Express Who You Are, in VR! Vacation Simulator’s Avatar Customizer

Hello Humans!

We’ve been hard at work at Owlchemy, continuing to add absurd amounts of interactions, an abundance of humor, and oodles of personality to the vibrant world of Vacation Simulator.

In response to the growing anticipation we’ve seen for Vacation Simulator, we’re excited to share details about a system that lets players bring themselves into the virtual world: our Avatar Customizer!

Express who you are in VR with the Vacation Simulator Avatar Customizer!

At Owlchemy Labs, “VR for everyone” is at the heart of everything we do. We believe everyone should be able to play our games, have fun, and truly feel like themselves.

To live up to this philosophy, we set out to build an avatar system that allows everyone to be represented, lets players spend as much or as little time as they want customizing, and feels both believable and relatable.

Tons of research, consultation and constant testing, testing, testing led us to the refined yet powerful set of options in the Avatar Customizer. We’re thrilled to share the results of our (ongoing) work, as well as a little bit of the process behind creating a system to represent everyone in VR.

 

What’s In An Avatar Customizer?

Express who you are in VR with the Vacation Simulator Avatar Customizer!

When we started development, we realized that vacations are filled with activities that require you to see yourself—dressing up for your destination, checking out new outfits in the mirror, and of course… taking selfies! For players to truly bring themselves into VR, we knew it was essential to build an avatar system beyond a floating headset and hands.

While an avatar system is a massive undertaking for any project, the nuances of developing for VR added a few layers of complexity to the task. Technical hurdles aside, the physical presence and agency of VR makes it all the more important for players to identify with their avatars. True to Owlchemy fashion, we accepted this important task gleefully!

Express who you are in VR with the Vacation Simulator Avatar Customizer!

First, to account for the vast range of visual elements that make up a person’s physical identity, we narrowed things down to what we found essential. We want our players to be able to capture the core elements of their physical appearance in order to seamlessly embody their virtual selves in their adventures across Vacation Island.

At the start of the game, you’re greeted by a friendly and accessible interface for customization— a vanity set full of switches, dials, and knobs for tweaking your avatar’s appearance. Adjust the height of the vanity with the handle, and you’re off creating your virtual self!

Our Avatar Customizer allows players to customize the following:

  • Skin Tone: Skin tone is the most immediate personal identifier, and one that nearly everyone considers core to their identity.
  • Visor Color: Instead of eye color, we let players customize the color of their visor. (You are in a VR simulation, after all…) The visor color can represent your eye color if you so choose, or be an aesthetic choice if you want it to represent your style.
  • Hair Style + Color: We wanted to ensure everyone could find a hair (and beard!) option that reflected their identity—be that color, texture, style, or even religious/cultural identifiers like hijabs or dastars (an important, core part of identity for many!)
  • Glasses: Much like with hairstyles, we know that for some people, glasses are more than an accessory—they’re a part of who you are!

Using just a few core features, we’ve polished our Avatar Customizer to be a powerful tool to create a truly believable avatar in VR. We found simplicity overall to be the key to creating an iconic representation of yourself, with optional depth in only the most essential areas.

Whether you’re taking a selfie on the beach…

…or trying to pick your favorite accessory in the Dock Shop—

We want you to feel like… well, you!

 

The Process + Considerations

For “everyone to feel like themselves” in our game, we had to really mean everyone. We feel a great sense of responsibility to pave the way for a more diverse, inclusive baseline for implementing avatar systems in VR. Avatar systems in games have often failed specific minority groups in the past, and alienating someone in VR with a half-baked system carries even greater consequences than in traditional games.

Everyone deserves to see and be themselves in the world—including virtual ones. Because of this, we committed ourselves to the entire scope of an avatar system. We knew that we had a lot of work ahead of us, but not how much until we started to dig deeper.

Our first step was gathering as much information as we could on our own. We took skin tone inspiration from artist Angélica Dass’ Humanae Project and Fenty’s foundation line.

