THAÍS ALVARENGA


THAÍS ALVARENGA 

Creative Technologist  |  Narrative Designer  |  Environmental Designer  |  

Solace



Solace is an immersive virtual reality (VR) experience around loneliness and finding solace in one's company. The experience consists of a 360° circular track through which the user navigates a desert environment. As the user moves, the story unfolds through 2D hand-drawn animations and 3D ambiance visual effects.  

The experience was exhibited in the NYUAD Interactive Media Capstone Exhibition of 2023. 


Context
Capstone Project

Year
2023

Role
Narrative, Environmental and Art Designer, C# Programmer

Team
Solo Project

Technologies
Unity, Harmony, Storyboard Pro,  Oculus Quest 2

Honours
Exhibited at NYUAD’s Interactive Media Capstone Exhibition

How can we employ hybrid animation to enhance the perception of vast space in virtual reality and create captivating and immersive narratives?


The project aimed to use Unity Engine to develop a VR experience, combining 2D and 3D (hybrid) animations to explore storytelling, exploring spatial narrative devices in VR beyond traditional dialogue and action.


Concept and Development



Space is at the center of this experience, setting the mood and narrative tone.



I decided to explore the concept of loneliness with this project, utilizing a desert biome to evoke emotions of solitude and reflection in users.


The final environment, inspired by Journey and The Seed Vault, was developed from several Unity prototypes that explored sand textures, skyboxes, soundescapes and volumetric fog to create ambiance.




To enhanced the atmosphere and sense of space, I added:
  • A custom sand material
  • A sandstorm simulation made from a particle system
  • A soundescape mix from the NYUAD’s Sound ideas library




Solace follows Rima, a desert-dwelling shadow creature.



She recounts her key relationships with:
  • her parents
  • her village
  • her friend

These shadowy connections eventually fade, leaving her isolated, seeking refuge in the desert.




I used Twine to experimented with narrative structures, including those in Marie-Laure Ryan’s book Narrative as Virtual Reality, but their scale was too big for the target 5 minute length of the project.

The final script shadows Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey structure and is divided into 5 parts mirroring Robert McKee’s Three Levels of Conflict.

As the scriptwriting process evolved, I synchronized user navigation with the narrative path



Initially, I experimented with branching narrative paths in the virtual environment, but I ultimately adopted a 360-degree track using the Cinemachine Camera plugin in Unity, symbolizing the Hero's Journey.



To storyboard the experience, I made panel sketches in Photoshop based on the script and placed them along the 360-degree track. This method allowed me to test the traversal of the narrative as well as map the story beats to the sections of the track.




While I explored 3D animations, users felt disconnected to the character due to the lack of facial expressions.



Hand-drawn techniques offered expressive control whilst contrasting effectively with the desert setting. Adjustments, including the decision to make certain animations transparent with heavy inking, emphasized the animations’ role as Rima's memories.




Throughout user testing, some users felt dizzy, so towards the end I included a shadow animation to act as anchor point for the user and reduced motion sickness. This addition also heightened the metaphor of the shadow.




Outcome


Solace was showcased at the 2023 NYUAD Interactive Media Capstone Festival, featuring an Oculus headset installation and a projected version for VR newcomers. It also resulted in an academic paper presented to the Interactive Media faculty at NYUAD.




It earned acclaim from VR and film experts for its narrative prowess, describing it as a visual poem with compelling environmental storytelling. First-time VR users found it immersive and friendly, with no user reporting motion sickness throughout its week-long exhibit.

Solace was a challenging and personal project that required asking a lot of questions to both user and myself as to how loneliness can be experienced and conveyed with space and visuals. I am very happy with the approval it has received from academics in the field, but I am specially happy with the conversations that it has generate within the NYUAD community regarding the process of coping with and accepting loneliness.




Bibliography


Ball, Matthew. The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything. WW Norton Et Co, 2022.

Bolter, Jay David, and Diane Gromala. Windows and Mirrors Interaction Design, Digital Art, and the Myth of Transparency. MIT Press, 2005.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New World Library, 2008.

Luntraru, Chris, et al. "Harmonizing 2D and 3D in Modern Animation.", 2022

McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and Principles of Screenwriting. ReganBooks, 1997.

Murray, Janet H. Hamlet On the Holodeck, 2017. MIT Press.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Skolnick, Evan. Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know about Narrative Techniques. Watson-Guptill, 2014.

Williams, Richard. The Animator's Survival Kit. Faber & Faber, 2001.


iLLE



iLLE is a VR mental health therapy application where users are set in a serene oasis and answer introspective questions by catching, speaking into, and releasing bubbles while using the third person to narrate their personal situation. This process fosters detachment from thoughts, allowing users to gain a wider perspective through guided therapy.

iLLE gained recognition at the 2023 MIT Reality Hack for its environment design and approach to VR therapy.



