
We have found that bright, colourful graphics with flat textures and clear geometric shapes are important in making VR work well on mobile devices and this is how we are approaching the VRO.
Another challenge is that the VRO must scale elegantly on different devices. This requires us to think ahead, to put in the work now so that we can be flexible in the future. Developing the stage analogy, we want to ensure that everything plays like a harmonious orchestra, like when we emphasise certain characters or assets while scaling back others.
You have worked on videogames in the past. When it comes to creating virtual non-fiction worlds, what are the most productive crossovers in terms of design?
Thinking about design, there is no technical difference between fiction and non-fiction games. Both aim to engage the player and retain their attention. But one thing to think about is in the way players approach a world. Players can be more entertained in a fictional world in advance, whereas with education, people are expecting a “lesson”, so you have to work a little harder to keep them engaged.
We carefully select and emphasise certain techniques used in entertainment games, such as seeking collectibles or tailoring experiences to require more than one playthrough. This approach takes time to develop, but the payoff is worth it, with players more encouraged to actively stay with the experience.
One takeaway from entertainment game design is that we treat players as “customers” rather than students. You are competing for their attention and must earn it by using engaging mechanics and systems that keep them wanting to come back for more, not just because their teacher made them.
Immersivity, authenticity, and realism are often held to be distinct but interrelated elements of virtual worlds. How are you approaching each of these elements in the design of the VRO?
I like to think of immersivity, authenticity, and realism as three parts of a Venn diagram. Player perception encompasses them, and they coalesce in the middle with “presence”, that feeling that the scene is “real”. In VR design you need some of all three, and depending on the experience, one can be greater than the others.
For instance, you can have a photo-realistic and highly authentic 360-degree video, and yet it can lack a sense of presence – you are still viewing something as if through a camera. Alternatively, you can feel immersed in an artistically abstract VR experience because you can interact with objects and move within an environment, but there is no mistaking it for the “real” world. VR is sometimes not as effective when it focuses entirely on realism and authenticity, as this can break immersion if you have had to compromise interactivity to accommodate photorealism.
Hardware limitations mean that it is often necessary to make compromises, so right now, VR cannot provide everything to everyone. For the VRO, we had to think about what the audience is going to require the most.
There will not be enough pixels on mobile VR headsets, to pick out everything in the virtual world. So we have to take an exaggerated approach to help enhance the player’s perception of what is happening. For instance, we increased the scale of the mountains in the scene to make the experience feel more authentic and immersive, even though it was technically less realistic. Getting that sense of awe-inspiring scale was just more important.
The VRO is being designed especially for students of the ancient world and museum visitors. What do you think VR adds to the way in which these audiences - and others - encounter, imagine, and experience the ancient world?
VR, of course, adds its unique immersivity into the equation. This is especially important as ancient Greece is a place that once existed. With the way that fictional worlds, whether film or game-based, draw on history, it sometimes becomes hard to recognise antiquity as a real thing.
We can use VR to establish a connection with an environment and a set of people that no longer exist. Museums do this, but it can be hard to connect with objects in a glass case. VR can provide new ways of experiencing the past.
While game engines were not created for education, they can be great when used to create historical educational content. The maturity of game engines such as Unity and Unreal, as well as the relative ease in creating simple VR experiences, is helping VR appear in the educational and museum spaces more often now, alongside animation and other teaching apps.
Ancient history can feel disconnected from our reality, and yet it is still exciting to visit ruins, to come face-to-face with the past in museums. VR augments this by offering another pathway to the past. It encourages us to ask questions about how we present history, while also offering the chance to immerse audiences in a world that still has relevance today.
What do you see as the benefits of collaborating with the VRO team and university researchers, and what do you hope to gain from this collaboration?
Pairing game developers with educators is vital as it allows for the creation of an experience that is recognisable as a game, but which works in different ways. Producing engaging educational resources requires a bold approach.
The VRO offers the chance to share knowledge and technology. It is ambitious, both in the way that it understands the need to properly commission educational resources, as well as its drive to make the VRO a free VR experience available to students and the public alike.
The VRO can help to challenge common misconceptions of the ancient world, emphasising the diversity and complexity in everything from ethnicity to clothing.
We love creating immersive, entertaining, and educational content for kids and families, using common devices like mobile phones and cutting-edge digital technology like augmented and virtual reality. Mixing this with lessons learned from the games industry, we aim, with the VRO, to create a product that engages audiences and creates a lasting experience.
Thank you very much for your time, Anil, we are delighted to be collaborating with Friday Sundae on this project.