Given the opportunity to experience the world of Westeros in real life, many Game of Thrones fans would rush to it, forgetting in the excitement that life in the Seven Kingdoms is savage and ultimately deadly.
HBO is giving fans such an opportunity with "Ascend the Wall," an interactive installation that’s part of a seven-city international exhibition of GoT costumes and props, launching at SXSW in Austin. "Ascend the Wall" is an immersive experience that uses Oculus Rift virtual reality technology and real-world sensations, to transport people to the top of the Castle Black, the frozen and unforgiving outpost known as The Wall. And true to the world of Westeros, things don’t end well.
To experience it, visitors step into a cage winch elevator akin to the ones the Night’s Watch rangers use to reach their post. After strapping on a virtual reality visor and a pair of headphones, the experience begins. As the elevator ascends with a rumbling reality, you look out over the courtyard and towards the land of the Seven Kingdoms. The higher the elevator ascends, the colder it becomes, with air jets giving the sensation of the biting wind in the wintery wasteland of The Wall. Once atop the wall, users are instructed to turn around. Staring straight causes you to walk forward—looking to the left or right slows your progression—until finally you’re at the precipice of the wall, 700 feet above the land of Wildlings and White Walkers. Once at the edge, an attack from below is launched and users experience a fate common to so many GoT characters: death. But not before an ultra-real plummet from The Wall.
HBO commissioned the experience as a way to take fans deeper in to Westeros, says Ian Cleary, VP innovations and ideation at Relevent, the company behind the production of the exhibit. "HBO challenged us to evolve the interactive of the first year, which was a digital/physical recreation of the battle of Blackwater Bay," says Cleary. "As we started to think about that, Oculus Rift seemed a natural fit to take people into a world."
When exploring OR technology, Cleary says they needed to create something that kept people relatively stationary—largely because you can’t see a thing when strapped into the visor—but also gave them an expansive experience. That’s how the Castle Black elevator emerged as the setting. Relevent partnered with Oscar-winning (Gravity) visual effects company Framestore, which developed the convincing world using the Unity game development platform.
Mike Woods, Framestore’s head of digital, says developing high-end visuals for the 360-degree world in a game engine was a unique experience for the company. "For us, when we work on films, we’re creating that one thing, with layer upon layer of effects composited together, and it’s just rendered in the direction that the camera is pointing. The way the game engine renders itself, it renders an entire 3-D environment and there is no layering of effects in a game engine."
To make the experience look as real as possible, Woods says Framestore blended assets from the show, such as the mountain ranges on either side of The Wall, with 3-D graphics. The snowy tunnels atop the wall were all created in Unity—largely because Castle Black exists as an actual set, meaning there were no existing VFX assets from the show, says Woods. Instead, Framestore used reference shots to recreate the walkways of The Wall in the 3-D environment. By contrast, other elements, such as the clouds, were left to the game engine to create.
"Game engines do dynamic things brilliantly—they have to because it’s all happening live. So things like the clouds blowing around your head will be different for every person because they are literally procedurally generated by the game engine as you’re in there," says Woods. "That kind of chaos theory is how game engines work. So to add linear frame-based imagery or video assets from the TV world into that free-flowing, non-linear world is really hard. That really is truly merging TV and film world with the games world."
It was hard, but it also takes a lot of computing power. Woods says the exhibit is powered by a literal wall of custom-made servers, rendering the experience at 4K at 60 frames per second.
Further elevating the immersive nature of the experience are the other physical sensations tied to it. When ascending the elevator, the structure rumbles and cold air blows. "You’ve got a visual input and an audio soundscape, and then we play with the tactile. There’s a system that’s telling the floor when to shake and when the wind should blow and how much all based on what’s happening in the viewer," says Cleary, explaining that Unity communicates with a show control system so that the virtual and the physical elements are in sync.
Woods adds that the rumbling is not just a rumbling floor. "It’s a speaker unit without the speaker. So an audio file is generating the rumbling, and every clunk and clang is replicated by the floor you’re standing on."
Adds Cleary: "That for us is one of the super interesting things—how to bridge this virtual world with real-world sensation to totally immerse you into Westeros."
After its stint in Austin, the Game of Thrones exhibit will be touring internationally, hitting Mexico City, Rio de Janiero, Oslo, Toronto, Belfast, and Vancouver. For those who prefer their Westeros experience to be confined to the screen, season four premieres on HBO April 4.