AXS July Challenge

At AXS Studio, we’re big proponents of “learning by doing”. It’s a principle we strive to bring into the design of all our medical interactive media. So when it comes to our own professional development why would we do anything different?

Last year, we created the AXS Challenge Day – an opportunity for our production team to learn new skills and have creative control over a project. The challenge is less about creating polished finished products and more about having a safe space to step outside your comfort zone and take risks. Our most recent challenge paired up our animators and developers to build Summer-inspired interactive experiences, with the end goal of developing skills and tools for navigating the often quirky Maya-Unity production pipeline and workflow.

When striving for visually stunning interactive experiences, it’s often hard to draw a line where the role of the programmer ends and the role of the artist begins. I would argue our best technical art arises from blurring this line or removing it entirely. It takes collaboration and conversation; bringing together people with diverse skill sets and experiences. And with the recent release of art and design oriented Unity features such as Shader Graph, Timeline, and Cinemachine, it’s a great time to build on those skills.

AXS Summer Challenge developers Raheel and Matt and animators Ruth and Man-San © 2018 AXS Studio Inc.

Department Heads, Joyce Hui and Brendan Polley established a few technical constraints to help our teams establish a reasonable scope for the time allocated:

  1. Export into Unity, an animated 3D assets imported from Maya. It’s up to you how many assets you make but they must include at least one rigged animation and one blendshape
  2. Interactivity must include some control over an imported animation from Maya (eg. click to play)
  3. Include an animated visual effect created in Unity (eg. shader fx, particles)
  4. Prioritize establishing a unified look and feel

We also created a quick sketch and exemplar:

Wireframe sketch of simple Unity interactive. Sunny environment for cat © 2018 AXS Studio Inc.

Sunny Cat (by Joyce Hui and Brendan Polley)

The teams had one day to make their own Summer experience and we were blown away by the end results.

Just Deserts (by Ruth Chang and Raheel Zubair)

Unity development clip of snake navigating with user clicks © 2018 AXS Studio Inc.

Ruth Chang and Raheel Zubair made a game about a colour-changing worm on the hunt for fresh fruits. The hilarious expressions of the worm are a combination of rigged animations and blendshapes created in Maya while the burrowing displacement effect is driven by shaders in Unity. Everything from the motion of the character to the small texture details in the scene came together nicely to create a fun experience.

Beach SMatt (by Sam Holmes and Matt Ostil)

Development clip of blendshape clouds being animated with pokeball in Unity © 2018 AXS Studio Inc.

The studio is a little obsessed with Pokemon Go as is evident from Sam Holmes and Matt Ostil’s look inside a beachside Pokeball. Here, almost every part of the environment has a subtle combination of Maya and Unity-made animations to make this busy, confined space really come alive.

Sunflowers (by Stuart Jantzen, Man-San Ma and David Tran)

Clip of sunflower blooming and blinking using blendshapes in Maya © 2018 AXS Studio Inc.

Stuart Jantzen, Man-San Ma, and David Tran built this wonderful sunflower simulation. The team came up with a creative solution for seamlessly transitioning between animations with different rigs and blends. Within Unity, each flower’s animation is then procedurally altered as they reach out for sunshine.

Finally, the teams met to reflect on their work, share tips and tricks, and discuss any roadblocks they hit along their journey. The challenge is over but our learning doesn’t end. Our goal was not to train our team on a technical pipeline because one perfect pipeline doesn’t exist. The diverse nature of our work requires creative problem solving, teamwork, and the ability to fail and iterate quickly. I think we’re all eager for another challenge. What should we do? Any ideas for themes or skills to tackle?

Visualizing DNA in a virtual reality (VR) science game

A simple image search of ‘DNA’ or ‘DNA structure’ makes it clear that there are myriad ways, both inaccurate and accurate, of representing DNA in science illustrations and medical animations. For a Virtual Reality (VR) science game AXS Studio is developing internally, called Guardians of the Genome, we had the challenge of meeting various requirements in our own depiction of the ubiquitous double helix.

Science and learning requirements: The game features DNA mismatch repair, with players (as nanobots) identifying incorrectly paired bases, excising them, collecting correct bases, and ligating them in place. We want players to gain an intuitive understanding of how DNA is constructed: i.e., two strands, each with a backbone and a sequence of bases; each base paired to a base on the opposite strand (A with T, and C with G). The bases should be easily recognizable so that mismatches can be identified. The DNA should be accurate with respect to the 3D spatial arrangement of components ( and handedness).

axs-studio-dna-virtual-reality-vr-nucleotide-02 Nucleotides showing Watson-Crick base-pairing using a geometric representationStylistic requirements: DNA is a complex molecule, and we wanted to provide enough information without overwhelming the player with visual detail, as the expansive and immersive VR environment is already visually rich. In contrast to the players’ mechanical nanobots and robot tools, we also wanted the DNA to feel natural and part of a living organism.
Gameplay requirements: One early gameplay decision was to make the DNA very large, with nucleotides larger than players, to afford the movable and immovable states of the bases. Large objects are harder to move in real life, so large DNA suggests how it can (and can’t) be manipulated during gameplay. Because the player would be physically interacting with nucleotides (excising, replacing, ligating), we wanted to allow some space to work in and around the bases, without frustrating collisions or clipping through geometry. There also needed to be clear locations on the nucleotides for certain operations to take place (e.g. ligating the backbone). axs-studio-dna-virtual-reality-vr-nucleotide-01 Smooth surface nucleotide models with “ghosted” stick representation