Express who you are in VR with the Vacation Simulator Avatar Customizer!

With hair, we started at the texture level, learning about the 1-4C classifications for hair textures from a variety of hair and beauty websites (1: straight, 2: wavy, 3: curly, and 4: coily or kinky). Then came styling. For this, we looked at the most common haircuts across age, gender, texture, and major cultural groups and tried to represent 2-4 styles from each group.

Just this research gave us plenty to start working on, but we knew that we needed additional expertise to provide context to our existing knowledge and fill in the inevitable gaps. We reached out to fantastic groups like Google’s Product Inclusion team, our local experts from Pretty Brown & Nerdy, and even a few of our industry friends (thanks, Rami!)—all of whom helped us immensely to spot major gaps in our representation and understanding. Utilizing external help, we addressed things like a lack of hairstyles for older women and long-haired men, appropriate terms for Muslim headwear, and inaccuracies in our textures and models for curly and coily hairstyles.

Sometimes, representation even meant developing new tech. When tackling black male hairstyles, we implemented a method for transparency gradients in hair to capture the look of the fade. We also wanted longer hairstyles to move with the player, so we developed custom physics tech for long hair to feel more realistic. For the hijabs, we had to create a new animation rig so that the hijab would stay anchored to the torso and never reveal the skin of the neck.

These details, while seemingly small, were important for us to implement in order to truly allow everyone to represent themselves. Overall, we’d estimate that the Avatar Customizer in Vacation Simulator has taken us over 2000 development hours to date—and we’re still counting!

 

Be Who You Are- in VR!

We’re delighted to show the richness of our avatar system and its customization options, as well as the process behind the scenes that led us to the system we have today. It was no small feat to tackle a challenge of this scale with a VR project, but it is one we felt strongly about and committed to getting it right. After all—

Everyone deserves to be themselves in VR!

Express who you are in VR with the Vacation Simulator Avatar Customizer!

We can’t wait to see all the ways players customize their avatars in Vacation Simulator when the game launches in early 2019! Kick back, relax, and get ready to book your vacation!

-Owls

Special thanks to our collaborators and the entire team for their contributions on the avatar customizer, as well as the Owls who put in an exceptional amount of work to make it the amazing system it is: Ben Shore, Carrie Witt, Harrison Bright, and Anthony Tan!

Owlchemy Lab Report: Mobile Spectator – AR Spectator Camera Experiment

Mobile Spectator is an AR Spectator Camera experiment from Owlchemy Labs!

As the saying goes— science never sleeps! Today, we’re excited to share an R&D project fresh from the Labs.

After months of mixing realities, rendering ridiculous interactions, and concocting crafty code, we think we’ve created a truly novel way to bridge the gap between the physical world and what’s inside the headset— something we call Mobile Spectator!

Here’s a brief glimpse of it in action:

Mobile Spectator Camera— The latest R&D experiment from Owlchemy Labs!

Mobile Spectator is a fun way to share a VR experience with players outside of the HMD, utilizing a tool everyone already has in their pockets— a smart phone!

We are always looking for new and unique ways to explain the magic of VR at a glance. Our Mixed Reality R&D experiments were a first step, but we recently set out to see if we could create a different way to view VR— one without the prohibitive space and hardware requirements of mixed reality.

 

How It Works

Mobile Spectator is an AR Spectator Camera experiment from Owlchemy Labs!

The Mobile Spectator mobile app uses ARCore to track the phone’s position and planes in the physical space. To calibrate the phone’s position in VR, simply point the phone’s camera at the headset, approximately a foot away, and tap “Sync”. This process synchronizes both the VR position and AR position of the mobile device in the same play space.

To allow for this unique third-person view, we tried a different approach from a traditional multiplayer networking solution. The phone and PC communicate directly via WiFi. Once the phone is calibrated, its AR-calculated position is sent to the PC, placing an additional camera in the VR scene to represent the Mobile Spectator. The PC renders a frame from this camera, encodes the frame, sends it back to the phone, decodes it there, and… viola! You have a live video feed on both the phone and PC.

