UPDATE: first test build now posted!
Yesterday I noticed in my Unreal Engine launch window that I had a credit, and in reading about why, I found out that Unreal Engine is going free because Epic loves it. This is probably a good move to, among other things, get nascent game developers using UE4 instead of relying on other free alternatives like Blender’s game engine. So, now is as good a time as any to post that I am working on a project with Unreal Engine 4, code named Ayuma Project: 1, with VR devices like the Oculus Rift as the major target. I was in on the kickstarter for the first developer’s edition of the Rift. l loved messing around with it, but I was still busy being sciency and also quickly got queasy using it. I saw an interesting future in it, though, and pre-ordered the DK2. Sitting in my swiveling office chair – in the way I envision the Rift will often be used – playing with the Tuscany demo, I arrived at the sense that it did not really feel like walking around. I was sitting, after all, so I thought it felt maybe a very little bit like (temporarily) sitting in a wheelchair. As I have touched on just a bit in this blog so far, I believe video games (or interactive simulations, first person experiences or whatever….despite my affection for etymology, terminology is not my focus here for now) have a great deal more potential to aid in personal development. One aspect of self-development, as I see it, is the cultivation of empathy, and this is is one area where games very often work against. Yet the Rift offers such a tantalizing opportunity to put yourself in another person’s position, to see the world from another point of view, and to come to understand better their challenges and opportunities. And so I came to decide on a wheelchair-use semi-simulator as my first learning project with the development tools. I say semi-simulator because I will work to have things grounded in reality as much as possible, though I do not have the programming skills to develop a fully fleshed-out sim. I do have some experience with Blender from my biology work, making animations from atomic microscopy data, but this did not involve model-making…I imported generated models to Blender and then used its camera-pathing and rendering tools to make 3D movies. I have, over the years, had some occasions to use Autocad, CadKey, Solidworks, and the like, though at novice level, so starting in on modeling has been an adventure. I started with this image of standard measurements:
and, after experimenting to learn how Blender and Unreal units relate with respect to importing, began to build up a very basic wheelchair to the dimensions.
I debated making the chair manual, but at least to start with, felt like it would be more natural to go with an electric. But in working on an initial test level, I hit on a simulation focus opportunity – pre- and post-Americans with Disabilities Act public spaces. Since the ADA started coming into effect in the 70’s, I thought to make an electric wheelchair from the 50’s or maybe 60’s. One of the earliest electric wheelchairs, for which there are some good reference images available online, was the Klein Drive Chair, invented by George Klein.
So I imagined, what if someone handed over these pictures to a custom frame-maker and said, “make me a sturdy, purpose-built version of this.” And here is the result thus far, rigged and (mostly) working in UE4:
And a view from inside the Rift!
As outlined, I arrived at this concept for a project from my own experience with the Rift as well as my own hopes for what video games can do. My only encounter with a player-used wheelchair in a game that I remember is with Munch from Munch’s Oddysee, a game I had for the XBox and played through twice, saving all the Fuzzles the second time through. What a great game! I am happy to learn, though, that I am not the only one to think along these lines. Back in 2013, user “nikkmitchell” was working on an Oculus project then called “Wheels 0.2,” and had a demo working. You can watch some playtests of this game on Youtube, but it appears to no longer be in development, and you can tell from that video, it had something more of a game than sim orientation, though it did have an intro that wanted to help the player project their frame of mind to a wheelchair user’s perspective. And I saw in a post that there was a wheelchair simulator at Gamescon 2014. I also recently saw the news of the Cerebro Experience, in which you supposedly sit in Professor X’s wheelchair, but I don’t think you move around at all. I’m sure there are others; I will work on differentiating this one further. Thank you for your time, and please stay tuned for future updates!