It's no secret that fans of Peter Jackson's film renderings of J.R.R. Tolkien's tales from Middle Earth are an enthusiastic bunch who revel in how deep and detailed that world is. For the love of Gimli's beard, Tolkien himself made up entire languages.
Fans are rubbing their hairy hobbit feet in anticipation of the next installment of The Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug, so it should come as no surprise that for its latest experiment to test the boundaries of the multi-device web, Google has unveiled a 3-D interactive map of Middle Earth for Chrome. You can zoom in and check out Trollshaw, Rivendell, Lake-Town, among others, with even more locations to be added in the coming weeks. Created with digital shop North Kingdom, Warner Bros. Pictures, New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, it's the first immersive experience for WebGL and Chrome optimized for Android on mobiles and tablets. While Chrome for iOS doesn’t have WebGL support, it still manages to deliver a pretty solid version of the experience.
Here, North Kingdom executive creative director David Eriksson explains some of the goals and challenges behind this ambitious project.
My vision is really to create an interactive web experience that is no different from a feature film or a console game when it comes to emotionally touching people's hearts. So what Punchdrunk Theatre's Sleep No More is to Shakespeare's Macbeth, I wanted "A Journey Through Middle-Earth" to be the equivalent to The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
Our initial storyline picked up where the first movie ended and the idea was to let the user follow the eagles that drop Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves on the rock up into to the sky, to finally reveal the eagle-eye view of Middle Earth. We wanted as many places and characters as possible to be on the map and the idea was really to let the user fly freely and select places to explore further. There is however always priorities to be made and we made the right choice after a while to go for mobile-first and shape the experience based on that. All for the good of the project I think, it allowed us to concentrate on a few things and create more depth on a few places.
From a tech perspective we faced very much uncharted territory in developing most of the experience for WebGL in mobile. Making everything work across numerous mobile devices became a huge challenge for our technical director Daniel Isaksson and our team of creative technologists. (Read more about the tech in this detailed North Kingdom breakdown.)
The whole UX and design process also got very complicated since we were really working ahead of the film production. We weren't able to get final assets from the movie until halfway through the project and didn't know in advance what kind of material we would receive. So we had to create a flexible framework that could hold any kind of assets that we would receive from the film. Our UX director Alfredo Aponte did an amazing job of creating the most extensive set of flexible frameworks I have seen.
I hope that as film studios start to see the benefit of being able to create rich supporting online experiences to their films, that the legal processes will become easier to deal with. Everyone wants to create cool stuff but old structures seem to get in the way of great ambitions most of the times. We were really lucky in the end and Warner Bros were able to get us really good content that our design director Robert Lindström and his design team could do their magic with. He also challenged the design team with coming up with stunning visuals for the map and the 3-D worlds that is connected to each location on the map.