Context
Submission for MIT Reality Hack

Year
2023

Role
Art Director, Environmental Designer, 3D Modeling Artist.

Technologies
Unity, Cinema 4D, Shapr3D, Oculus Quest

Team
Thaís Alvarenga, Aaron Santiago, Daniela Gallegos Dupuis, Xinman Liu, Keer Zhao

Healing involves a shift in perspecting, a detachment from ourselves to reflect with a wiser outlook.


Findings (Kross et al., 2014; Moser et al., 2017) show that third-person introspection––using our own names to refer to the self––is an effective form of cognitive therapy.

iLLE seeks to harness this approach, offering computer-guided therapy that empowers users to reason wisely, manage biases, self-regulate under stress, and reframe challenges. 

Its name comes from illeism, to speak in third person. 


Concept Development



As the art director, I was responsible  responsibility of shaping the project's visual identity.

Since the application was in VR, most of my focus lay on crafting an immersive environment and all virtual objects that the therapy session required.

The journey began with mood boarding.





Our objective was to craft a tranquil user space that harmonized with our project's bubble concept.


The initial design featured two sections: a corridor for introduction and a somewhat round central space for the therapy with a circular ceiling element. However, the room felt cramped when ported to VR.




The highlight of the design was the circular ceiling element, and I centered the second model around it. This iteration was oversized.




The third iteration optimized the design by reducing polygons, resizing, and eliminating the hallway and ceiling. This final model prioritized programmer accessibility for efficient scripting.




While transitioning to building the Unity scene, I delved into materials and lighting to heighten immersion.


I embraced pastels and simplicity based on mental health app research (Alqahtani et al., 2020). I applied spatial design principles to enhance the connection with the bubble mechanic, integrating green and blue elements that created an oasis with waterfalls.

To make the environment more dynamic, I crafted two shaders using Unity's Shader Graph: one for the waterfall and another for the room's stationary water.


Extensive testing on the headset was crucial to fine-tune shader brightness and water speed for user comfort.

Another shader was required for bubbles, with testing favoring a translucent shader with a reflection probe.




Encouraging third-person introspection was challenging as users reverted to first-person pronouns.


To overcome this, we introduced an avatar for an "out-of-body" experience that prompted third-person self-introspection.

3D avatars proved more engaging than 2D, with abstract models lacking self-identification and realistic avatars risking sensitive questions on user identity. I selected a Mixamo character for as it had a humanoid style akin to Meta Avatars, supported by successful tests.




Outcome


iLLE garnered acclaim at the 2023 MIT Reality Hack, particularly for its innovative therapy approach, reshaping VR's role in mental health. The environment received special praise from judges for its calming effect, with water elements being a standout. The project also received accolades from VR and therapy startup professionals during the hackathon's public presentation.

As art director in my first in-person hackathon, I learned the value of user-centric narratives, user feedback integration, and in-depth research for VR solutions in interactive media.



Bibliography


Alqahtani, Felwah, and Rita Orji. "Insights from user reviews to improve mental health apps." Health informatics journal, vol. 26, no. 3, 2020, pp. 2042-2066.

Grossmann, I., & Kross, E. "Exploring Solomon’s Paradox: Self-Distancing Eliminates the Self-Other Asymmetry in Wise Reasoning About Close Relationships in Younger and Older Adults." Psychological Science, vol. 25, no. 8, 2014, pp. 1571-1580.

Miner, Adam S., et al. "Key considerations for incorporating conversational AI in psychotherapy." Frontiers in psychiatry, vol. 10, 2019, p. 746.

Orvell, A., Ayduk, Ö., Moser, J. S., Gelman, S. A., & Kross, E. "Linguistic shifts: A relatively effortless route to emotion regulation?." Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 28, no. 6, 2019, pp. 567-573.

Robson, David. “Illeism: The Ancient Trick to Help You Think More Wisely.” BBC Worklife, BBC, 13 Apr. 2023, www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20230411-illeism-the-ancient-trick-to-help-you-think-more-wisely.

Stern, Jacob. “You’ve Probably Seen Yourself in Your Memories.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 29 Aug. 2022, www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2022/08/memories-third-person-perspective-psychology/671281/.

Vaeztavakoli, Amirafshar, et al. “Blue and Green Spaces as Therapeutic Landscapes: Health Effects of Urban Water Canal Areas of Isfahan.” Sustainability, vol. 10, no. 11, Nov. 2018, p. 4010. Crossref, https://doi.org/10.3390/stu10114010.

