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How Art Shapes the Outcome of a Hyper-Realistic VR Project: Behind-the-Scenes Insights

The Kevuru Games team has walked us through the production process behind Birdly Insects, a hyper-realistic VR simulator of insect life, explained how the game's creatures were made, and discussed the future of VR.

VR technologies have fundamentally changed the way people interact with the digital environment. The users can see and immerse themselves in the drawn world on the screen. The numbers prove the popularity of VR: in 2022, the global market for VR games was estimated at $9.13 billion. According to forecasts, it will reach $76.36 billion by 2030.

As a global game development partner, Kevuru Games helps developers and publishers create games, including VR projects. Besides, the company successfully works with clients among the world's top 20 digital entertainment providers.

Head of the 3D Environment Department Roman Kochergin, shares about the company's work on VR projects using the example of our cooperation in developing a hyper-realistic VR simulator of insect life, Birdly Insects.

How to Develop Virtual Reality Games

Virtual or augmented reality projects are one of the most mysterious niches of 3D graphics. Games that use these technologies can be compared to fairy-tale treasure chests that attract players so much.

However, if we look at the development of these projects from the Art-Dev perspective, we will hardly notice any differences from ordinary 3D projects. After all, the main requirement for art production in such projects is exact compliance with the technical task and perfect optimization. And as VR platforms become more powerful every year, the art development pipeline is becoming less and less different from the usual requirements for AA and AAA projects. Accordingly, the creation of such assets takes the same amount of time as ordinary 3D projects.

Experienced Middle and Senior specialists usually work on VR projects. However, there are always tasks for optimized modeling and texturing for junior artists as well, with which they can quickly improve their skills.

To work with virtual reality, a specialist must be able to:

  • create the "lightest" low-poly models possible without losing quality;
  • optimize UV;
  • create textures that are detailed but not too high resolution and too heavy.

At Kevuru, we offer our clients a full cycle of VR project development from scratch, including concept creation, game design, graphics, prototyping unusual mechanics, full development, testing and publishing. We also co-develop games with the client's team and provide additional operational services. For example, we help update existing content, implement technologies to improve project functionality, move to other VR platforms, adding VR functionality to existing projects or provide any other technical support.

We are proud of our successful cooperation with top publishers, who are among the best digital entertainment companies in the world. The types of games for cell phones and PC, on which we have worked, included also such projects as 3D VR, VR Arcades, VR Cardboard, VR educational games, VR simulations and VR games for social platforms.

In particular, our 3D artists were involved in the development of the Birdly Insects VR simulator for the Swiss company Somniacs. The plants, insects and birds we created are very detailed 3D modeling examples. International experts have also recognized our achievements: in 2022, we received the Gold Winner Award in the Game Design/Creature Design category at the NYX Game Awards.

Birdly Insects is a Hyper-Realistic VR Simulator About the Life of Insects

The Birdly Insects Simulator was created as part of the special exhibition "Insects are Secret Heroes" at the BirdLife Nature Center in Niras and the BirdLife traveling exhibition "Take Off for Biodiversity," which was on display at around 50 locations in Switzerland in 2022.

The project aims to draw society's attention to the extinction of insects, as their disappearance can lead to an ecological disaster. The organization for the protection of birds and the preservation of their habitats, BirdLife Switzerland, was the initiator of the exhibition on its 100th anniversary.

Thanks to the VR simulator, visitors could immerse themselves in the habitat of insects and assume the role of one of them. For example, you can fly over a flower meadow like a butterfly, feel the slightest gust of wind and the flutter of your wings, and explore the amazing world of insects and plants within reach.

The complete realism of the environment and the detailed modeling of every blade of grass help a person understand and feel all the vicissitudes of an insect's life. There are places for beauty and danger because the grassy landscape is an adventurous jungle for small creatures.

People fully justified our efforts aimed at achieving incredible realism. Many museums in various cities in Switzerland have enthusiastically embraced the simulator. We were happy to know that it drew wide public attention to the role of insects in the global ecosystem.

Peculiarities of Birdly Insects' Work Processes 

The main character of the simulator is a black and white Mahaon butterfly. The player sees the whole world through its eyes. That is why birds look like absolute giants to him. Bushes and grass are perceived not as a single green area, but as a section of each blade of grass, thorn, or flower. Thanks to this hyper-reality, the player is immersed in an insect's life and perceives it as real.

Our work consisted of two main blocks: creating the models and their animation.

The structure of the team looked like this:

  • 3D Environment Artists create models of plants and insects;
  • 3D Character Artists who create bird models;
  • 3D Animators who did animation for all models.

We used a classic pipeline to create highly realistic models:

  • Approval of the brief;
  • Creating a high polygonal model;
  • Creating a low-poly model;
  • UV mapping and baking;
  • Texturing.

The speed of creating each model depended on its complexity. For example, creating a bird took much longer than modeling a wasp. This is because studying every feather and achieving the maximum anatomical similarity with a real bird was necessary.

We coordinated all intermediate results of 3D modeling with the client. After the models' approval, animators joined the work.

The pipeline for creating 3D animation consisted of the following steps:

  • Rigging and Skinning;
  • Animation.

The work on the Birdly Insects VR project took three months. During this time, we created 23 full-fledged models of plants, insects, birds, and animation.

