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Stepping Into History: MATTERvr And “First”

The VR experience “First” allows participants to experience the Wright brother’s first successful flight attempt. Photo credit: MATTERvr

By: Marjorie Galas

There were no video cameras, photographers or journalists present the morning of December 17th, 1903 when Orville Wright was strapped into a glider and made aviation history. MATTERvr founders Daniel Gregoire and Steve Holtzman knew, however, the story of the Wright brothers’ first flight could be pieced together. Like the pioneers before them, Gregoirie and Holtzman sorted through details, recorded measurements, tested flights, and created the world’s first historical virtual reality experience – an event curated by the Smithsonian Museum.

Originally interested in aviation science, Gregoire forsake a career in the friendly skies to focus on his creative skills. Starting as a concept designer for video games where he created 360 virtual spaces, Gregoire became an early innovator in the previsualization field. In 2003 he founded Halon Entertainment, a previsualization company with credits including “Avatar”, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “Star Trek: Into Darkness”. Working as an Animatic Director on the 2014 highly acclaimed “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey”, Gregoire met Holtzman who was serving as a Producer on the special.  Holtzman has over twenty years of producing and production experience, working with directors including Kevin Smith, Lee Daniels and M. Night Shymalan, and served as the Vice President of Production for Atlas Media and Director of Business Development for Banyan Productions. The two developed a fast rapport, and discovered they had a passion for the same type of story-driven content. With a number of virtual reality, or VR, projects on Gregoire’s docket, the two men joined forces and founded MATTERvr: a content company “dedicated to creating the next generation of enhanced entertainment experiences.”

Creating a complete narrative around historical events fit perfectly into the MATTERvr mission.  Their first forray into recreating history – a VR experience entitled “First” – paired them with the Smithsonian Institutes’ Peter Jakab, who, along with fellow historian Tom Croach, spent years painstakingly researching the Wright brothers’ inventions and ultimate first flight.  Gregoire and Holtzman explored every detail of the events at Kitty Hawk – from the affect wind had on the plane’s material, the clouds movement in the sky, and the appearance of the gravel on the ground prior to preparing the vitual recreation of the historic moment.

“With every rock we turned over, we were led to a new series of questions,” said Holtzman.  “Creating this environment required much more knowledge that we couldn’t acquire by simply reading accounts or studying schematics.”

Gregoire and Holtzman saw the project as a multi-layered presentation with two key factors: achieving a historically accurate representation of the event and the creation of a dramatic and compelling narrative story.   While there were several individuals present at the time of the flight, there was no complete record of what was said, or the specific emotions each felt witnessing the event.  Other inventors were trying to create “flying machines” during that time period, and their experiments often resulted in catastrophe and death.  The Wright brothers attempt at flying could have easily been the last time the two brothers saw each other.  The MATTERvr team wanted to inject the intensity of the moment within the environment.  Gregorie and Holtzman explored every angle that exposed the strong emotions on that day, from the tension to the excitement: the young military man who took the famous photo of the plane in flight was so excited he couldn’t remember seconds after the event concluded if he had actually snapped the photo.  After roughly a month of intensive research and story development, MATTERvr had seven weeks to complete the VR experience.

The first stage in creating “First” was in the development of the 360 environment. The MATTERvr team recreated every inch of detail around the scene, from the clouds in the sky to the two empty farm houses set a distance back from the air strip.  While most viewers would be engaged in watching the plane’s lift-off, all details of the surrounding area were fully realized, including the interior structure of the empty farm houses on the side of the runway.  The CG scene was created in Unreal Engine 4.8 and runs in real time.    In addition to Orville and Wilber Wright, there were five other men on the scene.  Actors were cast in the roles and shot on a Mocap stage where their movements and expressions were captured.  A program called FaceShift was applied to recreate 5,000+ frames of facial expressions utilized by all seven actors. Once the CG environment was complete, the Wright brothers’ Flier animated and the character mocap imported, a camera was animated through the scene to best showcase the preparation and flight real-time in 360 degrees.  On top of all details included in the visual component of the production, the finished product had to be maintained at 90 FPS to minimize any effect that may create and unsettling, nauseating effect to the viewer as they move through the environment.

Another important component to the experience is sound.  Sound design completes the fully immersive experience by sharing details of texture in every point of the environment.   The sound of the characters’ voices bends as the viewer walks throughout the scene.  The whistling of the 25 mph wind gusts help present the illusion of experiencing the conditions first hand.  The cranking of the propellers and clanging of gear and cables add to the authenticity of the experience.

Once “First” was nearly completed, Gregoire and Holtzman’s producing partner, Zypre, presented it to Jakab and Croach.

“After years of research, they were able to see this event for the first time in their life,” said Holtman.  Added Gregoire, “It was amazing to witness their reactions.”

Curated with the intent of someday being placed into an exhibition where museum-goers may enjoy the historic event “first hand”, “First” was first presented to the public at the E3 Conference mid June in Los Angeles.  A fully polished version was experienced July 11-12 Comic Con International 2015.  The experience received rave reviews from content fans who excitedly stepped away from the “swag” lines to sample history first hand.

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MATTERvr has roughly ten projects in different stages of development.  In addition to “Aesop & Fiends with Terry Jones” created and directed by Holtzman and “Soul Transfer” created and directed by Gregoire, their initial slate of projects include: “Two Moons, created and directed y Gil Kanan (Monster House, Poltergeist), Untitlted Jason Clark Project , created and produced by Jason Clark (42, Ted, Ted 2), and Untitled Dan Povenmire Project, created and directed by Dan Povenmire (Phineas and Ferb).

To learn more about MATTERvr, please visit: