A Rancor In Cloud City: Behind VR’s Best April Fools’ Prank Yet

by Jamie Feltham • April 7th, 2017

If you pulled on your Vive on April Fools day and booted it up, chances are you found yourself in your normal home space and didn’t think much of it. However, if you’re a bit of a Star Wars fan — enough to decorate your space after The Empire Strikes Back — then you may have been in for a shock.

Last year Kent Sunde created one of the better Star Wars VR tributes; a Vive home space set inside the iconic Cloud City from the series’ most celebrated chapter. The space authentically recreates the wind-swept cat walk scene where a certain Dark Lord relieves a certain son of a certain hand. Thousands of tiny lights surround you, seemingly stretching on forever both above and below. You can stand on the edge of the catwalk and imagine dropping all the way to the bottom like a desperate Luke Skywalker did, or walk to the end and picture Darth Vader urging you to join him and rule the galaxy. Sunde did an excellent job of making a space that’s fun to simply exist in.

But on April 1st he had other ideas.

rancor_april_1st_SteamVR

Even knowing what was to come I still jumped out of my skin. As the screen flickers to life you’ll find a huge, monstrous set of claws just inches away from your face. It’s enough to make you scramble backwards in surprise, convinced for a brief few seconds that you’ve fallen into a nightmare. If you dare allow yourself to turn your head to the left a little, you’ll find what the hand is attached to: the Rancor from Return of the Jedi.

“I’m kind of a VR evangelist, and the idea for the Rancor had come from one of my common rants about how VR will revolutionize game playing once we get past this wave based shooter phase,” Sunde tells me when I catch up with him following the brilliantly cruel prank. As a 3D artist passionate about VR, Sunde wants to focus on two things within the medium.

The first is the sense of scale VR provides, which is actually why he’d made the Cloud City environment in the first place. He also loves experiences that really root the player in the virtual space they’re standing in.

“We’ve all gotten that sense of scale and presence with the whale encounter [theBlu], which is the first thing I show people who haven’t tried VR yet,” Sunde says. “When the whale comes up to the user I quite regularly see them back up to give that whale space as it enters the player’s area and that to me is presence, and something right now that game designers really need to play with in a narrative sense.”

Sunde, who now teaches modelling and texturing at Capilano University, was working on his portfolio with these thoughts in mind. He wants to create something large and introduce it into an environment in which the user was contained. Obviously, he’d already done the leg work on one of those ideas, and 20,000 people already had it installed.

Rancor 1

“I thought why not go dark side and play an April Fools’ prank?” he says. “First, it was a fantastic excuse to fix up some of the lighting and texturing in that scene. However I almost didn’t go through with it because I thought the Rancor would be too big, and it wouldn’t make sense, but after blocking him in and prototyping I thought it’s a joke too and he’s fitting in okay…”

So he set about sculpting, posing and painting the beast all within the space of two days. By the end, he had to make some optimizations to the scene itself to fit it in there.

“I think the goals of the project were achieved by watching my students and other colleagues going into the environment,” he explains. Given the fact I dare not touch the Rancor even knowing it wouldn’t move, I’d say he did a pretty good job too.

April Fools day usually means an amusing, if throwaway, prank story or product render mock-up. Sunde, however, used VR in a brilliant way to play one of the best tricks on people I’ve seen in years.

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