How did you get involved with the project?
The Mill operates as one entity across several offices, so we can share resources and leverage team skills across the world. I look after the team of technologists, developers and artists of our Creative Technology department in our London office.
Once the core idea had been established we needed to choose a suitable VR platform for the events. That’s when I got involved.
It started with platform feasibility. We evaluated a lot of different social VR platforms and even briefly contemplated building our own. In the end, it made sense to use one of the existing platforms since we could use the time saved on development and testing to craft and polish our content.
VRChat has been around for a while and I’d always been interested in it. The most compelling thing about it is how open it is, that anyone can create their own worlds and avatars through the Unity game engine. Since our team is very familiar with Unity we knew that we’d be able to leverage that expertise to match the ambitions of the creative.
We wanted to be able to completely customise everything; the look, interactions, world behaviours and audio, so we needed to be able to build our own assets and write custom code. Using a platform with templated worlds and avatars would never have worked for us.
Talk us through some of the biggest challenges that arose and how you overcame them.
By far the biggest challenge was the need to create these worlds within the constraints of both the VRChat platform and the Oculus Quest headset. The Oculus Quest is a great VR headset however it being a mobile device running older hardware meant we had to be careful with how much we put into each world to keep things running smoothly. VRChat also limited our file size for each world to only 50MB which is not very much at all!
Meeting those strict requirements meant keeping a close eye on our asset usage, using higher detail in places we knew users would be looking at or for important hero objects. For example, for the first event we had three pieces of artwork contributed by afro-futuristic artists that had to be recreated in VR. It was imperative they had sufficient detail to do them justice so it was a balancing act with reducing detail elsewhere to ensure everything could run ok. We employed lots of old school visual tricks to help things run smoothly and newer technical art techniques to add polish.
Another challenge we had was creating the user experience for the Mill guides that were walking guests through the different areas. This was quite fun since it basically involved adding cheats in the form of secret buttons and rooms that allowed guides to control the experience.
What were some of your favorite behind-the-scenes moments?
It was quite surreal just running into people in VR. I was collaborating with colleagues who are physically thousands of miles away from me but in these fantastical virtual worlds, we were standing alongside each other watching Janelle Monáe sing!
On every project there’s always a moment when everything clicks into place, where from disparate parts it forms a cohesive whole. With Sanctum this happened for me when the artist rooms started to come to life. Sure, we’d been viewing these pieces on our screens for a while but to be able to walk through the worlds and teleport to these galleries containing the pieces really validated the creative to me.
My main overriding memory though was of the hours leading up to the first event and probably the most nervous I’ve been on a project ever. At 1am GMT (2 hours before showtime) we jumped in for one last sanity check. It was the first time I’d been able to go through it without fussing over the details. We wandered the virtual garden, admired the art, and stood on a hill to watch the sky fill with fireworks from the flowers. It was then we knew it was going to be ok.