StarWars.com goes inside the new mixed-reality experience and behind the scenes with the designers who brought Ahch-To's darlings to virtual life.
Before they could transport a trio of curious, wide-eyed porgs into your living room, the designers at ILMxLAB were having some very in-depth conversations about finding the perfect “toe spread” on a migrating space puffin.
The stars of the new mixed-reality experience Star Wars: Project Porg have the weight of a real bird-like creature, and the perfect doe eyes for pleading for food that also looked entirely realistic. “Getting their eyes right is just so difficult,” says Michael Koperwas, ILMxLAB’s mixed reality supervisor. “Getting enough specular highlight that they feel like they’re there, getting everything to feel like they’re really in the world with you, that the shadows are as good as they can possibly get, they feel grounded, they feel there.”
The porgs’ movements, from flying and landing to cocking their head to one side in mimicry, had to be precise. Designers even created an entire porg language, a catalog of squeaks and sqawks that, for the discerning user or practiced “porg whisperer,” can audibly cue their specific needs in the moment, says Alex Elsayad, the senior technical designer for Magic Leap, which partnered on the project. “There’s an entire language there. They can actually request specific toys if you pay enough attention and spend enough time with them.”
The final version, essentially the next step in virtual pets, is ILMxLAB’s latest experience and first public experiment in mixed-reality storytelling, a new avenue that aims to ground virtual creations in real surroundings. Available now exclusively on the Magic Leap One, an untethered headset, the project differs from previous ventures that transported fans to a droid repair bay through virtual reality or touched down on Mustafar with all the sights and smells in Secrets of the Empire. In traditional virtual reality, “You’re shutting out the rest of the world,” Koperwas says. “Once you aren’t doing that, once you start putting on this device that you can wear it and go about your regular tasks, it occupies a very different space of entertainment. We’re very interested and keen to find out where some of those things can work….The ability to interact with other people together through this experience, these are all super exciting parts that we want to start to play at.”
Direct from Ahch-To
Slip on the Magic Leap One headset and spatial scanning software creates a grid-like map of the space around you before the porgs touch down in a specially-designed device complete with a holographic C-3PO providing very polite on-screen instructions. With a hand controller, you can feed the porgs nutrient-rich cubes, play with a twine ball crafted by Chewbacca himself, or even maneuver a laser-pointer to send the porgs hustling and chirping around the room. Pick up a porg and place it on a table or even your friend’s head. And, if you happen to drop one of the bird-like creatures, the tiny porg will flap gently and gracefully back down to the nearest surface.
The longer you play, the more in tune you and the creatures become, with each other and the surroundings. Plant a blade of grass on your living room carpet and when you return days later you will see it sprout into an entire patch of grass on the same spot. Interact with the porgs enough and they’ll begin to mimic the way you tilt your head, imprinting upon their new caregiver over time. “A lot of work has gone into making sure the porgs were aware of each other at all times and then through various APIs (application programming interface), they can always be aware of not only where a user is but where they’re looking,” says Elsayad. “It’s a very powerful tool to be able to understand where people’s attention is because you can read a lot about their intention. On the technical side, we had a small touch of content persistence. There is actual grass that you can plant. For that grass to be at the same location the next day, as long as it recognizes the space, a single blade turns into a full patch that the porgs can then enjoy.”
'Really cute and mischievous'
The porg storyline is nearly four years in the making. That’s when the collaboration between Magic Leap and ILMxLAB began, and the creators started running experiments to explore “how to best express this new medium,” Elsayad says. “We’ve been trying to figure out what would be the best fit for a long time. And for the past year we’ve been focused on this vignette.”
“We’ve tried a surprisingly large variety of different things, characters, cinematic tie-ins and scale,” adds Koperwas. “Some worked for various reasons and really didn’t work for others.