Educational forest trip in virtual reality
Client – Forest Research Institute in Sękocin Stary
Forest Research Institute, which celebrates its 90th anniversary at the time of the project implementation, deals with research and development in the field of care, use, and restoration of forests, as well as ecology, nature protection, genetics, economics, and forest policy.
Cooperation with the Forest Research Institute was carried out as part of subsidy entitled “Equipment, retrofitting, adaptation and expansion of the infrastructure facilities of the Forest Education Chamber of the Forest Research Institute in Sękocin Stary” co-financed by the National Fund for Environmental Protection and Water Management (NFOŚiGW).
The technical assumption of the project work was the use of an engaging VR medium, which, in an interesting way, can support education, teaching about biodiversity in the Polish natural environment. For us, the most important thing was to produce a rich, colorful, interactive world and to optimize the program in order to obtain the greatest possible stability of its work.
The project assumed the creation of five 3D ecosystems from different places all over Poland and showing users different types of forests. In the application, we will visit Bory Tucholskie – pine forest, Dąbrowy Krotoszyńskie – oak forest, Białowieża Primeval Forest – oak-hornbeam forest, Karkonosze – spruce forest, as well as the area “In the forest at home” – beech forest.
Each of the forests created in virtual reality was to be characterized by a realistic layered division. It was assumed that the appropriate ecosystems were to be built of characteristic, carefully mapped plants characteristic for each layer of the forest.
The application would not be complete without the richly represented fauna inhabiting properly prepared ecosystems. Our task was to allow students to visit them and create a unique chance to meet many unusual inhabitants of the forest – from bison, through elk, fallow deer, roe deer, and wild boar, wolf, or weasel.
In total, the application contains 9 species of mammals (17 models in total – male, female, young), 2 species of reptiles and amphibians, 3 species of birds (including the crane key model), 6 species of insects, 6 species of fungi, approx. 10 species of trees, 6 various shrubs, and shrubs, 18 species of undergrowth plants, as well as seedlings, seeds, cones, as well as traces and tracks of animals. It was the presentation of biodiversity that was the key to creating the world of applications.
The areas that are represented in the application were not supposed to be only forest models. The purpose of the application was to familiarize young people with the world of nature through engaging and diverse interactions performed while completing 30 virtual tasks, such as observing animals through binoculars, attracting, photographing, and feeding selected species, as well as listening to their sounds. The project also assumed the possibility of impersonating creatures and viewing the world through the eyes of insects (bumblebees) or from the position of the size of a given animal (an ant or a frog).
An important part of the plan was also to create a coherent game concept – a story that could help young users to immerse themselves in the world of Polish nature with sincere curiosity. Therefore, they are able to reduce themselves to the size of even the smallest inhabitants of the forest, which is possible inside the application with the help from special elixirs or the miraculous spores of mushrooms. The idea behind this magic was to be able to take a close look at every part of the ecosystem during a virtual tour.
When creating gaming systems, our primary challenge is always to reach a compromise between building a detailed environment and maintaining satisfying application performance. Simply put – the simpler models we create, the better the smoothness of the simulator’s work will be.
However, the preparation of a natural landscape involves the production of a wide variety of organic objects, which are usually complicated ones. Nevertheless, by conducting a smart designing process it was possible to reproduce forest areas with great precision while maintaining a satisfactory level of application operation.
We also achieved high performance of the application by deciding to create not one (as planned at the beginning of the design process), but six separate applications, launched automatically from the main module, the menu. The separation of the programs ensured that the computer becomes less loaded and therefore the software workes correctly.
Wandering through digitized (scanned, photographed) and graphically processed forest ecosystems, participants can use VR glasses. Wearing them, they will find themselves in a virtual forest environment where they can move around by walking, running, jumping, or climbing a ladder. They can easily recognize many species of animals as well as trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, and fungi.
In total, the game features nearly 120 different 3D models, prepared by the Giant Lazer graphics team.
Although at the beginning we planned to create an open space in which the user has freedom of movement, due to the UX convenience, as well as the comfort of the educators’ work, we decided to use a linear game based on clear arrows pointing to the next tasks and activities.
Observing the forest is visually enriched by the arrangement of plant models made in different seasons, from early spring to late autumn, showing nature visible from the position of the landscape, species, and details, such as transparent insect wings.
We’ve prepared something special for all the amateurs of mathematical and technical activities:
– determining the age of trees by counting the rings,
– measuring the breast height of a tree,
– controlling the time of felling the tree by the harvester,
– measuring the wolf and dog tracks.
The interactions available to users also allow the use of a magnifying glass, binoculars, a notebook, and special elixirs to help you observe nature closely.
However, when visiting a selected forest model, it is worth being careful not to scare a deer, woodpecker, a tooting black grouse, or not to be bitten by a viper.
Every user can also compete in a group, playing various mini-games, like nailing the numbering badges to the forehead of pine trunks with a hammer, picking berries, or carefully segregating the garbage. In an extremely attractive way, we also extend the knowledge of ecology, nature protection, sustainable development, and threats to forests.
For those who are just getting to know Polish flora, we have also provided a hint system.
The richness of fauna and flora presented in the virtual space has been accurately reflected thanks to detailed reference materials – photos, as well as point clouds based on 3D scans of individual forest environments. Their acquisition was possible thanks to the use of the client’s specialized equipment (camera, scanner). In this way, each of the models gained a unique and realistic shape.
The project is complemented by a carefully prepared forest soundscape. The program includes reconstructed and acquired sounds characteristic for specific animal species, as well as sounds illustrating changing weather conditions (like the storm or the wind blowing in the treetops). Users will also hear the sounds of technical objects (such as a harvester or a saw). Ultimately, a complex audiovisual layer creates a fascinating and valuable addition to the project.
Finding the balance between performance and audiovisual effect, Giant Lazer has presented a detailed product showcasing Polish biodiversity in virtual reality. Thanks to the advanced skills of 3D artists working for the studio, the application has gained many accurately reproduced species of fauna and flora, pleasing the eye, and also valuable in terms of education.
– Forest Research institute
As part of the project, virtual forest models were created based on virtual reality software and with the use of purchased equipment like high-class computers that will allow the launch of applications and modern VR goggles using which users will move to the virtual world.
After finishing the project, the Forest Research Institute’s plan is to organize educational activities, during which participants will be able to learn about fragments of rich Polish nature. The participant using the prepared stand, and the participants of the educational meeting watching it on the screen, would jointly develop environmental awareness. All this under the supervision of an IBL educator who helps them handling the virtual scenario, and expanding educational threads included in the game. This way classes, school trips, and family groups can supplement the knowledge gained in the field with interactive VR exercises.
As part of the project, we provided IBL with the necessary administrative and technical training (showing how to install and run the application) and educational training (showing how to conduct a lesson using VR equipment). After completing the training, we provided our partner with training materials that can be used by employees involved in the operation of the virtual system.