Taking our 3D Modeling Skills to a Different Dimension

BY Erik Edmondson

Grab a piece of fresh, white printer paper and let’s make this work day a little more interesting. Go to Google and look for a robot arm (or if you’re like one of our project managers, Thomas, just grab your favorite action figure out of the 42 sitting on your desk). Draw a quick sketch of what you see.

Done? Good. Now, without looking too silly, move around the room and draw every angle of that arm that you can see. Oh, and while you’re at it…think about how that arm will look at any given time of day. Pretty tough assignment, isn’t it? Welcome to 3D modeling for VR.

If you’ve been reading along, you know the Anode team has been exploring VR (virtual reality) as we celebrate our 25th anniversary. In order to create the virtual environment for our VR experience, we had to learn how to create animated 3D models. These models have to display all possible angles to avoid any visual discrepancies for the user during the game play activity we are developing.

For our day-to-day 2D and 3D animation work, we have complete control over what the viewer will see on the flat, stationery screen in front of them. The aspect of controlling what the viewer will see is called camera control.

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When we move into the virtual reality environment, we lose significant control over what the viewer might see when they don the VR goggles. For our VR game, we are creating a free space where the users control the camera by walking about as they please. Where they will look as they walk around at any given time is completely unknown.

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In traditional animation work, the control of the camera also gives us control of other things like how the user will perceive the 3D model we have created. The texture, lighting, and color are all chosen by us (aka: the animation gods) and seen by the user just as we created it.

So, let’s go back to your robot arm drawing. Did you take into consideration whether or not an object could potentially be blocking someone’s view of the mighty robot arm you created? If someone were to peek around the corner to admire your life-like drawing of Tony Stark’s arm in Iron Man 3, what angle of the arm would they see? Might there be a futuristic shipping container in the way?

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And we’re not done yet… Is your viewer able to control or affect any lighting sources? Perhaps you want the viewer or robot arm to carry around glowing blue pieces of an unknown radioactive element. Now, you have to add a blue hue to all our arm sketches instead of the white glow of that crisp printer paper you started with. Worse yet, maybe your viewer has triggered some of those rotating, red, warning lights. How will these lighting changes affect your mechanical prosthetic masterpiece?!

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Camera or viewer perception is just one aspect of 3D modeling we had to consider in the creation of our new VR environment. Another aspect was the transferring our 3D models into the Unity platform. Unity is a program that us Anodian animators don’t typically mess with, but Unity is the platform our programmers chose for developing the actual VR experience. 

“Transferring” sounds easy enough, but we learned the hard way that transferring models into another program is known to alter the appearance of the model.

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In an attempt overcome this issue, we first learned a little Unity 101 to create models from scratch. Using our robot arm metaphor, this approach is a bit like sketching C-3PO’s shiny gold robot arm on a piece of printer paper and then overlaying a piece of tracing paper to add in any visual elements that are reflected in C-3POs plating.

Our second approach was to create the complete 3D model in Maxon Cinema 4D and “baking” the textures onto the models before transferring everything over to Unity. (If you are an animator who hasn’t explored this application, be sure to check it out on Maxon’s website). Going back to the example of C-3PO’s arm, this “baking” of textures is like sketching a reflection of the surrounding environment right on a technically-accurate, mechanical drawing of C-3PO’s arm. With this approach, we are able to create our ideal VR environment, and give you, the VR user, 100% control over what you will explore.

So at the end of all this, not only did you learn a lot about our 3D modeling approach for VR, but you also got in lots of sketching practice. This entry is what we in the business call a successful blog post. Keep following this series of blog posts as we continue building our VR experience.

(Oh, and be sure and send us your robot arm sketches… we are looking for a new Senior Graphic Designer, you know.)

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