From the years 2016-2018, my primary role at Universal Creative was to build prototypes of all sorts of XR ideas. Borrowing a term from Lockheed Martin, our team was tasked with increasing the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of these technologies to a point where they could be safely and reliably used in an E-ticket attraction.
Along the way, we became Universal Orlando Resort's go-to team for questions about VR, and we were friendly about building prototypes for other departments where we saw real business opportunities. For confidentiality reasons, I can't share much about most of these projects, but I will try to be as illustrative as possible!
Concept: Universal's Concept Development team had done some sketches of a VR attraction in a cage-shaped ride vehicle, and they wanted to build a prototype to sell the idea to our CEO and creative partners
My role: Project Management, including script development, cage design and construction, safety approval from Universal Engineering, VR experience development, and practical effects
My process: My number one priority was always to make sure that I fully and correctly understood the creative intent of the concept development team. Where we had no original concept art, I built mood boards of different props, characters, and environments for the team to review. I designed several versions of the cage in Unity, and invited the team to put on a headset and experience different versions in VR before we picked a final design.
One critical juncture was at our two-week review with the VR vendor. Our Senior Director for Concept Development was dissatisfied with the pacing of the experience, but couldn't put his finger on exactly where the issues were. As an engineer by trade, I didn't trust myself to solve this problem, nor would I outsource storytelling, Universal's core competency, to a vendor. Feeling stumped, I asked my manager for help. We found a veteran show writer that agreed to help us, and together we got the experience back on track.
Results: Our final script was strong. The cage matched the design that the team had seen in VR, and it met all the engineering and safety requirements. The VR experience had been through several iterations and was looking great. We were ready.
One fateful day in 2017, we presented the final prototype to the Senior Director. He turned around and presented it to SVP of Attraction Development, who in turn presented to the CEO of Universal Creative, who in turn invited us to present to Steven Spielberg. It was a hit!
Impact: Steven Spielberg loved the demo, and the experience opened future doors for our team. We later presented the prototype to the CEO of Comcast NBCUniversal among many others, but ultimately the project did not proceed to a second phase.
Concept: Work with the VRCoaster team in Germany to transform one of Universal's existing worldwide attractions into a VR coaster. (This attraction was cancelled during development.)
My role: Technical writer for Universal's scope of work. I interfaced between VRCoaster's lead engineer, Universal Orlando's Tech Services team (ride repaire and maintenance), the Tech Services team at another Universal park, and Universal management. I drew technical diagrams and ensured that requirements from all teams were accurately represented.
Concept: Build a prototype of a particular VR experience involving flying
My role: Project Management and prototyping, including a ride vehicle and a VR experience
My process: Before I wrote the scope of work, I developed a series of rapid prototypes to help Universal answer some key questions:
Concept: Build a prototype of a warehouse-scale VR experience involving a particular experimental safety system
My role: Development of hardware and software. Universal Engineering gave me a specification for the safety system, and I built a prototype of that, as well as an accompanying VR experience in Universal's OptiTrack volume
Results: I met the Engineering team's specifications, and Universal filed a patent application based on the project
Concept: Build a VR prototype that could increase sales of Universal's most popular consumer product, the wands from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter
My role: Project Management of a VR experience only. In order to move with the necessary speed for a prototype, I requested that the design team separate their concerns regarding the user experience of the wand from the target hardware configuration of the wand/facility. If we could uncover a compelling user experience design using a VR controller, I argued, at that point we could begin product development of any hardware or facility designs to meet the necessary requirements. Without a compelling vison of the user experience to anchor the hardware development, we would find ourselves prototyping a complex product with no clear direction
Concept: Build a VR prototype of a facility where guests can interact using a wearable device. Playtest the experience with Universal Team Members, and determine the configuration of the facility which is most fun for everyone
My role: Development of a VR experience, playtesting with the design team, and iterating the design. Presented to Shigeru Miyamoto and the Nintendo executive team
Concept: Build a prototype of a particular XR experience designed for an auditorium, and test it in a real auditorium
My role: Technical consultant. This prototype was led by a producer at Universal who wanted another set of eyes on the documents and prototypes coming from the vendor
Results: In my review of the source code provided by the vendor, I determined that the vendor was using an open-source component built by Microsoft where the vendor had claimed they developed proprietary technology. I reported the vendor's dishonesty to my producer with a side-by-side comparison of the code, and we stopped giving new work to this vendor as a result
Concept: Build a prototype of a particular experience for a multi-touch surface. This actually wasn't an XR project, but the attraction design team requested my help
My role: Sole developer. Worked with attraction design team to iterate the experience with hundreds of playtesters
Results: The prototype was instrumental to finalizing design requirements for both the experience and the facility where the experience would be installed
I built a VR prototype of a training simulator in 4 weeks, in partnership with the Orlando Tech Services team. Tech Services designed the training scenario, and we presented together at Universal's Technician and Operator Safety Summit (TOSS) in 2017.
Screenshot from my VR training simulator, based on a real Tech Services training scenario
I built a VR visualization of the Aventura hotel for a hotel marketing event, in collaboration with a Universal 3D artist and our Hotel Marketing team. The artist had a scene built in Unreal, and I optimized it for VR and scripted the camera teleporting and fade.
I developed the Aventura Hotel VR Tour with an artist in 4 weeks
In 2016, filmmaker Kert Gartner's Mixed Reality VR Video technique was just starting to take off in the VR community. My manager asked me to implement this technique as described in the blog article, so I tapped one of our interns at the time and reached out to Universal's Media team about a collaboration. Together we shot our own mixed reality video within a week. Later that year, the Media team shot Universal Creative's official holiday card using the same technique.
By far the most common request for our team was to help an architect achieve a sense of scale by previewing a scene in VR. We experimented with many techniques including SketchUp import pipelines, different locomotion methods, importing CAD data with Pixyz, 360-videos shot inside physical architectural models to scale, and photogrammetry.
We helped the design team visualize this character interaction before construction began