There are two approaches we identified when tackling this experiment: using the phone to render frames natively; and using the PC to render frames— the latter being the method we decided to implement in this experiment. This method requires almost no networking code, does not require the application to run natively on the phone, and allows for high quality video capture. Of course, the tradeoff here is that rendering on the host VR machine is resource intensive, has bandwidth limitations, and might not be feasible on all hardware.

 

The Final Result

Unlike mixed reality, Mobile Spectator requires an in-game avatar to be visually legible and interesting. Luckily, we already had an amazing avatar system implemented in Vacation Simulator, so our final result was immediately satisfying! The results are ridiculously fun for both the person playing in VR and with Mobile Spectator.

Mobile Spectator is an AR Spectator Camera experiment from Owlchemy Labs!
Viola! A live feed of the Mobile Spectator camera view.

From inside the HMD, the phone is shown floating in space with a screen attached to it, displaying the live view from the mobile phone to the VR player. Similar to the cameras in previous versions of Spectator Mode, this live view allows the player in VR to frame themselves within a shot, as well as see where their friends are and interact more directly.

On the mobile side, the player in VR is represented by their avatar on the phone screen. Mobile Spectator players can walk around the physical play space alongside the person in VR, using the phone screen as a window into the virtual world. You are free to look around wherever you choose and experience the game world in a more active way outside of VR!

 

Interaction

Once we found a solution for displaying the Mobile Spectator in the VR world, we knew immediately that we had to find ways to add more interactive elements.

Take photos and save them directly to the mobile device!

Everyone loved to pose at the floating Mobile Spectator camera, so adding a camera capture button to the app was an easy choice. By tapping the camera button on the phone, the device tells the PC to capture a high resolution frame. This image is then sent back to the phone and saved directly into the phone’s camera roll, ready for editing or sharing on social media. It’s so quick and natural it feels like taking a photo of the real world!

Interact with players in VR by bombarding them with beach balls!

Interaction from the Mobile Spectator app seemed compelling, so we also added a button to the mobile app that, when pressed, will toss beach balls at the player in VR! Keep in mind that, while this is essentially a multiplayer component, we didn’t have to build a custom network to support this. This especially feels promising— the interaction between phone and VR users with Mobile Spectator is unlike any solution we’ve encountered before.

 

Considerations

Mobile Spectator is a truly unique experience that allows you to get a glimpse into the VR world— straight from your mobile phone.

Mobile Spectator— a ridiculously fun, experimental way to share VR!

There are various considerations that make Mobile Spectator a formidable undertaking, including some significant challenges we encountered. First, the feature adds quite a bit of performance overhead to the PC with additional rendering and video encoding. The mobile device is also heavily taxed by simultaneously running ARCore and decoding video. Additionally, latency is noticeable due to the encoding/decoding process and round-trip delay time. These are just a few of the challenges we’ve noted, but we think it’s just as important to share these findings as part of the experimentation process.

We are very excited to be sharing our experiments with Mobile Spectator. The “Labs” in our name is a statement of purpose and, as such, we place a great importance on being open about our latest experiments and findings.

Thanks for reading— now, back to science!!

-Owls

Credit to the entire team for their feedback on this project, and to the Owls that worked directly on Mobile Spectator: Devin Reimer, Ben Hopkins, and Ryan Dawson!

Vacation Simulator Makes a Splash at E3!

Hello Humans!

Last month, we were thrilled to bring the Vacation Simulator demo to E3! It was a wild ride and Owlchemy’s first official showing at E3. We took on the Los Angeles Convention Center in full vacation style—donning flower leis, sun shades, and custom Vacation Simulator souvenir shirts. (More info on those soon…)

Owlchemy Labs takes on Los Angeles and E3 in style to show Vacation Simulator!
The Owls take on on Los Angeles and E3 in island style to show Vacation Simulator!

