Richard Tongeman, lead animator and director at Hammerhead, speaks about how this young company is plotting its virtual rise.
Virtual reality appears to be on the cusp of global breakthrough and the north east will get an insight into its potential this week when the VRTGO Conference takes over the Baltic Centre on 12 November. What form that revolution takes is still disputed. Google says its aim is to boost the mobile VR experience, making dedicated VR headwear like the Oculus Rift irrelevant before it gets consumer traction. Mark Zuckerberg meanwhile has asked analysts to be patient with Oculus sales, saying he feels VR headwear will be the next big computing platform.
In fact, VR is a technology for many different platforms. Developers like Hammerhead concentrate on storytelling and playability in their VR experiences. After creating the game Undercurrent as a university group project using Unreal for the PC and CAVE virtual environments, they switched focus to the Oculus Rift headset on its Kickstarter launch. Undercurrent was ported to the DK1 in time for its official release. “The reaction was phenomenal,” says Richard. “We gained thousands of players within weeks.”
That initial burst was built on its founders’ early recognition of the importance of story to user experience, as well as an intensive work ethic. “Over the past 18 months we’ve cracked some exciting creative and technical challenges, says Richard. “Every project we deliver brings something new to our toolkit and that allows us to create better, more emotive and powerful VR experiences.
“We believe true virtual reality runs in real time,” he says. “While we love 360 video, and many of our projects have 360 video components in order to reach a broader audience – through mobile VR – for us the true value of virtual reality is inhabiting and interacting in a virtual space. In the short-term, the most impactful content will come out of games studios and it won’t be formulaic.”
From the start, Hammerhead had a vision of cinematic virtual reality experiences. The company was officially launched in 2014 to provide creative and development services for commercial projects, while designing cinematic VR for the first consumer headsets. “We knew that graphical quality, immersive audio and user comfort were paramount to creating believable immersive experiences,” says Richard. “We embedded this into the heart of our creative process while exploring the potential of the new medium through short gaming experiments.
“To ensure we had storytelling at the core of our creative work, we brought in established writer and film director Rob McLellan,” he says. “He naturally looks for the story in everything that we produce. He also understands the cinematic workflow, which we can apply to our projects. It’s his job to help us take the established language of film, rewrite it and adapt it for a virtual environment.”
So far Hammerhead has worked with a number of recognised brands, including luxury marques Lexus and Sunseeker. “Progressive and larger brands are very often early adopters of new technologies,” says Richard. “We’ve been fortunate enough to work on some really exciting creative briefs in a very short space of time. We work very closely with our clients which inspires confidence and allows us a greater degree of creative and technical freedom so we can push boundaries and evolve the medium where possible.”
Richard describes his first hands-on experience of the Oculus Touch as among the “greatest freedoms” he has felt. “Looking down, seeing your hands and gaining the ability to play and create absolutely anything,” he says. “No matter how childish or simple, the ability to physically reach out and touch the world was more than enough to spark your imagination.”
Creating a collective future is a strong attraction for Hammerhead. Virtual reality allows users to travel through time and space, to go and be anywhere, says Richard. That means making VR more social. “If you can imagine it then it’s now possible to create that place – for entertainment, education, scientific research or our own wellbeing – the possibilities are endless. We’re at the very start of the next major computing platform. It’s going to get more interactive, more immersive, and more social.”
What remains is hardware and software improvement to enhance the experience, to enable more quality content and better creation tools. “We should be able to step into a scene and embody a character, record that motion and publish it,” says Richard. “Once the process of creation has become fun and intuitive, constructing virtual worlds and authoring short stories will become virtually effortless.”