3D Models of Insects and Birds: How to Achieve Maximum Realism

Birdly Insects is not our first VR project, but it was special. While most commercial or game projects aim to create game-like realism, this simulator was meant to be photorealistic.

Our challenge was to make a person looking at a 3D model of a butterfly feel like it was a real insect that had somehow been digitized and added to virtual reality. Only in this way can visitors forget that they are in a room with VR glasses and fully immerse themselves in the world of wild nature.

We have delved into their anatomy and behavior to depict each creature faithfully. We are grateful for the detailed instructions and references provided by the client. They sent us photos and videos of real insects, birds, and plants from different angles. They showed the animals' appearance and a wide range of movements: flight, rest, and crawling.

In addition, naturalists and biologists were involved in the work and gave us feedback on the correct representation of various details of the models. In this way, we could quickly set up a workflow and create many highly detailed models in a short time.

Challenges Faced by Artists and Animators

It is a common practice when animators at work try to reproduce some movements of the future animation to feel the dynamics and then transfer them to the 3D editor. But no actor can credibly play an insect. That's why we relied entirely on references.

"Many insects surround us in real life, but we know nothing about their behavior. It often turned out that our idea of "how it should be" was quite different from what we saw in the references. So I looked at them frame by frame to capture the behavior of each insect, its characteristics, and differences from others," says 3D Animator Oleksii Milykh, who animated the main character, the mahogany butterfly, and some other insects.

As it turns out, insects do not move like the animals we are used to. Even a hamster is much closer to the physics and dynamics of an elephant's movement than a beetle or a butterfly. The fact is that body mass and inertia often have a significant effect on the dynamics of movement. Insects, however, have very light bodies, so we must consider the influence of wind on the animation of behavior rather than the inertia of mass.

"Based on the many references clients gave for each beetle, it became clear that the sculpture needed to be thorough and accurate. Therefore, I had to study the anatomy of each insect literally. As a result, it was a fascinating process to translate the micro world into the macro world," emphasizes 3D Environment Artist Mykhailo Verovkin.

Another difference between insects is immobility. At rest, their thorax or abdomen do not move during breathing, and their eyes "freeze." However, animation does not work that way: to make the model look alive, you must move it, even minimally. Therefore, our task was also to find the "golden mean" between realism and believability.

It was also true for the birds – the biggest challenge was idling. When the bird freezes, it does not seem to move. And here, noticing even the slightest movements and trying to repeat them is necessary. Also, the birds have fast and sharp movements, but at the same time, they are gentle, so it is vital to keep this balance.

"In addition to the client's clues, I watched many videos about the behavior of magpies, fluting birds, and green woodpeckers that I animated. Before that, I watched a video where a man was following these very birds and describing how they behaved," says 3D Animator Roksolana Kordiuk.

To create 3D models of flowers and plants, such as wild roses, wild carrots, and others, it was necessary to choose the most attractive and, at the same time, the most common images. It is essential to recreate the stem as naturally as possible, with curvatures appropriate for the species and, in some plants, with spines and other features. Depending on whether various insects had eaten the leaves, it was necessary to replicate their shape, color, hatching, and even condition as closely as possible when modeling the leaves.

The flowers, like the leaves, had to be arranged as naturally as possible, distributed in the right places according to the original, and connected to the branches and trunk as in life in the so-called pedicels. Our artists drew each petal individually with its color gradients, sometimes adjusting transparency. And, sometimes, even depicted pollen lightly scattered by the wind or worker bees.

"It was fascinating to learn about the references to these plants, their varieties, color palettes, and characteristics. I enjoyed this great project because the world of flora and fauna is fascinating, colorful, and has its own amazing rules and moments," says 3D Environment Artist Dominik Biloshytskyi.

VR Project Trends: What Will Be Relevant in 2024?

VR simulators are one of the current trends because they allow users to have experiences that would be difficult to have in a physical space. As a result, there are many application areas: from entertainment and education to healthcare and enterprise.

Currently, the gaming sector accounts for 43% of the value of the VR market. But this technology is also becoming more visible in other industries, where gamification combines with cognitive or social research, such as in the Birdly Insects project. At the same time, the rapid growth of the VR project market shows that this technology has yet to satisfy user demand.

In the coming years, virtual reality will be increasingly used in education to enhance the learning experience. Thanks to this technology, students can see small details of objects, interact with them, and take tours of museums or historical sites.

The medical industry already uses VR and AR for diagnosis, patient education, surgical imaging, medical therapy, and more. Experts predict that the use of these technologies in medicine will increase by 26.88% next year and reach $19.6 billion in revenue by 2030.

The number of projects related to the everyday use of virtual reality is also expected to increase. For example, it could be a way to try on clothes before buying them in an online store or to visit a hotel and check it out before booking.

In light of the rapid development of artificial intelligence, we should talk about the closer interaction of this technology with VR. In this way, 3D models can become even more accurate because algorithms can detect things that are not accessible to the human eye. It will lead to highly interactive workspaces and improved image modeling tools.

Finally, VR headsets will become smaller, lighter, and have more features. For example, they will be able to track the user's eye movements or recognize hands without additional controls. It will make interaction with the virtual world an even more memorable experience.

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