Life of Escher

Life of Escher is an experimental virtual reality experience about the life of the Dutch graphic artist Maurits Cornelis Escher. The project was developed as part of a course at the Potsdam University of Applied Sciences and investigates whether conventional Wikipedia entries can be presented in virtual reality in a more experimental and thematically appropriate way.

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Benjamin Kaczynski, Fritz Lewin Brumm and I were involved in the project. While Benjamin and Fritz mainly took care of the objects and texturing, I was mainly responsible for programming and sound design.

Introduction

The project was developed as part of a course taught by Prof. Boris Müller at the Potsdam University of Applied Sciences in the winter semester 2021/2022. The task of the course was to design and prototype text-based information systems such as books and databases as interactive and networked typographic structures in VR. Our professor had noticed that while the use of text is necessary for a variety of applications, type and typography are often treated as secondary in VR. While virtual environments are often lushly designed, the design with typography often seems inhibited, uninspired, and lacking in experimentation. Based on this observation, the course aimed to explore the challenges and potentials of typography in VR. As a group consisting of three interface design students, we decided to analyze Wikipedia entries and consider how they could be translated into three-dimensional space.

Context

Since all three of us enjoy the works of M.C. Escher, we decided to create an experience about his biography, showing how his art has evolved over the years. We used the Wikipedia entry about his life as the basis for our prototype and additionally examined the linked entries that represented important events in his history. Of course, due to the course assignment, our experience is primarily text-based, but this has created an interesting experiential and linked spatial structure through which the user can move either linearly or non-linearly through Escher’s life, supported by thematically appropriate sound events. Visually, we drew a lot of inspiration from cel-shaded video games, various optical illusions, and Escher’s artwork itself.

Process

Initially, we had planned to generate the spatial structure procedurally using code, but we quickly had to abandon this idea because we realized that this approach would not have offered enough controllability. A big issue with VR applications is the method of locomotion. For our experience, we chose an artificial way of locomotion instead of a physical locomotion through the user’s own body, where only the virtual body moves in the environment and the user physically stays in the same position in the real environment. We implemented this type of locomotion using a platform that moves three-dimensionally on the horizontal and vertical axes through the virtual space. Initially, the platform remained horizontal, but later we decided to allow rotations as well to accommodate Escher’s often surreal perspective works.

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Workflow

We collected and structured all our ideas and inspirations on a Miro Board. To get a feel for the effect of text in virtual space, we used Gravity Sketch for prototyping instead of traditional 2D screen design tools like Figma. We modeled all the necessary elements using Blender and textured them using ProCreate on the iPad. Previously, we had tried using a custom toon shader, but this resulted in poor readability of the text. We converted the final assets in Unity into reusable prefabs. The text was originally three-dimensional, but later had to be replaced with two-dimensional text using Unity’s TextMeshPro due to performance issues. The sound design was created using Ableton Live and the programming of the interactions and locomotion was done in the C# programming language. A major challenge was to optimize the performance so that our application could run directly on the Meta Quest 2 without any problems.

Disclaimer:
Unfortunately, the M.C. Escher Company has not granted permission to display some of the artist’s works in this VR experience, so the designated areas have been filled with placeholders. Please note that this project is in no way affiliated with the M.C. Escher Company and no copyrights should be infringed. Please also note that this is a university project for educational purposes and is not for profit.