Illustrator Chris Haughton on turning his drawings into a VR game
If you have children, the odds are you’ve come across Chris Haughton’s psychedelic, adorable universe of blue bears and woolly hats. With books such as A Bit Lost and Goodnight Everyone, the children’s author has given bedtime reading an instantly recognisible art-style – all primary colours and wide-eyed beasts.
Haughton has just finished creating a virtual-reality app with China-based studio Red Rabbit, called Little Earth and based around… well, a small version of the Earth. The idea is that users can wander the surface of our planet, meeting and feeding a collection of different animals. Some of these will be absent at certain times of the year, so users will need to speed up time and shift between seasons to find them.
The illustrator tells me he was initially uncertain about creating something for virtual reality, but after experiencing the technology firsthand at Red Rabbit’s offices in Shanghai he was “blown away” by what it could do. “It just seems like such an exciting and creative tool. To stand next to one of your characters and feed it – it’s kind of incredible.”
By exploring the Earth and traversing the seasons, children using the app will be able to get a sense of the behaviours of the animals; learning to recognise their calls, and knowing at what time of year they may hibernate or migrate. Compared to reading about natural rhythms in the pages of a textbook, Haughton tells me that virtual reality has a scope to teach in a way that’s much more immediately tangible.
“I think actually seeing it with your own eyes, and controlling it by speeding up and slowing down time, in an actual space beside you… I think that clicks in a way that’s different [from learning it in a book],” he says. “You’re physically experiencing it, and can get a grip of it.”
While Haughton waxes lyrical about the educational possibilities of VR, he is less enthusiastic about the overlap between storytelling and interactivity. A previous collaboration with Red Rabbit resulted in an app called Hat Monkey and, although the result brought animation to Haughton’s illustrations, he found that the potential for interaction could easily become a barrier to spinning a cohesive story.
“I was very excited when the iPhone first came out, and wanted to do something story-wise with it, then I came around to thinking that wasn’t really possible,” he explains. “I think there’s interaction and then there’s storytelling, and the two are kinda opposites. As a story you’re leading the reader along; there’s a buildup of tension then a reveal, that’s how the drama is created. If you then throw in interaction, it has the effect of distracting from that drip-feed of narrative. I cannot see a way of getting around that.”
You could argue that, with something like Little Earth, the sacrifices to author-led storytelling can be compensated by viewer-created narrative – particularly when you consider the temporal progression of shifting between seasons. All the same, the VR app is pitched as an educational tool rather than a virtual-reality picture book. And on these terms, the ambition is skybound – quite literally, as users can zip around the solar system to see the orbits of planets and moons.
Haughton tells me there are future plans to encompass highlights of human space exploration, such as Gemini and Voyager missions. Closer to home, Little Earth will also show the effects of climate change, illustrating the shrinking of the ice caps and communicating complex notions of changing ecosystems in an easily comprehensible visual style.
It’s an ambitious aim, but one that is also sure to bring questions about the educational possibilities and limits of virtual reality. For a generation growing up with VR, apps like Little Earth may become a commonplace part of schoolwork. For now, the techniques and approaches around children-centred VR are very much in flux, and while Haughton and Red Rabbit’s app aims to make the delicate clockwork of our planet clear to young minds, the illustrator is also cautious about prematurely strapping on a VR headset.
“It’s not something I would [advocate] for very young children,” he notes. “They’re just getting used to reality.”
Little Earth is available in early access on Steam. Image credits: Chris Haughton