There’s a long history connecting science and animation, and not just in the development of technology. At the Disney Studios, animators were encouraged to study anatomy by visiting zoos or even bringing animals into the studio. In the age of 3D animation, of increasingly sophisticated hardware and software, it’s no surprise that animation is increasingly driven by a balance of science and art, and there is no better example than Dr Llyr ap Cenydd’s development of Ocean Rift, an app for Samsung’s Gear VR device.
‘I got my first computer when I was four ‘, says Dr ap Cenydd, lecturer in Computer Science at Bangor University. ‘It was a Commodore 64. I’ve always been fascinated how animation works in a game, how to bring characters to life. I couldn’t decide whether to be a biologist or a computer scientist.” In generating the animals for Ocean Rift, he has looked to biology. ‘It’s like digital robotics,’ he explains. ‘A lot of the animation systems that I’ve written (and the field itself) take a lot of inspiration from biology and robotics.’
Dr ap Cenydd’s Phd was in computer graphics and his background is in using artificial intelligence in animation. ‘It’s about making virtual life,’ he explains. ‘For example, in Ocean Rift the animals are not animated like in a Disney movie – it actually swims, it flicks its tail, opens its mouth, blinks.’ Dr ap Cenydd got a development kit from the virtual reality headset company Oculus Rift, having backed it on Kickstarter (a US based non-profit platform that works on creating funds for creative projects). He started creating the animation and released an online demo 18 months ago – a half hour, kilometre square exploration of an underwater world, trying to make people feel like they were underwater through use of sound, bubbles and animals. Samsung saw it and contacted him to develop it for the launch of Gear VR.
The challenge was trying to make the technology scale for the functionality of an app on a smartphone. ‘I am used to working with £2,000-£3,000 machines that drive everything,’ explains Dr Cenydd. The machines have cooling systems. ‘The Gear VR runs off a smartphone and not only are they tiny computers, there’s nowhere for the heat to go. You can’t put a fan on one, there’s a lot of optimisation to do. You have to simulate on a phone what you would do on a very powerful desktop computer. That is a huge challenge not just for me but for pretty much everyone.’
Creating each animal in the underwater habitat presents its own unique problem. ‘The dolphin was the most challenging creature to recreate because the idea of dolphins is that when you enter the habitat they swim up to you – then you feel like they are invading your personal space as they are more than your arm’s width close to you. What happens then? Do they stay back? How often do they come up to you? It depends on how friendly it is. An eel can just swim by, but with a mammal, especially the whales and the dolphins, it’s important that they look at you and their eyes flick around. Details such as the pupils make it more like it’s there with you.’
Dr ap Cenydd is talking on the future versions of the programme: ‘It is divided into habitats, the dolphin habitat, whale one and so on and I will be adding more habitats, bigger, with more ground to cover and the levels will become more elaborate.’