This article was taken from a talk given by Lachlan Sleight at the With The Best Online Developer Conference.
There’s a giant sandstone relic from the 19th century in the centre of a shopping mall in Melbourne, Australia.
Encased in a big glass dome, a juxtaposition of Victorian and contemporary architecture, Coop’s Shot Tower is a mysterious shrine to a time when Melbourne was one of the richest cities in the British Empire, thanks in no small part to Victoria’s rich gold deposits.
And while well-known to locals – it’s the most Instagrammed building in the city – not many know its actual purpose.
“Turns out, that’s the same as it was in the 1890s!” says Lachlan Sleight, Chief Technology Officer and Lead Developer at Liminal 360.
He begins with a quote from The Australian Illustrated News, written on December 1st, 1891:
“Even those that have observed Mr Coop’s sky sign can have little idea of the business he conducts…”
And so, as part of the Melbourne Central Shopping Centre’s 25th birthday celebrations, Melbourne-based creative agency Liminal 360 set out to recreate the building as it was in its heyday.
The tower itself would have stood out starkly against Melbourne’s skyline, standing tall at 50 meters. Production would peak in 1894 when the tower would produce six tonnes of lead shot for shotguns per week.
The project was a collaboration between three companies: Liminal 360, Melbourne Central Shopping Centre, and branding agency Bastion Effect.
“It was going to be a temporary installation in the shopping centre. One whole month. It was going to be was a real-time, interactive experience of the shot tower back when it was first built, so we were going to recreate it as it was in 1890, and the player was going to be a shot maker.”
There was a lot of historical material available for the project, making the recreation relatively easy.
“We took tons and tons of photos and measurements. We went for a stylized realism look. We didn’t want to go for photorealistic because the timeline was four weeks. It was really, really quick, and we just didn’t have time to make it photorealistic but we did have time to make it pretty good. We kept everything as accurate as we could, even down to the size of the lead ingots.”
The project used the HTC Vive, and created the experience in Unity, with all the modeling done in Blender.
The VR experience was installed on the ground floor of the shopping mall, which is also a train station.
“In this spot, we had probably 1,000 people walking past every day. It’s one of the busiest railway stations in Melbourne and the shopping centre it’s in also has many shops; there’s tons of visitors all the time. So that was good because it meant that the project was very, very visible. Crowds were curious and keen to know what was going on.”
The VR experience was the first physical installation the team at Liminal 360 had ever done, and a number of UI and UX considerations were put into place for when the team couldn’t be there to run the demo.
“In our experience, giving many, many Vive demos to people that hadn’t tried VR before, is while the Vive controllers are very capable, we’ve found that people understand the movement of the controllers, maybe the trigger, and that’s about it. In our experience, if you start telling people to press the touchpad, they’ll pull the trigger instead. If you tell them to press the grip buttons, they’ll have no idea what the grip button is, and it’s very difficult to communicate that when they’re in VR, the menu button is out of the question. So, in this experience, we used zero buttons.”
The only thing the demo used was the position and rotation of the controller.
“That ended up being a really good idea because no one had any confusion about how to use the experience; they had the controller and they would understand instantly.”
In preparing for the live demo, the team took a lot of time to train the center staff to run the program, working on minimizing any typical software glitches.
“The constant queues meant that we had very low tolerance for those typical Vive glitches that are fine when you have friends over, or even when you’re demoing professionally, but when you’re doing a public experience, if these things are breaking every half hour or hour, that’s a really big problem. Some of these were problems in the application development; we had to make sure nothing crashed or there was no memory leaks, things running literally non-stop for 8, 9, 10 hours a day. But also we had to make sure that there was procedures in place to make sure we didn’t run out of controller battery, or we wouldn’t have to reboot the computer, or we didn’t have to recalibrate the room; basically anything. The whole thing had to run perfectly smoothly 100% of the time, which was, well, really daunting,” he laughs.
With an initial target of 1,000 experiences, Sleight is happy to report that the project was a huge success, exceeding their target by thousands, with a lot of media exposure and VIP visits, including the Mayor of Melbourne, and reps from NVIDIA.
If there’s one thing the team at Liminal 360 learned, it’s that the staff running the experience were the most important element.
“It doesn’t matter if you make the world’s best experience if your staff aren’t prepared and able to flag people down and get them interested in the experience, you’re not going to get any usage.”
Once you’ve got a crowd, he says, the big chains of usage flow easily, generating its own interest.
“We’ve since done another installation with less interactive staff, and the usage was almost zero for a whole day. And it really is just whether the staff is able to get the first person… that interaction is the most important thing for guaranteeing exposure for a VR installation, and that just comes down to the personality and gregariousness of your staff. So if you’re going to do a VR installation, really make sure that your staff are outgoing and friendly, and that they’re willing to approach people and get people involved, because that’s the number one most important thing.”