XR Voices

Designing the New Virtual Environment

Thanks to Covid-19, the film and events industries aren’t what they used to be. We’ve had to embrace alternative pathways, change up our workflows and adopt new technological tools. Sarah Linebaugh of MEPTIK, an experiential design agency, talks to us about her experience shifting and thriving in this new virtual world. She gives us an insider perspective and brings some clarity to the shared challenges we all face at this time.

Introducing Sarah Linebaugh

I’m Sarah, co-founder of MEPTIK, an experiential design agency that specializes in extended reality (XR) and augmented reality (AR) for virtual events. Prior to this year, the majority of our work focused on creating in-person experiences that ranged from trade show booths, art installations, scenic design, and motion graphics to projection mapped buildings and more.

In a post-COVID society, we’ve been able to adapt our existing technology and workflows. We’ve been primarily focused on reestablishing our same skill sets in virtual environments – both for virtual events and for film shoots.

How do you use virtual sets?

Our two main applications for virtual sets are virtual events and film shoots. The premise for both, however, is the same: we take live talent and place them into a virtual space.

One example is a project we did last summer with Lululemon. We partnered with them to produce a live-streamed yoga class. Their yoga instructor taught his class from our green screen studio, but for those watching live at home, the instructor looked like he was doing yoga in the mountains in real time.

The green screen workflow is hugely advantageous for the film community and is often a necessity. But it does pose its challenges. The actors must have a lot of imagination about the scene they’re acting in, and there’s lots of post-production compositing required to put the scene together.

Using an LED wall avoids these pitfalls and creates more advantage for film sets. An actor can stand in front of the LED wall and see the virtual scene around them, making it easier to get into character.

From a technical standpoint, many of our scenes are designed using Unreal and Notch. Both of these engines give us the power and flexibility to create environments that respond in real time, which is essential to our workflow. The camera is capturing both the real-world actor and the virtual environment at the exact same time, eliminating the need for heavy post-production.

What is the biggest Virtual challenge to overcome?

Virtual spaces need to feel interesting and unique. Building something that looks visually interesting is the key piece to a digital experience. If the space doesn’t have a unique draw, it will never retain the viewer

One of the most challenging and most important things with this workflow is to seamlessly blend the physical world with the virtual world. Lighting and color grading are key elements to this workflow. The talent has to look like they are standing in the virtual world. Otherwise, the scene isn’t believable.

Luckily, the reflections in the virtual environment from an LED wall create realistic highlights on the actors and objects in the scene, making a gaffer’s life even easier. 

Any advice for virtual set designers?

The beautiful thing about using a virtual set is that it’s not constrained by reality – things can float in the air, change colors, bounce to the music. The talent can be on Mars one minute and on a beach in the next. Because the potential is so limitless, we have the opportunity to create the perfect environment for the scenario at hand.

The key thing is that you have to think holistically about what you’re building, about every detail and aspect that surrounds the talent.

As we often say, it’s just like building a house. When you set out to build your house, you have to make foundational decisions about how big the house will be, how many rooms it will have. You have to lay a floor plan before you can move onto the finishings, the windows, and so forth. The same thoughts and decisions go into building virtual environments.

How might VR come into play?

I think there’s huge potential for VR within this workflow. VR is already being used in the film industry as a resource for directors on set. The director or location scout can use a VR headset to explore the virtual set and decide which angle would make the best shot.

From an events standpoint, VR can elevate the viewer experience. A viewer could tune into a live-streamed performance and stand inside the virtual environment with the performer.

There is so much potential for this technology, and we’re only getting started. It’s exciting to see the future unfold right before our eyes.

XR Voices is an ongoing Interview Series featuring events industry professionals who are using innovative visualization tech.  We aim to share knowledge and entertain any opportunity to evolve the design process.
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