Making the Centrifuge VR Experience

For the past month and a half, I've been working on my first virtual reality experience for "Oh HAL No" - A 2001: A Space Odyssey art show.

To those who don’t know me: My background is in motion design. I’m not a game developer. I’ve only recently started learning 3D and even Unity is a foreign concept to me.

But I knew I wanted to create something special.

It goes without saying that Stanley Kubrick’s classic holds a significant place in cinematic history. It’s sense of wonder and mystery is a feeling I wanted to emulate in VR. But rather than make a straight carbon copy of the movie, I wanted to evoke that familiar strangeness in a whole new way.

Ideation and Planning

My initial idea was to create an emotional response between the viewer and HAL's eye.

As the viewer looks around, HAL's eye would always be within their peripheral zone, appearing in one of the computer monitors. Should the viewer turn to confront HAL, the eye in the monitor would switch back to a normal screen. I hoped this effect will create a perpetual sense of uneasiness and that the viewer felt they were being constantly watched.

With only a month and a half before the show, I planned a timetable and prioritized the following:

  • Create a model of the environment
  • Code out the interaction between the viewer and HAL
  • Create the Dave and Frank models
  • Figure out audio assets
  • Create all other screen assets

With this plan, I knew that in the worst-case scenario of everything going wrong, I would at least have an environment for viewers to walk through.

Building the Centrifuge

I knew right away that this had to take place in the Centrifuge — that massive ferris-wheel set that served as the trademark introduction to the Discovery-1.

I wanted to create an immersive environment where the user could walk along the Centrifuge, look up, and see the path they just walked on, only upside-down.

It took nearly three weeks to build the Centrifuge. There were dozens of movie screenshots and blueprints laid out in front of me as I meticulously modeled every little detail. Sometimes I would model a small part for a minute before stopping and checking it against the movie stills.

I modeled and textured everything in Cinema4d and later exported it to Unity where the lighting was added.

The Cute Inhabitants

I populated the Centrifuge with cute little animals throughout as a way to disarm the viewer

I’ll admit, part of this is because I just like to animate cute animals.

But I’ve also become aware of how people tend to react to “cuteness.” There is a behavior shift that lulls the viewer into a state of comfort.

That comfort state would be disrupted once the viewer notices HAL’s eye. It would be a great contrast to have the computer monitors switch between a cute animal and HAL’s menacing eye.


In the final weeks leading up to the show, I realized that I wasn’t able to get the right effect I wanted with HAL’s interaction. At times, it was tricky to get HAL to appear directly within the viewer’s peripheral zone. Once I knew it wasn’t a guarantee, I had to consider another plan.

My friend Patty then suggested to have HAL appear through white noise throughout all the screens. As if the “cute” signal was suddenly disrupted and turned off.

That was a neat and simple solution that still got the point across: That no matter where you were looking, HAL will always be there watching you.

Things I Have Learned

  • Get better at coding. There were so many instances where I’ve hit roadblocks because I wasn’t familiar with code. It’s so important for iteration and also because Unity largely integrates with code.
  • Optimize every asset to get better performance and frame rate.
  • Start paying attention to motion and interaction design in VR. Although UX/UI was largely absent, it has been something I’ve been wondering and will need to address later on.
  • A better grasp of the design pipeline for VR. It’s easy to get lost and freak out at your first VR project. Luckily, there’s a lot of good documentation for Unity and the C4D to Unity transition has been fairly painless.

Thanks to Patty for putting on an amazing 2001: A Space Odyssey show, James for being an awesome coding guru, and everyone else who has helped me on this project!