November 14, 2019

How Cloudhead Games and Valve worked together on Aperture Hand Lab

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Over the last five years Denny Unger and his partners at Cloudhead Games would talk about possible VR projects with some of the world’s largest companies. Cloudhead staff would build pitch decks and work out the fundamentals of VR games that could become dream projects for everyone involved.

That is, if the funding partners ever followed through.

Unger got the impression that whenever an executive in charge of paying for one of these potential VR games got a sense from Cloudhead of what install base they might reach with a well-made VR game — they’d turn into a ghost.

“We want to make VR games,” Unger says. “That is all we want to do. And we want to be there with some amazing stuff when the market tips.”

Over the last few years, the Bellevue-based Valve developed a series of hand-strapped VR controllers. Initially called “Knuckles” when they were only available to developers, Valve revised the design and started selling them this year alongside the high-end PC-powered Index VR headset.

Oculus Touch and Sony’s Move controllers are held. Players wear Valve’s controllers. The Index controllers also sense individual finger movement with some accuracy, too. So software compatible with the controllers can be made to recognize gestures which aren’t possible (or not as intuitive) when holding controllers in each hand. For example, you can open your hand and wave at a virtual character with Valve’s Index controllers.

Cloudhead’s VR creators shared the path they took from brainstorming interactions on a white board — like waving hello, high-fiving and playing rock-paper-scissors — to fully realizing an interactive story built around Valve’s humor.

Meet Friendly Frank

When Valve partnered with HTC in 2016 to ship the first room-scale PC-based VR headset with handheld tracked controllers, the company also released The Lab onto its Steam storefront. The collection of interactive experiments plays with concepts of scale, teleportation, photogrammetry and haptics all enabled by 360-degree room-scale tracking and a pair of wand-like hand controllers.

One of the experiments called Slingshot gives players control of a machine which sends small colorful talking spheres — “personality cores” — flying off into a giant warehouse filled with boxes. Each sphere carries a distinct appearance and voice. The player chooses the exact moment and direction to send the robots screaming into the distance.

Three years of hardware development later and Aperture Hand Lab’s first task for players with the Index controllers in hand is to show “they can let go of these controllers,” Cloudhead’s Antony Stevens said.

So Stevens revisited the Portal games and Slingshot and wrote placeholder lines for an “egregiously friendly” core set in the same pocket universe Aperture Science facility. Valve granted Cloudhead access to many of the assets used for those earlier projects. This early version of the character “said hello a billion times in my script,” Stevens said, before Valve writers Jay Pinkerton and Erik Wolpaw “showed up for writing.”

Valve’s VR writing

Most people are probably able to pick up on the animation cues of a waving hand and the friendly voice with its perfectly spaced pauses. For those who don’t release the controller immediately, though, Frank can continue on for quite a while hinting that you should try waving back.

When you finally do, Frank says, “Good! We are now bonded in eternal friendship,” and the machine holding Frank releases the sphere into the pit below.

Additional personalities appear for high-fiving, rock-paper-scissors and a firm handshake. Each of these personalities — animated arm and gaze movements set to audio files — did not begin as motion captured performances.

The ideas started as an outline in a presentation to Valve. Valve selected which ideas they liked and whittled it down into a story through successive rounds of brainstorming and feedback. A story emerged, then, from the storytelling possibilities connected to each interaction.

Valve rewrote the personalities and the story it told, recorded the dialogue and sent back a bunch of audio files. With these audio files animations could be “keyed” — or thousands of tiny transitions timed out to change the positions of the 3D models in the scene — and set to each of the sounds by Cloudhead’s Steven Blomkamp for Friendly Frank, Mike Ferraro for the handshake and Corey Belina for rock-paper-scissors.

Here’s how Blomkamp described the VR development process when I sent him questions about the video he posted:

“I don’t know all the voice actors but the one I knew for sure was Henry Zebrowski. Have never had more fun animating something than his stuff. That combined with Erik and Jay’s writing… *chef’s kiss* … Basically writers try to nail down script as soon as possible so animation can start. Scope is assessed based on script needs vs manpower available. Someone does recording sessions, files are reviewed and given to our sound guy/producer/all round wunderkind Joel Green who processes them all and hands them to me to take into Maya and start animating to. As it was a lot of specific, triggerable dialogue, timing had to be accounted for in as many ways as possible with minimal variance. So between fully hand keyed performances, we used idles or programmatic solutions like eye darts and aim constraints to keep the cores alive during bits that couldn’t be estimated/covered for easily by the hand keyed parts. Once the anims are done, our programmers implement them and work with the designers to create the sequence of flow that has all the triggers that compensate for player actions and story needs.”

You can play Aperture Hand Lab now on Steam with the Index Controllers. The software is accompanied by the following description on Steam:

“These Aren’t Your Daddy’s Hands”

These aren’t even your hands. These are precision-tuned sensor-rich re-imaginings of your hands, presented in high-fidelity simulated reality.

Main Features:

  • Grabbing
  • Shaking
  • Waving

If you’ve always longed to try these exciting edge-of-your-wrist hand maneuvers, but wanted the chance to practice first in the safety of a non-judgmental virtual world, Aperture Hand Lab is easily in the top three options currently available to you in VR.

Presented in the World of Aperture.

You didn’t read that wrong! This game is present in the bowl of ape nature! Hold on, we did read that wrong! But you didn’t, Reading Champ! This game takes place in Aperture Science, home to the modestly popular Portal games your daddy used to play! But this isn’t your daddy’s game!

This story originally appeared on Uploadvr.com. Copyright 2019