We always knew we wanted to give THORS learners a way to experience a foundry in virtual space. We envisioned it as a Foundry101-level course that any new hires starting in the industry would be able to take for quick understanding of the manufacturing process. Finally, in 2015 we purchased an Oculus Rift Development Kit. With the Cast Expo coming this April, we decided to see what we could create to help share this valuable knowledge with foundry professionals.
Then, we thought about it again. We wanted to create a teaser using VR that would give a glimpse of what we could accomplish in the education space. We decided the best option would be to use the Unreal Engine 4 (UE4), a game engine. We already had experience using this engine, and it had a lot of wonderful features and support for the Oculus Rift. Once the team agreed on what we were going to include in the teaser, we continued creating the necessary 3D models.
Animating a foundry
While we already had a comprehensive library of 3D models to draw from based on all the animations we created over the past few years of eLearning development, we knew it wasn't as simple as just tossing models into the engine and calling it a day. A lot of the 3D modeling we do for our animations is extremely detailed, some to the point where it could slow down UE4 even on a very powerful computer. We knew we would need to go through each model and optimize the polygon count. There was plenty still to make from scratch, as well. To make each 3D model "game ready," we had to go through a few more stages of preparation than what is typical for our regular course animations, ensuring everything would run smoothly in the game engine and, of course, look good.
One of the bigger considerations in video game design when creating an environment is something called "level design." On top of making an environment immersive and captivating to the eyes, a designer must make sure the layout works when moving through it. Since we were making an “on the rails” experience that guided the viewer through the foundry unassisted, allowing the viewer freedom to concentrate on just looking around, we were able to control what you get to look at and from where. To ensure our virtual reality walk-through works the way it does requires a decent amount of programming behind the scenes, much to the credit of one of our programmers and THORS IT director Kristian Karpati. Thanks to him, our “hands-free” virtual reality walk-through secretly has quite a bit of interactivity to it. From the path that the viewer follows, to our animations playing on the walls, to the magnet seen picking up scrap, to the molten metal pouring from a furnace and ladles, the various points of interactivity revolve around the viewer’s precise position on the track. Kristian truly did an amazing job.
THORS Foundry Museum
The THORS Foundry Museum is now our virtual reality teaser. Our vision was for this to be just like a visit to an actual museum where you learn about all the manufacturing processes—an experience no different than if you were to visit a science or history museum and learn about that subject matter. Throughout the tour, you’re shown the various stages of production from gathering the scrap and charging the furnace, to creating the mold and pouring the molten metal, to inspection and heat treatment. We were all very excited to work on such an innovative project, and to imagine what it means for the future of THORS education in the manufacturing industry.
A break from routine
The biggest difference between the standard 3D animation work we do every day versus this is that everything we create for our courses are pre-rendered videos, but this is a real-time experience. With standard 3D animation work, modeling and animation is done in 3D Studio Max, rendered out, and then post-production can be completed. UE4 requires a lot of additional work for the models, including collision detection, lightmap settings, real-time lighting, physically based materials, and much more. Extreme care is taken during development because the Oculus Rift requires the frame rate to be as high as possible so everything runs smoothly.
In the pipeline
We hope to create more virtual reality simulations that can be focused on teaching viewers how to use various tools and learn processes in a safe and controlled environment. We’re even looking to develop this for mobile devices!
This project has been a great experience. We got to try new programs and practices and learn a lot of new things. We took great pride in this work, making it as immersive and as visually stimulating as possible while still being very informative. This project has changed a lot over the course of its lifespan, and offers but a brief glimpse of what we’ll be able to do using virtual reality going forward.