Kilograph Takes you to a Napa Valley Suspended House – In VR!
My name is Chris Kiser, I’m a senior artist and part of the Interactive team here at Kilograph.
Kilograph is a creative studio based in Los Angeles. We specialize in visual solutions for the built environment. We do still images, film, animation, branding, graphic design and more. In my work for the Interactive team, I focus mainly on VR projects.
Suspension House Project
Suspension House is a collaboration between Kilograph and Fougeron Architecture, which takes viewers to a remote part of the Napa Valley where a home seems to hover above a creek. The goal was to showcase a natural environment working with a structure, instead of against it. To illustrate this relationship, the experience portrays the house in nature’s many states, mixing storytelling with multi-sensory applications in order to enhance the overall immersiveness.
Originally, it was going to be a stills-only project. But after finishing that part our CEO, Keely Colcleugh, had the idea to expand it into VR. The project had many objectives. From an internal perspective, we really wanted to create something our Interactive team could learn from while pushing our abilities and creating something new and amazing. We knew that if we achieved the latter, we could submit it to CGarchitect’s Architectural 3D Awards.
The project also had many challenges. For this project, we built a new gaze-based locomotion system that allowed you to teleport around the environment by looking at familiar iconography, like a sofa. So when you stared at the sofa, you were transported to the living room. That was an undertaking, but it really paid off in the end.
In addition, we’ve found that in VR, two of the biggest technical issues with performance come from translucency (glass) and vegetation. As you can see from Suspension House, it's almost completely wrapped in glass and surrounded by landscaping. So optimization and creative material creation were crucial for the type of immersiveness that we were going for.
CGArchitect’s 3D Awards
We were surprised at the result! Kilograph enters the CG Awards every year, but this is our first win. We were actually nominated last year for a VR/AR project focused for LA’s Silver Lake Reservoir, so it was nice to finally take one home! We had an amazing team working on the project with tons of support from the rest of the office and from our CEO. It definitely made all the hard work worthwhile. This was also my first year contributing to a submitted project, and my first time really working in Unreal Engine or VR, so I was very excited.
I was the lead artist on Suspension House and was responsible for bringing all the geometry from 3ds Max into Unreal Engine, as well as for creating and applying materials, setting up lighting and handling optimization. Juan Carlos here at Kilograph was the other senior artist on the project; he helped tremendously with landscaping, lighting and general look and feel.
As I mentioned before, our original workflow was stills-based, created with Max and V-Ray. After the decision was made to move everything to VR, we had to remodel the entire house because the original model was from SketchUp. This needed to be as clean and optimized as possible. From there, the house was brought into Unreal Engine using Datasmith along with the terrain model. Then we used a collection of Evermotion Unreal landscape assets and other custom models for the surrounding terrain. The materials for the home and most of the interior assets were created using Substance.
Substance Source and Substance Share
The majority of materials for the home and interior assets were created using Substance. We found so many useful materials already created using Substance Source that we were able to edit right inside Unreal to fit our needs. We also found Substance Share to be a great resource when Substance Source didn't have what we needed. A few of the Substance Source materials we used included: Grid Grating, Grey Dark Granite, Leather Touch Fine, Beech Natural Wood, Steel Parkerized.
Substance in Unreal Engine Plug-in
Using Substance in Unreal was a huge help on this project. Since we could browse, download, and edit materials right inside Unreal Engine, we saved a ton of time that would have been spent searching for texture maps, cleaning up in Photoshop, importing into Unreal, creating materials, and so on. All of that was streamlined by the plug-in.
Here’s a simple example of how we used two materials to cover multiple objects.
This example has seven different props/pieces of furniture in it, and it only uses two main materials - one for fabric, and one for wood. By making simple adjustments to base color or texture coordinates, we created multiple material instances from one base material. This helped a lot with optimization too.
The Future of Archviz and VR Experiences
We can differentiate between real-time ray tracing, as well as more generally the speed and ease with which environments and architectural representations can be created, and the development of truly unique immersive experiences. The former is already happening and is contributing to an explosion of work - this is resulting in faster, cheaper, and more realistic renderings and animations.
But it’s the latter where we at Kilograph find excitement. Architecture is the perfect story for virtual reality if we push a little bit beyond the obvious advantages of scale and immediate iteration. You can activate the imagination in the most visceral way. Communicating the essential characteristics of architectural space is the true potential of VR for us. This just can’t be done in 2D.
Substance for Future Projects
One of my goals over our next projects is to dive deep into Substance Designer. The tool is really powerful, and I believe it will take our projects to the next level, both in VR and with our stills in 3ds Max.