The Road To Acceptance



A ten-minute VR experience where the user impersonates a fantasy character going through the five stages of grief. I worked on the narrative, game, and environment design. I was also responsible for the project's 3D modeling, video editing, and level coding.

The project was exhibited in the NYUAD 2021 Interactive Media Showcase. It was also my first project in VR.




Context

10 minute VR fantasy experience based on the four stages of grief

Year

2021

Role

Narrative, Game, Art and Environment Designer. Also served as a C# Programmer, 3D Modeling Artist and Video Editor.

Team

Thaís Alvarenga, Amina Kobenova, Ons Taktak

Technologies

Unity, Shapr3D, Oculus Quest 2

Honours

Exhibited at NYUAD’s Fall 2021 Interactive Media Showcase

Grief is a universal human experience, yet each individual copes with it differently.


Our team recognizes the difficulty of traversing its five stages—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (Kübler-Ross, 2005). The Road To Acceptance is an immersive VR narrative that navigates the user through these five stages.

With advances in the XR metaverse, we aspire to expand the reach of mental health and grieving awareness while normalizing diverse reactions to it.


Concept and Development



In "The Road to Acceptance," players confront the grief that shattered the world.


The stage is Alterion, a realm marred by human-faire folk enmity. Abza, a fairy doctor, transcends this hatred with love, bringing peace alongside her husband, Eldevu.

When humans misinterpret Abza’s healing arts and end her life, Eldevu is consumed by grief. He assembles the Gems of K'otor on the Staff of Power, seeking the world’s destruction in vengeance. He succeeds, but victory fails to mend his broken heart.

Realizing his descent into evil, Eldevu seeks redemption by restoring the beloved world of Abza. The user's mission is to help Eldevu by returning the five gems to their respective area.




Level breakdown:

Level Mission Description
Introduction Cutscene Users select the experience and view a brief story background animation.
Lobby Grab gems from staff to unlock areas in the destroyed world.
Denial Identify the correct gem among similar jewels on pedestals.
Anger Break glass layers to reveal the gem’s plinth.
Bargain Bargain with NPC character, Grilotta, to return the gem. 
Depression Enter a dark void and cleanse the gem to restore its color.
Acceptance Return the acceptance gem to Abza's grave in the Lobby.
Ending The world is restored; users explore the main character's village.


3D modeling was crafted with the use of Shapr3D.


The Staff of Power required removable gems for interactions in the levels, and color-coding was used to distinguish gates. 




I also designed various objects (such as gems, plinths, pedestals, gates, a grave, mountains, a well, and a bat) as needed to complete the look of all the levels.




The introduction scene starts by projecting a narrated video on a large cube's surface.


The video introduces the storyline and the significance of key objects like the Staff of Power, gems, and plinths. A custom material allows users to view the video from any angle.



In the lobby scene, we adopted an open-world approach.


The user encounters the Staff of Power along with its gems. To proceed, the user must remove a gem from the staff, unlocking access to its designated area. There, a mission awaits them to return the gem to its plinth. The appearance of gates is accompanied by 360-degree audio cues for spatial orientation.

Both the lobby and gates remain in view after gem collection. I utilized additive scene loading, ensuring object persistence across scene transitions.




I included instructions from Eldevu upon entering game areas, with audio cues synchronized to user events.

To transition from the acceptance scene to the final scene, the acceptance gem’s glow gradually intensifies after being returned to Abza’s grave, culminating in white screen, facilitating the XR Camera Rig's loading for the final scene.

The final scene presents Eldevu's village, using Unity store assets, with a particle system, soundscape, and his reflections on coping with grief.




Playtesting was crucial in refining the project.


Adjustments were made to prevent users from venturing into unwanted spaces, recording additional instructions for clarity, fixing lighting issues when loading scenes, and adding a wrist holder for the gems to address interaction difficulties.




Outcome


"The Road to Acceptance" premiered at the 2021 NYUAD Interactive Media Showcase. The project served as a powerful tool for interactive learning and sparked dialogues on understanding grief.

In hindsight, refinements in the introduction video and aesthetics were noted, along with additional user testing. Despite challenges as Unity and VR newcomers, the project successfully emotionally connected with the audience, demonstrating the potential of VR in promoting awareness of complex and multifaceted processes such as grief.


Bibliography


Averill, James R. "Grief: its nature and significance." Psychological Bulletin, vol. 70, no. 6, 1968, p. 721.

Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth, and David Kessler. On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss. Simon and Schuster, 2005.

Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth, and David Kessler. "The Five Stages of Grief." On Grief and Grieving. Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data (Ed.), 2009.

Pizzoli, Silvia Francesca Maria, et al. "From Virtual to Real Healing: A Critical Overview of the Therapeutic Use of Virtual Reality to Cope with Mourning." Current Psychology, vol. 42, no. 11, 2023.

