Restoring Hope: How Avatars and 3D Characters are Saving Lives

Restoring Hope: You Can Help Save a LifeMarc Wheeler is a 3D graphical artist and animator with the National Center for Telehealth & Technology. He first became interested in 3D graphics and animation in 2006 while attending The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale where he pursued a Bachelor’s degree in Media Arts and Animation. He has previously worked at Microsoft Game Studios as the lead camera animator in the development of Forza Motorsport 3 and at Virtual Prophecy Entertainment as a 3D artist and animator.

His blog post is part of Defense Media Activity’s on-going coverage of “Restoring Hope,” an effort that provides stories, videos and resources on suicide prevention. To learn more about the Defense Department’s use of telehealth technology, check out the Sept 17th episode of “This Week in the Pentagon.” Visit Defense.gov or the DoDLive blog for more suicide prevention information and resources.

I’m the principal 3D artist at National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2) and I specialize in creating 3D characters and animations. Creating an avatar or a 3D character model is no easy task. The first step is to find detailed references to base my avatar or character on. The more detailed my references, the better final result. I then go through many steps to create my character, including modeling, texturing, rigging, lighting, animating and finally rendering. This is a long process that normally requires an entire production team, but in my current position, I’m a one-man production team and I do all of the steps.

In my job, I have a unique opportunity and complete freedom to create something with the rewarding satisfaction that I can help people with my work. As I work through the process, I have to keep in mind what the character will be used for. If it will be used in a video game, I think about what the character will be doing and how it will move around within the game; otherwise there will be challenges during the animation process. For example, if the character will be doing a lot of running, I must model the legs with a lot of detail so that they bend properly when I rig it and start to animate the character running. In 3D, we use “polygons,” which are essentially the building blocks needed to create any objects or characters in the 3D world.

Something else to consider is the “target audience.” I have to ask myself, “Who will be playing the game or watching my character?” This is important to know because I need to find a way to connect with that person on a certain level; to determine what he or she would respond to most. It’s difficult to know how the player will respond if I don’t know anything about that individual. One way to determine this is by identifying who would be most likely to play the game based on the game’s content or genre.

Once I have established who will be seeing or playing my character, the next step is deciding what kind of message I want to communicate to that individual by way of the story and/or character interaction. This is the main reason and purpose we are creating the game. It is also where we branch off from the entertainment industry. A typical game or animation in the entertainment industry has one key purpose: to entertain its audience.

AT T2, we create media and technology with a higher purpose to help others who are struggling with difficult challenges. Our projects are based on using technology for psychological health and traumatic brain injury care for the Defense Department. For me as a 3D artist and animator, I know that if I can get their attention with entertainment, our products and services have a better chance of helping them.

I want the player to experience what we call a “suspension of disbelief.” This means that the graphics, the animation, the story and the overall interaction seem so real that the player essentially, “forgets” that they are watching a movie, or playing a game. They become extremely involved in the story or game play and it has an emotional impact on them. Hopefully, it will impact them enough to help them with their struggles.

DCoE’s National Center for Telehealth and Technology (T2)As a 3D artist, this changes the way I work because instead of thinking, “How can my creation best entertain the player?” I think, “How can my creation best entertain the player in a way that will help them overcome their challenges?” I’m forced to consider many other important factors such as how certain projects can help improve a person’s psychological health and how they can even potentially save lives.

The most recent character I created and animated was a 3D model that we eventually ended up calling “Mr. T2”. This character was created specifically to use for mobile applications that are currently in development. He was created with the idea that we could potentially use him for many different projects.

One of these projects is, the award winning, iBreathe; a mobile application, designed to teach deep breathing which has widely known benefits in reduction of stress, tension and anxiety. In iBreathe, Mr. T2, takes the user through a series of animations that show the proper techniques in diaphragmatic breathing exercises. Throughout this character’s creation and animation process, I would often consider the importance of making these animations visually appealing and at the same time, simple and easy to understand since the users will, most likely, be dealing with extreme amounts of stress and anxiety.

We know that chronic stress can eventually lead to other serious, life-threatening problems if not reduced or treated. Problems like heart disease, obesity, depression, autoimmune diseases, digestive problems, etc. Keeping this in mind, I knew that Mr. T2 should be able to clearly show the user how to reduce their stress so that they can avoid the widespread damage that stress can cause. The key was to have Mr. T2 move and perform these exercises in an interesting and realistic way.

That brings us to the final and most important step in the process; the animation. Aside from making the character look real, it is the key to achieving that “suspension of disbelief” that we’re after. The best way to make animation look realistic and believable is by using really good references to base it on. Another way is just simply putting it through a lot of iterations until we’re satisfied with the results. Character animation is probably the most difficult because everyone knows how the body moves. We can tell when someone is limping because we know how the body normally moves when it walks and we recognize when it’s moving even just a little different than usual. That being said, if my animation is just slightly off, whoever is playing or watching my character will notice that and it will interrupt that “suspension of disbelief,” causing the player to lose focus and even lose interest.

Once I’m happy with my animation, I show it to several other people before I call it done. Others may see something that I missed or overlooked and it’s nice to be able to see how others respond to my animation. If I get the reaction I’m looking for, I know it’s pretty close to done. If I don’t get the right response or I see the same negative responses from several people, I know it still needs work.

I also constantly look at my work with fresh eyes. This means working hard on it for a while and then taking a break and coming back to it, maybe the next day. With fresh eyes, I can pick out things I didn’t see before and make the appropriate adjustments. I repeat this again and again until I’m satisfied with what I have.

There are many reasons why I enjoy creating and animating characters and avatars. It’s a constant challenge, and there’s a lot of satisfaction that comes from creating something from nothing and bringing it to life through animation. The opportunity to work in a creative environment is fun and very rewarding, but the opportunity to help others overcome problems by using my talent and creativity is a reward in and of itself.

The National Center for Telehealth & Technology is a component center of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE), which leads a collaborative global network to promote the resilience, recovery and reintegration of Warriors and their families who face psychological health and traumatic brain injury issues. The DCoE Blog features information on psychological health and traumatic brain injury issues as well as personal stories and reflections from people within the military community on these topics.

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