New Reality Company
‘Tree’, a location-based virtual reality experience, transforms you into a majestic rainforest tree. With your arms as branches and body as a trunk, you’ll experience the tree’s life from a seedling to its fullest form, and witness its fate firsthand. Users enter the tree’s body and perspective, beginning the installation as a virtual seed and growing to the highest point in the forest before being slashed and burned by industrial loggers.To fully immerse you into the experience, it is enhanced with sensory elements such as a scent track, wind, heat and haptic vibrations to simulate growth.
With ‘Tree’, we wanted to personalize the effects of global climate change and deforestation. Climate change feels more prominent when it appears as something that is happening to you. To ensure that ‘Tree’ encourages not just awareness, but action, we partnered with The Rainforest Alliance, a non-profit with 25 years of experience working with local communities, governments, and corporations to end deforestation. ‘Tree’ is a fully immersive experience. We use custom scents, heat elements, air movers, and bass transducers which activate during key moments of the experience to engage both the body and mind into the tree’s narrative. Our extra-sensory partners include Subpac (providers of the vibrating vests), plus Scent Communication and International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF), who helped create the unique “scent” tracks of ‘Tree’. ‘Tree’ made its debut at Sundance 2017 before travelling to Tribeca Immersive Virtual Arcade and TED 2017: The Future You in Vancouver. It also screened at over 50 festivals and events around the world, and just launched in 2018 in IMAX VR Centers in LA, New York and Toronto.
At New Reality Company we create social-environmental cinematic VR experiences. We use the same technology that is used to make ubiquitous first person shooter games to make content that promotes a message of peace and nature conservation. In creating this project, we collaborated with multiple hardware, software and VFX partners (KonVRge, Milk VFX and Rewind) which were integral in bringing Tree to life. Unlike passively watching a nature documentary, we wanted to use the full capacity of immersive VR to promote empathy and engage a full emotional experience of becoming the tree.
We developed a custom pipeline in the Unreal Engine which allowed us to be able to start from the size of a seed and transition smoothly to tallest tree in the forest, seamlessly growing our trunk, branches and leaves towards the sky and witness the full life cycle of the Kapok tree. In order to maintain a sense of immersion we couldn’t at any time break the illusion that the user was the tree. The biggest challenge we faced was the question of how can we move and deform our arms – as the animation of growing leaves and branches is happening at the same time – while still keeping them attached. There was no ready made solution. To overcome this, we created a custom pipeline that merged two different types of software which don’t often play nice together – Maya and Houdini.
We developed unique solutions for being able to combine the growing alembic (Houdini) files for the tree’s branches and leaves with the evolving morph targets (Maya) of the tree’s body for a seamless user experience growing from a small seed to the tallest tree in the forest. This, as well as our attention to detail in bringing the rainforest to life with photorealistic lighting, shadow and textures, with the help of our art director, Jakob Kudsk Steensen, once again allowed the team at Epic Games to award us with our second Unreal Development Grant.