Of course, our presence at E3 wouldn’t have been possible without our fantastic partners at Sony. We can’t thank them enough for having us as part of the PSVR lineup. It was a dream come true to show off Vacation Simulator to so many eager fans—and the view from the PlayStation booth’s second floor was a vacation on its own, too!

Owlchemy showed Vacation Simulator at the Sony PlayStation booth at E3!
The bird’s eye view from the Sony PlayStation booth was a vacation all on its own.

 

DEMOS

We were truly astounded by the positive response from everyone who played— fans, streamers, and developers alike.

Some of our favorite moments involved sharing the demo with fans trying VR for the first time. It’s always exciting when players can pick up the controllers and immediately understand how to play. Over and over we watched first-time VR users lose themselves in our world and just “get it”, full of giggles and smiles by the end of the demo!

At E3, you never know who might show up at your booth. It was a wonderful surprise when OMGitsfirefoxx stopped by to learn more about Vacation Simulator and try our demo—after donning the appropriate vacation attire, of course! She had a blast exploring the beach demo, and even made friends with a certain butterfly by the waterfall. 🦋

Check out her E3 vlog to see her unbridled joy!:

 

LIVESTREAM

Vacation Simulator makes a very colorful appearance on the PlayStation Liveshow.
Vacation Simulator makes a very colorful appearance on the PlayStation Liveshow.

A big highlight for us was our appearance on the PlayStation Liveshow. Devin and Chelsea got powdered and gussied up in the back before taking the stage to chat about Vacation Simulator. We showed all-new footage from the beach demo and chatted about the story and gameplay features.

Devin and Chelsea getting beautified for their on-stage appearance.
Devin and Chelsea getting beautified for their big moment on-stage.

The stage for the PlayStation Liveshow was HUGE!
The stage for the PlayStation Liveshow was big. Like… really big. No pressure.

You can check out the full footage of Devin and Chelsea chatting Vacation Simulator on Sony’s E3 Liveshow here:

Thanks again to Sony for featuring us, and to the fans that tuned in!

 

PRESS

Lastly, the press response was phenomenal. We were honored when the team at Yo Soy Un Gamer gave us a nomination for Best of E3. Thanks, Team YSUG!

Vacation Simulator garners a nod from Yo Soy Un Gamer for 'Best of Show' at E3!
Vacation Simulator garners a nod from Yo Soy Un Gamer for “Best of Show” at E3!

Here are a few snippets from the E3 press coverage of Vacation Simulator:


Nerdist: Kelly Knox shared picks of the best indie gems at E3, including Vacation Simulator and describing it as a “whimsical and irreverent VR experience”.


Shacknews: We were delighted that Shacknews followed up on their coverage of Vacation Simulator from GDC to interview the team (not once, but twice!) and share what’s new on Vacation Island.


Push Square: We’re just as excited to share the world of Vacation Simulator as Push Square is to go on holiday to visit it! Sammy Barker covered our presence at E3 and called Vacation Simulator “inventive, colourful, and funny.”

Thanks again to everyone at Sony for having us in the PSVR lineup, and to the whole team running the booth. Overall, it was an amazing E3 and we can’t wait for more people to experience RECREATION and RELAXATION!


Every day of E3 was a party! We could hardly bear the excitement!

We’ll be sharing even more about Vacation Simulator in the coming months. Until then, sea you later! 🌊

-Owls

Announcing new leadership at Owlchemy Labs

Today, with hearts full of love, we are saying goodbye to CEOwl and Janitor Alex Schwartz and Studio Director Cy Wise as they take flight to pursue new opportunities outside of Owlchemy Labs. We are grateful for their contributions to the studio thus far, and look forward to seeing what they both do next.

