Travellers passing through Jewel Changi Airport in Singapore in recent weeks have been brushing up against some surprising visitors. From tough triceratops to vicious velociraptors, dinosaurs have taken over the airport’s spectacular seven storey waterfall, turning a lush indoor garden into a real Jurassic Park.
Heckler Singapore has created a sprawling, immersive AR experience that allows visitors to get to know some spectacular dinos from 89 million years ago. The story unfolds across different levels and includes interactive games, rendered in real time, which made it a complex undertaking both from a technical perspective and in terms of storytelling and user experience.
As air travel picks up, the experience conjures a sense of delight and wonder for fliers who have been long grounded by the pandemic. It’s also an exciting return for mixed reality experiences - while virtual spaces have been accelerated by covid lockdowns, AR and MR in shared physical spaces have been somewhat on pause.
Since launching in April, the experience has proven to be a hit with visitors. Digging into the bones of the project Heckler Singapore’s Cody Amos (creative director) and Richard Mayo-Smith (managing director and EP) reveal how they brought the dinosaurs to life.
LBB> Can you tell us about the client and what they wanted to achieve with this project?
Richard> Jewel Changi Airport is unlike any other airport in the world. Anyone who has flown into Singapore knows what a pleasure it is to arrive and spend time here - it’s a destination worth visiting even if you’re not travelling. To make their environment even more exciting and engaging, Jewel Changi Airport wanted to develop a world class and regional first attraction using augmented reality technology for an immersive dinosaur experience
LBB> What was it about the initial brief and idea from the client that appealed to you?
Richard> We all learn about dinos at an early age. We are simultaneously in awe and terrified of the size and power of these majestic creatures. I think that most of us in the team never really grew out of that awe - so the opportunity to play with dinos was too good to pass up.
LBB> The story unfolds around this very specific space, which is very beautiful and filled with plant life and waterfalls - can you give us a bit of context about this venue, why it's a destination for tourists and locals and perhaps how it served as a jumping off point for the project?
Richard> Jewel is a destination where people come to spend time, even if they’re not flying. And the HSBC Rain Vortex is the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, a stunning display of water cascading down 7 storeys at the heart of Jewel. It is a magical stage, a green amphitheatre. So we crafted our story to fit in and around the environment - different elements of the experience take place in different areas, encouraging users to explore the entire space.
LBB> Can you talk me through the character design and animation for the dinosaurs - what kind of challenges are involved in bringing to life long-extinct species?
Cody> That’s definitely true that there’s not any real references for what dinosaurs look like. And we did have various conversations about whether or not we go down the feathered dinosaur path. We now know at least some of them had feathers, but we eventually decided not to. Partly because the hardware we’re running the project on might not do great with feathers, but partly because we basically decided that Jurassic Park is the ultimate authority. We pretty much pretended that Jurassic Park is a documentary.
At the end of the day we definitely prioritised entertainment over scientific accuracy. Lots of dinosaurs were actually a lot smaller than we all want them to be.
LBB> What were your favourite dinos to work on and why?
Cody> I liked the oviraptor. He’s the only talking dinosaur in the experience. He kinda takes people on a little tour and explains some things about life as a dinosaur, but in a quirky, silly way. I was roped into doing animation ref and acting him out, and even almost got to be the final voice, until I was somehow beaten by some real actor.
I also really liked the designs of the baby triceratops. All dinos are cool to model but it was fun seeing a big triceratops get the baby proportions treatment, with big heads and big feet like a puppy.
LBB> The story unfolds throughout the space, across different levels - how tricky was it to balance the storytelling elements with the behavioural?
Cody> This was a really challenging part of the process. We’re mostly used to film-style storytelling, where we control the camera. But it was really fun telling a story in an immersive, gameplay style. We tried to balance between having things going on all around, to make it really immersive and make it fun to move around and look around. But also having a clear main thread of action. We found that it was important to have that core thread of where the main story is playing out, not move too quickly. For instance, if a velociraptor flies too quickly around the central point you can lose the thread pretty easily. But if the raptor flies somewhere and then hovers next to the T-Rex who is the next point of focus in the story, they can sort of pass the users attention along like a baton.
LBB> The story itself carries some deeper messages too around sustainability and female empowerment - how did you weave those into the story?
Richard> We wanted the experience to be enjoyable and entertaining, but we also wanted to include some important themes. So our lead character is a female ranger, she’s fearless, curious and strong - she’s the hero of the story. We also have a mother triceratops who is bravely protecting her triceratops cubs from a pack of vicious velociraptors. And Cody’s favourite - the oviraptor who steals an egg. Don’t judge him too harshly, he does so to provide for his family, and in doing so, is keeping the ecosystem balanced and controlling overpopulation. He feels it is unfair that his name means ‘egg thief’ (spoiler alert: he does steal an egg).
LBB> The project was built in a game engine and the experience rendered in real time - what challenges did this present? And given technological progress in terms of engines and hardware, how do you feel the quality of this particular experience compares with the sort of thing you were able to do in AR/MR just a few years ago?
Cody> Game engines have gotten incredibly powerful and are capable of a lot now. However, this particular experience is all running on a tablet, to enable a free roaming experience. The tablet is the most powerful currently available, and we thought it was really exciting that making this sort of thing was even possible at all. I don’t think you could have done it at all a few years ago. However, the hardware does still have limitations. The models and textures had to be relatively low resolution. The live tracking capabilities are quite impressive, but not always perfect either. So I think this sort of experience is going to improve a lot in the future.
LBB> This project has been live since April - what sort of response has it had from visitors?
Richard> The experience has drawn thousands of people, locally and internationally, to learn, interact, excavate and feed dinos. I think the audience really enjoy watching the narrative play out around them, rather than just in front of them.
LBB> Augmented/mixed reality is something that seems to have been 'on pause' for brands during the pandemic - are you seeing an upsurge in interest now that people can get out and about?
Richard> Although this is an experience which is hosted in a specific location, I think that AR is a great tool that can be used anywhere, at any time. People can download apps to their phone so that they can see what a sofa looks like in their house; what a car would look like in their driveway.
LBB> Where do you think augmented/mixed reality sits in the wide metaverse discussion? Though many people conceptualise it as fully virtual worlds, mixed reality really feels like it genuinely is 'meta', a layer on top of our own reality... I’m really curious what your thoughts are?
Richard> That’s a good question. I think that purists would say that the metaverse is VR only, but I think that AR and MR are an interesting intersection of the metaverse and reality.
Cody> I think that the idea of blending realities is really exciting. Pokemon Go is probably still the best example I’ve seen. You want pokemon to really exist? With AR they can be part of the real world. I think that could be extended infinitely. The question is just what do you want to be part of the real world? What’s a fun way to extend reality? Or what’s a useful way? Or what's a really silly way?