Re-creating an important time in baseball history, in VR

How Reallusion Character Creator and iClone helped create this immersive experience.

When Derek Ham wanted to expand his VR horizons—he had already made the award-winning ‘I Am A Man’ VR experience—he looked to baseball. And not just a run-of-the-mill baseball experience, but one that celebrated the Negro Baseball League, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary.

To craft an interactive baseball experience called ‘Barnstormers: Determined to Win’, made in partnership with the Negro League Baseball Museum, the North Carolina State University Associate Professor knew that he would need to lean on several different tools and techniques.

A character comes to life inside Reallusion Character Creator.

One of these was the Logic Grip Axe One for Oculus controllers (Ham is a founder of Logic Grip, which is a spin-off company out of NC State’s College of Design Mixed Reality Lab, the MxRLab). The controllers are specially configured to connect together and act like a two-handed stick—perfect for simulating the holding of a baseball bat.

Another technology included Reallusion’s Character Creator and iClone tools, which Ham used to model and animate members of the Negro League, people like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Buck O’Neil. Indeed, the project was carried out under Reallusion’s Pitch & Produce program. And then there was also Unreal Engine (Ham received funding under an Epic Games Mega Grant), with which Ham created the VR experience.

befores & afters asked Ham about some of the technical details behind building ‘Barnstormers: Determined to Win’.

b&a: Tell me about the Logic Grip Axe One peripheral, in particular, and how they became part of this VR baseball experience.

Derek Ham: This is a very simple device, but it has gone through several iterations and even updating it and changing it to work with new Oculus Quest controllers. The premise was, if you’re in an application where you want to hold something with two hands, usually you’re fumbling and you kind of rest it a certain way, and it doesn’t feel right. So the peripheral that was created has a groove, and locks them right in.

So now, when I’m in, say Vader Immortal, or in our case, a baseball game, it works so well. When I’m in our game, I pick up the bat, I snap the controllers in and I go to swing, I don’t have that awkward fumble.

Derek Ham demonstrates the Axel One.

We’d been developing these and then I wanted to get back into storytelling. I thought, ‘What are the experiences I want to talk about when you lock your hands in place?’ When it got to baseball it became this matrix, like, ‘Well, what have I had success in? Oh, telling stories with real, deep empathy and moving people on that level and dealing with some of the tricky areas of race in America and the history.’ Things just started aligning with these two categories.

At the same time, I started looking up the history and saw at the time it was the 100th anniversary of the Negro Baseball League. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum was right behind it, and allowed me to use the actual teams, all the jerseys, because that content is owned by the museum.

b&a: From a technical point of view, what did you have to do in terms of creating characters and creating the world?

Derek Ham: For the characters, I used Reallusion’s Character Character and iClone. Previous to this, when I was doing ‘I Am A Man’, I had a very limited toolset. As a result, I didn’t focus that much on avatars, because they kind of all look the same and they had a wooden appearance.

One of the characters from the VR experience.

But then I found Reallusion. I started working with their product before I applied for the Pitch & Produce program. That just sealed it for me and it was also at the time when they released SkinGen. In the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to do extra things like have the players look a little sweaty, periodically. I know there are other pipelines to do that, but I know the length of time involved in developing those shaders and doing all of that.

When I realized I could do this easily with SkinGen, like start putting droplets on their forehead and making them sweaty, I was like, ‘Oh, it’s such a time-saver!’ This takes that same character and allows me to do all that and from there. I just kept discovered more of their pipeline and more of their toolsets. To be honest, I completely got rid of my previous pipeline. I’ve gone completely with Reallusion on this project and it just works.

b&a: Did you try and match any kind of particular likeness to any players from past, from photos?

Derek Ham: Yes, I did. You have these historical photos of the players and they do give you a good foundational start, but, I’m not going to suggest that you have to be of a certain ethnicity to do players or make avatars of a certain ethnicity. But I think when I look at people like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige in the old photos, I’m like, ‘Oh, he looks like my uncle. Oh, he looks like…’ They look like people that I’ve seen my whole life. So when I started getting into the building of the avatars with their facial expressions and their body, because I’m from the black community, I can close my eyes and describe in detail, because I’ve seen it, that’s my world. They look like people I’ve seen from my birth.

A wider baseball field view from the experience.

I hope that doesn’t come off like, oh, you have to be black to model black players accurately. I’m not saying that. I’m just suggesting that there’s something that’s familiar about every character that I create, that allows me to grab onto some of their details in ways that I think I have a bit of an advantage.

b&a: Were you basically doing this on your own or did you have a crew or anyone helping you?

Derek Ham: Yes and no. I used online sources. I bought rights to certain models. I’m constantly purchasing and looking for things that help my production process. Beyond that I had one of my graduate students be a historical lens for me, to just look at a few things and do some archiving with some photos and save me some time to look at dialogue. Things like, how did people talk in those days? I had another student look into what made an authentic ballpark.

b&a: What is your ultimate plan with this VR experience?

Derek Ham: Ultimately, I will release it in a traditional storefront on Steam or an Oculus store. There’s already some amazing mechanics for ball play. Just having the glove virtually and having these players on the field and throwing it and hearing the sound of the catch. Baseball has beautiful sounds, the sound of the bat, the sound of a catch and they throw it back and you catch it in your hand, you feel a little bit of that happening, and you just pick that ball and you’re just throwing it back and forth casually. I think there’s going to be a lot of users who will love that. There’s something with the sound quality and then the mechanics of it that it resonates with so many people.

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This article is part of the befores & afters VFX Insight series. If you’d like to promote your VFX/animation/CG tech or service, you can find out more about the VFX Insight series here.

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