Step into the World of Portal AR
As part of the #ScotlandIsNow campaign, digital agency Whitespace created a new augmented reality (AR) mobile app which allows users to step into Scotland. Motion designer Chris McIntyre, designer Ross Sneddon and illustrator Katie McPherson who worked together on the Portal AR app spoke to DIGIT.
Firstly, can you explain what makes the Portals AR app so special, and how the Portals AR app is different to what’s currently out there?
Chris McIntyre: The Portal AR app is a first of its kind. When I created the first portal prototype on ARCore and posted it on Twitter last year, it got a lot of attention. This got me in touch with companies such as Snapchat and Google, who were interested in the potential of the technique. Many AR apps on the market today are experiments or novelties. Portal AR has the novelty value of going into a portal, but is also designed to be functional and provide a useful experience for people interested in finding out more about what it’s like to live, study work or invest in Scotland.
What excited you the most about being involved in this project?
Chris: Experimenting with the latest AR technology was challenging but enjoyable. I love to push myself and my skills, and this project was ideal for that. There was a lot of hype around AR when ARCore and ARKit first launched, and it was inspiring to see what others were creating and to be a part of the first wave of apps on the store.
Ross Sneddon: I loved being part of something that is a whole new canvas. The tech was brand new and being one of the first studios to produce a solid piece of content on the platform, was very exciting. It presented a whole set of new challenges and pushed me as a designer.
Katie McPherson: Having a chunky in-depth project that I could really play with. Sometimes you’re given a brief that’s very prescribed, and you’re basically told ‘do x, y and z, and make it look like this.’ But this was SO different from anything we’ve done before, and we were all learning as we went along. The clients were very open to suggestions, and the project was constantly evolving.
Did you have any outside design influences that you brought into the project?
Chris: A lot of the inspiration on this project came from video games. This helped us concept ways of showing the user what to do, and how various UI elements should look and behave. I love the visual style of No Man’s Sky, this inspired some of the more subtle elements of the app such as particle effects and optical flares.
Ross: When it came to designing the whole experience, we took a lot of influence from experiential games that used either VR or narrative-driven gameplay. The biggest challenge was making it understandable. We looked at UI design that was part of more complex surroundings. In-game UI design was our biggest influence and became our jumping off point. We eventually decided against putting navigation graphics into the 3D space, as it was too distracting and clunky.
Katie: I was all over the beautiful digital paintings of @catherineungerart on Instagram, and like Chris, I also love the game art of No Man’s Sky. Catherine Unger’s art is so cute and compact, while No Man’s Sky is known for its randomly generated worlds, and rich colours. We wanted each portal to have different vibrant colour schemes, so I spent a lot of time staring at screenshots.
What were the biggest challenges that you encountered along the way?
Chris: Creating the first of something always leads to lots of challenges, AR technology is developing at a rapid pace so keeping up with that while working on the project was important. There were lots of technical restrictions we had to consider while designing the experience which informed most of our creative choices.
Ross: One of the biggest challenges for me was the room design. We had original concepts for a more stylised and conceptual interior, but because of various constraints, we opted for a much more minimal approach. Working within a 3D space that is seen through the camera feed is a big challenge. It can easily become disorienting if you don’t consider a lot of the issues that would trip you up down the line.
Katie: For the illustration side, we wanted each portal you step into to be a nod to their area of interest – Live & Work, Business, Visit, Study. The difficult part was what sums up the ‘Scottish’ way of doing those things? Was it a room with a particular feel? Or objects that represented things? We ended up going for the floating islands that feature different scenes – Dolly the sheep shows off our ground-breaking research in the ‘study’ portal, a hospital bed scene represents our free health-care in the ‘live & work’ portal. We wanted to show off the big events and everyday occurences of Scottish life.
A designer, a motion designer and an illustrator walked into a bar… What was the collaborative process like for you guys on this?
Chris: The project was constantly evolving as we discovered what worked and what didn’t. We started with initial prototyping, building up a framework of each scene within the app. This helped us to design effective and easy to understand UI that complemented the Portal concept.
Ross: It’s always interesting to work with other creative fields on a project. We sit close together, so working on something like this was seamless. If something didn’t work, we would share our thoughts there and then. It was a constant evolving process.
Katie: The guys told me what they were thinking, I’d collect references or sketch something up, and they’d say if it was working or not. We did lots of testing in-app, and going back to the drawing board if it looked bad.
How quickly did you manage to turn this one around?
Chris: The timings for this project were very tight. We were working in close collaboration with Google to release on time for the launch of ARCore 1.0. It tooks us around 3 months to compete the app, we were just on time to launch on Android. This led to us being featured in a small collection of the first AR apps on the store!
Can you explain a little more about the combination of two and three dimensional assets within the app?
Chris: The combination of 2D and 3D assets allowed us to create an app that runs smoothly while maintaining a stylized look with full control over the detail of each illustration. This added a level of design we wouldn’t have been able to achieve in 3D given the technical and time restraints.
Katie: We wanted this app to have a totally different look to our previous forays – replacing bold low-poly shapes with hand-painted illustrations. Brush-strokes, lots of colour, like stepping into a picture book.
For those unfamiliar to AR/VR… can you explain how Portals AR differs from the Scotland VR app which you worked on previously?
Chris: Portal AR and ScotlandVR both show 360 content of Scotland but are designed for different audiences. ScotlandVR is completely focused on visiting Scotland, our landmarks, history and natural heritage. Portal AR takes a wider approach, showing a different side to Scotland with content covering Study, Live, Work, and Business in Scotland.
And now for the technical part. Portal AR uses SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping) to anchor content onto real work surfaces. This gives the user the ability to walk in and around the portal and any content within. Scotland VR uses only the device gyroscope and accelerometer to determine device rotation, meaning the user can just look around in 360 rather than physically moving and this being reflected in the app. Scotland VR also allows the user to view the app using a Google Cardboard, providing a more immersive, stereoscopic experience
What industry would you love to design an AR app for, and why?
Ross: I would love to create an AR/VR app for mental health. The benefits of these technologies are far more than just gimmicky.
Katie: Charity or education. Something that helps people to understand or enjoy a complex process. AR and VR has way more possibilities than the gimmicky nonsense that exists just now. It can immerse people in experiences that can enrich their lives or change the way they see the world. www.thewaybackvr.com is an excellent example.
So… what’s next for you guys?
Chris: I’d like to continue experimenting with AR – pushing my skills as a Unity developer – and create unique, abstract experiences. As technology improves, AR will become more realistically integrated into the environment, I think this will enable interesting and surreal experiences. I’d also love to experiment with more XR concepts.
Ross: I’d love to keep exploring what is possible with the new tech, and see more clients willing to explore the AR route as part of their marketing strategy.
Katie: Drawing pictures till my hands fall off!
Portal AR is now available to be downloaded for free from the Android store, and is coming soon to the Apple store.
The above interview was first published on the Whitespace website. You should go and re-read it there!