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Mio Garden - A Meditation on VR

By Tom Westerlin, Creative Director, Nice Shoes Creative Studio
Tom Westerlin
Nice Shoes Creative Studio recently entered the exciting world of Virtual Reality, debuting our immersive and interactive meditative experience "Mio Garden." Creating the Mio Garden was a very personal journey for me. I was coming from a chaotic work environment and a stressful time in my life, so when Harry Dorrington and Angela Bowen asked me to join Nice Shoes Creative Studio to build a virtual reality Zen garden I jumped right in. We set out to create a relaxing experience focusing on beauty and interactions that put the user in a tranquil state of mind. This is just what I needed at that moment, a release from the overwhelming, fast-paced world. Everyone else tends to need a break like that too, and I thought it could be achieved through interactive meditation.

We started with gathering reference, collecting images and stories of Zen gardens within Japan and around the world. As we immersed ourselves in the culture and spirituality, the garden began to take shape. I sketched out different layouts and tested out locations for the temple, pond and other unique interaction areas. I wanted to make sure wherever the user was within the garden they'd experience a beautifully balanced picture.

Brennan McTernan, our head developer, and I experimented with different interactions that made sense from a Zen point of view, and also took advantage of room-scale VR and the HTC Vive. Being able to walk within the garden really grounded the user and provided a true sense of presence. However they could only go so far, due to the tethered nature of the current hardware. Our first challenge was moving the user from one location to another while making it feel authentic within this world.

We tried a point and click interaction with the controller to transport the user to a new location and it worked in a functional sense, but it didn't feel Zen. After a few more iterations we settled on a bit of magic and simplicity. The sun is setting upon the garden, so we provided a lantern for the user to grab and then upon release they would be taken to the next area. To let them know where they are going, the magic lantern released cherry blossoms that floated off in the direction of the next location. 

We also defined the room-scale boundary of some areas with decks, allowing the user to walk on them, but not off on to the raked sand. The user gets the sense of open space while in the virtual world, yet also confines them to a defined area so not to walk into a wall in the real world. 

It was important to encourage the user to use the whole room space and not just have them standing in one place or looking in a single direction the whole time. We have an area where they need to look and reach up and another that's focused on hand eye coordination while looking down. This need to look all around really slowed the user down, encouraging them to be mindful of their environment and fully take in the beauty.

As we resolved the interactions, our reference gathering transformed into 3D models and textures. Working in Maya and Photoshop our team of CG artists created trees, terrains, buildings and animals for our new world. These models and animations were then imported into Unreal where they were wired up for interaction. To add a bit of magic to our world, our CG artists created a number of particle systems of glowing cherry blossoms and multiplying beetles adding to the wonder of the environment.

Nice Shoes has a strategic partnership with Sound Lounge, who were a huge asset in bringing the world to life through their creation of the foley and ambient sounds. Hearing birds behind you, guiding you to turn around and seeing them there truly immerses you as a user. We also tapped Groove Guild to create an original score that provided a meditative song to begin the user's journey.

We did a lot of testing as we built the garden and received valuable feedback along the way, from a diverse range of users. Some of it was contradictory, but as we continue to create more VR experiences we need to keep both the VR novice and expert in mind and listen to their feedback. There's the passive side of humanity and an adventurous one, and every user has different levels of both, so it can be difficult to know which way to lean. The user is always going to put on a VR headset and bring along their own world experiences. It's up to us as makers of these VR worlds to give them choices that match different types of users.

With six unique interactions in a beautiful setting, there is a Zen moment for all types of people. A place to center yourself and recharge. I recall a time where we were pushing working towards a big deadline and it was getting a bit stressful. I was testing the Kendama (a Japanese cup'n'ball game) interaction and found myself so focused on catching the ball I lost track of time. After about 15 minutes I came out of the headset and felt more grounded, open minded and less stressed. I found the bug and it turned out we actually hit our deadline ahead of schedule. 

The Mio Garden has helped me stay grounded and has provided me with many moments of reflective wonder - both in and out of the VR headset. I've seen those emotions echoed in user after user as they've gone through, and emerged from this experience. We all need a break from this world sometimes, and I'm very pleased with our success in transporting some of my fellow stressed out people into a more relaxing, magical world. 

Here is a 'making of' video we think you will enjoy!

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Tom Westerlin is the Creative Director at Nice Shoes Creative Studio. 

Related Keywords:VR, HTC Vive, Maya 3D animation, Unreal Engine, vr meditation, ZEN Gardens


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