To that end, we are announcing that Devin Reimer, current Chief Technology Owl, will transition to the role of Chief Executive Owl (CEOwl). Devin’s been with Owlchemy since the early days, tackling every challenge along the way from the most formidable technical undertakings to the impossible task of making a hoodie stylish. There’s truly no better person to take the helm as we steer toward the future of VR.

Announcing new leadership at Owlchemy Labs: Devin Reimer (Chief Executive Owl) and Andrew Eiche (Chief Technology Owl and Cable Slinger.

Pictured (left to right): Devin Reimer (Chief Executive Owl) and Andrew Eiche (Chief Technology Owl and Cable Slinger)

“It’s a very exciting time at Owlchemy Labs, and the virtual reality industry as a whole,” Devin adds. “It makes me incredibly happy to continue my work in this new role as CEOwl, and I’m committed to ensuring that the studio continues to push the boundaries in terms of innovation and experimentation with the games we create.”

As Devin transitions to his new role as CEOwl, we are also pleased to share that Andrew Eiche will be stepping up as Owlchemy Labs’ new Chief Technology Owl (CTOwl) and Cable Slinger, and Autumn Taylor the new Studio Director, Marketing, KnOWLedge.

Leaving the nest is never easy, but we are proud and excited for both Alex and Cy in their adventures to come pursuing the future. For all of their work on this journey up until now— farewOWL and thank you!

We at Owlchemy Labs will continue to build absurd and highly polished games that push the boundaries of what’s possible in virtual reality, and are more excited than ever to continue helping shape the future of this industry.

Onward to the future!

– Owls

Bon Voyage, GDC! It’s been a trip!

Hello Humans!

We’re back from the yearly Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco! The Owls were out in force, sharing knowledge on talks, chatting VR on panels, and showing the first playable demo of Vacation Simulator!

 

DEMOS


We showcased Vacation Simulator in sunny style (despite the rain at GDC)!

This was the first-ever inside look at Vacation Simulator and we were really blown-away by the positive response. It’s always thrilling the first time you show a new game, but we were floored by just how excited people were to experience [VACATION]. Attendees had a blast taking selfies, scoring points in Net Ball, lounging on the beach, and spending a frankly ridiculous amount of time building the perfect sandcastle.


No shortage of joy in our booth: We couldn’t help but have fun demoing Vacation Simulator!

 

TALKS


Alex Schwartz (Chief Executive Owl and Janitor) and Devin Reimer (Chief Technology Owl) presented lessons learned from the development of ‘Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality”.

True to Owlchemy-fashion, we also presented a TON of talks this year: Carrie Witt (Art Director, Señor Artist, and Cat Whisperer) gave insight into the art direction behind Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality; Cy Wise (Studio Director, Owlmancer, Science) and Andrew Eiche (Developer, Producer, Alleged Certified Adult™) tackled accessibility design in VR; and our dynamic duo Alex Schwartz (CEOwl) and Devin Reimer (CTOwl) shared lessons learned from the development of Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality in their postmortem talk!

All of these talks will be available on the GDC vault in a couple weeks, so keep an eye on the Speaker page for links.

 

PRESS

Lastly, press have been quick to share their first impressions of Vacation Simulator!


Road to VR: Scott Hayden from Road to VR stopped by to see the game, and spent time with the Sandcastle Sandbox!


TechCrunch: We swooned when Lucas Matney from TechCrunch found our game “delightful”, not to mention calling us out as an argument to evolve the hardware landscape (OMG)!


Shacknews: The team at Shacknews stopped by to demo and grab an interview with CEOwl Alex Schwartz! They chatted about the evolution of jokes, VR drunkenness, and the future of the VR industry.

See the whole thing below:

All in all, it was a fantastic GDC! We met with fans and friends both new and old, snapped an absurd number of selfies, and even held impromptu juggling sessions!


Alex and Jesse Schell showing off some serious juggling skills.

We already miss everyone dearly, but the show must go on! Until next year, GDC!

-Owls