Illustrator Chris Haughton on how he turned his artworks into a VR game for children

Iconic children’s illustrator and author Chris Haughton (A Bit Lost, Goodnight Everyone) has just finished creating visuals for an extensive virtual reality (VR) children’s app alongside China-based developer RedRabbit.

Irish-born and East London based Chris hopes to help children visualise, understand and immerse themselves within the changing seasons and different animals of our beautiful planet, with an underlying message to protect it from further harm.

Even with a social conscious background – Chris has been listed in TIME magazine’s Design 100 for his work with fair trade fashion company People Tree, and co-founding fair trade social business NODE – he says there is only so much he can do as a visual artist that will encourage people to respond to climate change. 

"It’s just an abstract concept to everyone, you don’t really think about it. We’re just terrible at processing statistics, and especially large numbers or sliced incremental change. It’s all facts and we’re being told again and again. 

"We’ve got to respond to it, this is just a different way of communicating that." 

Little Earth is a VR experience, using inspiration and illustrations from Chris’s award-winning children’s book Goodnight Everyone, that explores the movement of the earth and nature.

Little Earth will be available to download from Steam for the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR from August 8.

A subsequent mobile app version for iOS and eventually Android will follow, however the interaction capabilities will be limited with one button. 

Watch the video below to see how children can interact with animals in Little Earth.

Watch the video below to see how children can interact with seasons in Little Earth.

Children will be able to meet and feed ("unlock", as seen below) different species – such as squirrels, the nightingale, bear, deer and rabbits – hear and distinguish their calls, learn their behaviour, and see how season effects their lifestyle (eg hibernation, migration).

But Little Earth not only stops at what happens within earth, but where earth sits in our solar system. Players will be able to view the Apollo mission to the moon, the landing of the mars rover, and se the effects of climate change, such as Artic ice caps shrinking.

“It’s almost by accident you’re learning a little bit about the behaviours of the animals. With eh bird you need to listen out to their sounds to find out where they are and then you can recognise them in the real world,” says Chris. 

After visiting RedRabbit’s offices in Shanghai (Chris and RedRabbit worked together on iOS app Hat Monkey in 2014, but never met in person) and trying out its VR equipment, Chris “was absolutely fascinated” with the technology. 

“It’s almost as if the earth is breathing,” says Chris, who worked on the app for around three months.

“There are different things to explore in space, some will be out on the [Little Earth] release and some not until a little later. One of those things shows the effect of climate change – the shrinking of ice caps and the ice is breathing less and less; it gives a very visual indication of what is actually happening and what is predicted to happen, a different way of getting the message across.” 

Chris says a VR app can explain something quite complex, such as the earth’s ecosystems, much more easily when executed well.

Little Earth, Summer
Little Earth, Winter

VR allows the notion of scale to be understood in a way “that can’t be transmitted through film or books”, he says. He uses the example of TheBlue, an underwater VR experience of a giant blue whale, available with the HTC Vive headset. 

“That was one thing we wanted to do as well. We have a mode in the solar system view, the earth is a metre wide at all time and it’s a consistent size. You can look at the other planets and they’re relative sizes to the earth, its bigger than the room and looks enormous,” he says. 

But although Chris says VR poses an “incredible tool for learning and understanding”, it’s still far from accessible to the majority of children.

“I don’t know where or what the best way is. I’ve been travelling around with my set to different festivals but in the future we’re going to have to think about it.”

Chris would like to set up Little Earth in schools, but says currently it takes about an hour to set up, and the HTC Vive itself currently sits at around £760 – not the most affordable piece of technology. 

All Chris’s illustrations for Little Earth (mainly tweaks of his illustrators for Goodnight Everyone) were drawn in 2D with pencil onto paper, before being simplified in Photoshop and sent to RedRabbit in China. 

The difficult part lay in visualising the changing of four different seasons, such as shedding of leaves and snow appearing.

“The trees are modelled so that the branches are completely opaque solid, and the branches around the trees. In summer there are a range of deep greens and in autumn it goes through the spectrums from orange to red and goes into purple and it’s completely transparent by winter,” says Chris. 

“It’s very unusual experience to be in this forest, it looks kind of familiar but its full artwork.”

Little Earth, Spring
Little Earth, Autumn

Little Earth has taken the bones of a year to complete, alongside RedRabbit’s other projects, and despite Chris initially being worried about the project, as soon as he saw the first version he was “absolutely ecstatic with it”. 

Chris’s debut picture book, A Bit Lost, won 13 awards including CBI Book of the Year. His second, Oh No, George!, won two and his third, Shh! We Have a Plan, won two. The paperback of Chris’s award-winning Goodnight Everyone (Walker Books) will be released on August 3.

RedRabbit creates video, animation and games for mobile and VR, including two children’s app Nighty Night and Little Fox Music Box.

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