I was contemplating life one day, thinking about what I was doing professionally. The Omega Ortega team had just gotten off a few big projects and we had some downtime. I was asking myself, ”What should we be doing RIGHT NOW that I’m somehow overlooking?” The following answer then came:
”You’re not taking advantage of the things around you: You have contacts in companies that are doing cool things; You live in what many consider the greatest city in the world; Creative software tools are available at little to no cost. Do something with all of that stuff. Something that wouldn’t be possible at any other time of your life.”– A still small voice in my head
Even though that voice wasn’t more than a whisper, it still shook me to my core. I had to admit that it was right. Here I was in NYC, reading tweets from friends I made at hackathons over the years, hearing about free creative software the likes of which used to cost thousands of dollars, but still doing the same things that I had been doing for years that wasn’t taking advantage of any of that.
Contacts Doing Cool Things
The first thing I did was scan my twitter timeline to find my hackathon contacts who’re working someplace that’s building something cool. I saw a tweet from Joe Gabriel mentioning he was doing a zoom meeting the following day on Lightship from his employer, Niantic Labs. I had already taken a cursory look at Lightship, but hadn’t really dug deep into it. The content of the call was eye opening in showing the scale of what they were building. Part of my problem with AR is that currently it’s very minimal, little to no cohesion as far as story and the same experience can happen anywhere. I had done some point-and-tap AR experiences that customers loved, but they were stuck (unlaunched) behind corporate walls. I saw the potential of the tech, but also its limitations. Lightship was the tool that finally spoke to the technical artist within me.
Here is a tech that would let me do something completely new, something that as far as I could tell hadn’t been done before but is inevitable to come into existence. I’m so confident that it’s going to be a whole new genre of AR experiences, that I came up with a new term for it: LARE. I wanted to augment the world around me, but I wanted to augment a specific part of the world. I wanted to augment my surroundings in ways that utilized their uniqueness. I wanted to create an experience, tell a story, that had to occur in a certain place. If that same experience was dropped anywhere else in the world, it wouldn’t make sense because the environment would be missing and thus major characters/settings would also be missing. Lightship seems a way to help get me there.
I went through all the wonderful tutorials provided by Niantic Labs. It took me about a week or two, but I went through them all. They’re really well written and the docs team is very open to feedback on how to improve them. Once I got through the tutorials, I felt confidant that I would indeed be able to leverage the ARDK to build something special in time to show folks at the Lightship Summit in May.
Central Park becomes SeentralPark
The next thing that still small voice told me to do was utilize my ”new” surroundings. My family moved to NYC in July of 2021 after a decade stint in a small town outside of Phoenix, AZ. While we have explored and visited much of the island of Manhattan, it hasn’t permeated my work in any sense. Nothing I have made, created or invented since moving here utilized NYC in any way shape or form. The challenge being given to me now was how could I leverage NYC in a project. Thinking about Lightship, I thought, “Well, I could augment something in the city to bring a new level of interactivity into a place people already love.”
While contemplating what to augment, I went out for a morning run in Central Park. My family and I go there often. It’s a place for fun and adventure. Many movies are shot there because the park is a character in and of itself. Before we moved to NYC, we visited the park on several occasions during vacations/holidays. My wife and I loved the park. What we didn’t realize, until we moved here, was that we only visited 1/3 of it. There was still 2/3 of the park that we never saw.
It dawned on me that Central Park would be a perfect place to augment. If for nothing else, to help encourage people to explore the whole park because there is so much more to it than most ever see. It was settled: The first LARE would take place inside and around Central Park. It would be called SeentralPark, because we’d help you see the park in a different way but mashed seamlessly with the real park.
Creative Tools for the Taking
I remember a friend worked for Microsoft when they acquired Softimage, a 3D animation package. There was no way I could’ve justified a $14,000 hobby purchase of Softimage. It was only as a hand me down of his corporate discounts that I had the opportunity to play with it. (The new computer I bought to run it, I could at least use for my dayjob.) But I remember thinking, “I have the power to create Jurassic Park type 3D animation!” Sadly, it was a power I didn’t fully master at the time, but I was forever hooked on 3D animation and swore to someday pick it up again.
Fast forward 25 years, I realize I’ll need assets for SeentralPark. These assets are going to need to be 3D and animated. The still small voice said there was cheap to free software that I could use and I knew of one in particular: the Blender project. Heck, I am even a studio member despite not using the software. I just loved the idea of bringing 3D animation to the masses for free AND providing a cheap way to learn how to make production level output. The only problem was I didn’t know how to use it. Well, if I was going to make this project a reality, I’d have to learn modelling, rigging and animation. Therefore, I’ve been going through the tutorials provided by my studio membership and it’s been amazing.
I knew if I was going to make the May deadline for a demo of my idea, I would have to be able to create 3D characters and animate them. I modelled a simple creature and thought, “Okay, that didn’t take too long. I can model all the assets we need in time.” The bigger unknown though was the animation bits that we’d need. I knew I had access to fully rigged characters, thanks to my Blender Studio membership. Therefore, I downloaded a character from their latest open film, Sprite Fight. The simple animation above isn’t academy award winning, but it is good enough to convey character and emotion despite it being my first character animation ever and only being about 4 hours worth of animation time. I purposely gave myself 4 hours and animated in layers: first pass camera, next pass eyes, then body, then lastly the arms, hands and fingers. I did them in layers because I had that self-imposed 4 hour cutoff. If I couldn’t bring something to life in 4 hours that was already pre-rigged, there would be no way for me to make my May deadline. After seeing that first animation, I’m fairly confident we can hit it.
In addition to asset creation, Lightship utilizes Unity to help make the interactive AR experiences. Unity is free for personal use and a reasonable price for a seat once you start to make money. I had used it before at some of the hackathons we had gone to pre-pandemic, so it’s familiar space too. I wish I had a reason to dig deeper into Unity and now it seems I have found it.
Time to Build the Future
These three factors came together to prove that now is the time to build. It’s amazing to be able to see clearly where the industry is heading, to see a future that is inevitable but doesn’t exist yet. Some may find it scary to be the first in an unproven space, but me and the team find it exhilarating.
We’re making up new terms to describe our work.
We’re making up new experiences to augment our real world.
We’re making up new characters to breathe life into these adventures.
We know that the future is coming fast and we hope to be one of the first to bring it to you. We plan to build SeentralPark in the open, so you can see all the ups and downs, all the ideas and trash, all the glitz and horror that go into making a LARE. You’ll see us rise above the competition in triumph or come crashing down in failure. Either way, you’ll be able to say, ”I was there!”
Thanks for joining us. Now buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.