Miyahira, Sarah D., et al. "Use of Immersive Virtual Reality for Treating Anger." Stud Health Technol Inform, vol. 154, 2010.

Rosenblatt, Paul C. "Grief Across Cultures: A Review and Research Agenda," 2008.

Roth, Daniel, et al. "Approaching Difficult Terrain with Sensitivity: A Virtual Reality Game on the Five Stages of Grief." 2019 11th International Conference on Virtual Worlds and Games for Serious Applications (VS-Games). IEEE, 2019.

Quero, Soledad, et al. "An Adaptive Virtual Reality System for the Treatment of Adjustment Disorder and Complicated Grief: 1‐Year Follow‐Up Efficacy Data." Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, vol. 26, no. 2, 2019, pp. 204-217.




Space Trail



Space Trail is a hybrid reality game designed for kids to enhance their spatial intelligence through play and art. Players control a physical rocket to create a trail of their movements, generating virtual artwork. This activity challenges them to translate real-world physical movements into the 2D digital realm, strengthening spatial visualization and problem-solving skills.

The project was showcased at a virtual forum, where it showed opportunities for collaborative play.



Context
Children’s game designed to foster spatial intelligence

Year
2021

Role
Programmer, Art and Narrative Designer, Network Designer and Programmer

Technologies Processing, Arduino IDE, Sparkfun Inventor’s Kit

Team: Thaís Alvarenga, Armaan Agrawal

Our goal was to design an educational tool aimed at enhancing children's spatial intelligence.



We integrated physical and virtual elements, utilizing a tangible visual cue to generate virtual artwork. As children manipulate a physical rocket with wheels through a PSP Controller, they must translate these actions into creating virtual artwork on a screen. This fusion of the tangible and virtual worlds  (known as hybrid reality) encourages them to visualize physical movements in 3D space into a top-down 2D plane.

This activity aligns with theories of embodied cognition, where physical interactions contribute to cognitive development by strengthening spatial awareness and mental mapping skills.


Concept and Development





We used a PSP 5 controller, developing a custom Processing sketch using the G4P and Game Controller Plus libraries.



These libraries provided a user-friendly interface for reading controller inputs, defining input ranges, and storing values systematically.

Processing then sent the values to the Arduino IDE that controlled that rocket.




We faced difficulties in serial communication between Processing and Arduino.



Joystick input intended for car movement resulted in a speed reduction due to value mapping introducing delays.

Furthermore, button states generated unexpected integer values, affecting serial communication. This was fixed by changing the reading of controller inputs from analogue to digital values.




Processing development involved the creation of a stroke object forming an array list to serve as the spacecraft's brush or trail.



While controls for red, blue, and green were relatively straightforward, creating controls for yellow, with its unique RGB color combination, required thoughtful design to differentiate the yellow from the green strokes.




Additionally, we designed a space-themed background as the game's backdrop, making alterations to color schemes and star count to enhance the game's aesthetics.





To prevent the loss of previous sketches, we introduced a table system for saving by incrementing sketch numbers.



This would allow kids to email their sketches as a keepsake of their art. 




Finally, we added a main page and instructions for the user, including a story introduction to the experience.




The culmination of the Arduino and Processing elements resulted in a fully functional game.




Outcome


Our project was showcased at a virtual forum of the Interactive Media community at NYUAD, but due to COVID-19 we couldn’t do in person user testing.




This project presented a steep learning curve, particularly in mastering the libraries needed for PSP controller integration, which required a Windows computer.

The results were highly satisfying, and the interactive nature of the project opened up opportunities for further exploration. For instance, instead of one player, two people can team up, with one looking at the screen and the other controlling the rocket. This setup allows the person viewing the screen to provide directions to one controlling the rocket, fostering a new collaboration exercise.




Bibliography


Chang, Jack Shen-Kuen. "Tangible and Virtual Interactions for Supporting Spatial Cognition." Proceedings of the 2017 ACM Conference Companion Publication on Designing Interactive Systems, Association for Computing Machinery, 2017, pp. 382-383.

Gelsomini, Mirko, Giulia Leonardi, and Franca Garzotto. "Embodied learning in immersive smart spaces." Proceedings of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2020.

Kwon, Kyungbin, et al. "Embodied learning for computational thinking in early primary education." Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 2022, pp. 1-21.

Lowrie, Tom, Tracy Logan, and Mary Hegarty. "The influence of spatial visualization training on students’ spatial reasoning and mathematics performance." Journal of Cognition and Development, 2019, pp. 729-751.

Macedonia, Manuela. "Embodied learning: Why at school the mind needs the body." Frontiers in Psychology, 2019.





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