Technical requirements: Because there would be hundreds of nucleotides in an interactive VR environment being rendered in real-time in stereo at high frame-rates, the geometry should have a relatively low poly-count

axs-studio-dna-virtual-reality-vr-double-helix-02 Geometric model of DNA’s double helixaxs-studio-dna-virtual-reality-vr-double-helix-modelWork in progress model using a geometric DNA representation

One proposed representation was a geometric style, demarcating the parts of the sugar-phosphate backbone and bases, including hydrogen-bond donor/receiver components to make the base-pairing mechanism clear. Typically geometric shapes are reserved for simple 2D illustrations of DNA, and are often a student’s first introduction to the building blocks of DNA. A 3D version of this style may help clarify the components of a nucleotide and the method of base pairing, however the various components in both the backbone and the base resulted in high visual complexity, particularly when viewed as a full double-helix, which might hinder the ability to assess each base (and base pair) as a single unit from a distance. Furthermore, there was some debate about where the representation sat on the stylistic spectrum between “mechanical” and “organic”. The geometric style ultimately placed visual emphasis on structural features that were less important to attend to during the identification stage of gameplay.

axs-studio-dna-virtual-reality-vr-double-helix-01 Smooth surface model of a DNA strand with “ghosted” stick representationaxs-studio-dna-virtual-reality-vr-nanobot-double-helix-in-gameIn-game footage of nanobot flying into “nuclear arena” and inspecting our final DNA representation

So we went back to the drawing board and thought about how, as the objectives of the user change throughout the course of the game, so must the direction of our visuals. For identification, we arrived at a smoothed surface representation, where from a distance, we let color be the primary differentiator between bases. We also wanted to help players appreciate how the backbone connects the bases together, so we added a stick representation of atomic bonds which appears inside the surface representation at key points in the gameplay, during excision and ligation. We feel these two representations combined fit our various requirements. Do you agree? In the end, there’s no single best style of DNA, and even in a single project, sometimes multiple representations are beneficial. As long as the outcome is science-based and driven by learning objectives, there are plenty of styles to explore.



Top 10 Game Jam tips. Developing fun science games in a hurry

AXS Studio science game developers Joyce Hui, Mike Kent, Susan Park and Brendan Polley recently stormed the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) annual Game Jam for a sleep-deprived weekend of art and coding. Given 2 days to finish a space-themed video game, they rocked it. Rogue Rovers is an addictive, super-fun multiplayer game of discovery (and smashing) on the surface of Mars.


Rogue Rovers start screen


Rogue Rovers gameplay

Here, the team shares their Top 10 Tips for creating science games under pressure:

  1. Define team member roles before not during the Jam.
  2. Plan ahead so you’re only actually building at the Jam.
  3. Prioritize the must-haves and nice-to-haves.
  5. Match game goals to learning goals. If the game is meant to be educational make sure these goals are compatible.
  6. Be prepared to change things on the fly and go with the flow.
  7. Take risks. Play to your strengths, but don”t be afraid to try a new technique or software feature. 
  8. Get up and move occasionally. No one wants a DVT at the game jam!
  9. Small is beautiful. Keep your scope small and focused; and make it excellent.
  10. TEST! TEST! TEST! Does it work and, more importantly, is it fun?!

June is brain injury awareness month

Brain Injury Awareness Month highlights the importance of understanding the effects and causes of brain injury. Together with the Florida Institute for Neurologic Rehabilitation (FINR), AXS Studio created 2 digital resources to help the families of patient understand the causes, effects and treatments of common brain injuries:


Understanding Brain Injury: Acute Hospitalization, and interactive iBook that includes descriptions of brain injury assessment options and common ICU equipment utilized, transition to the acute hospitalization setting, common adjustment issues and methods to cope and the roles and responsibilities of treatment team members.


FINR Brain Atlas enables users to explore brain anatomy and common injuries using an interactive 3D model. Detailed descriptions cover normal structure/function,  changes due to injury and their effects. This is a helpful resource for people in need of a quick primer on the causes and effects of brain injury.

While not all brain injuries are preventable, many are. Wear a helmet and be safe!

Talking science visualization in the classroom

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking to a class of wonderful grade 5’s about medical science visualization. They’re learning about the human body and invited me talk about the amazing things we get to do at AXS studio, with a short lesson on the respiratory system thrown in. It was super fun. Kids are so awesome: so curious and funny and keen to learn.

We started with ‘what we’re all made of’, tracing our composition from organs to tissues to cells, molecules and atoms. We talked about how medicine is increasingly happening at the molecular level and that’s the realm where many medical artists now work. I showed animations that move from organs, through cells to molecules and demonstrate how they interact with one another to ‘make us work’. We then discussed how similar we humans are to many other animals — we have many of the same parts and many species start out much the same at the embryonic stage. To demonstrate, I showed our Chick embryo: 10 years to hatching animation which got a spontaneous round of applause!

A highlight for the kids was the models I brought in: casts of a dolphin and human brain (thanks Professor Lumsden!), human skulls, molecular (CPK) models of common substances, and 3 sets of lung models, courtesy of Joel Bathe from InterMune.

We ended with a quiz — to see who was really paying attention. The correct answers were ‘lymph node’, ‘alveolus’ and ‘capillary’ (see if you can guess the questions). I got some hilarious responses, but ultimately the right ones and 3 clever kids went home with AXS calendars.

Thanks to Ms Netley, Ms. Balane and the grade 5s at Maurice Cody Public School.


Tips for talking science with kids:

  • Make it interactive. Don’t simply talk to them, but make it a dialogue with lots of Q & A.
  • Use models. many kids are hands-on learners; they like to touch and feel the subject.
  • Use pictures and video — lot’s of them. A soon as I start to lose kids while talking, I switch to a new image and, bing, they refocus.
  • Relate the subject to everyday experience, so it’s meaningful. When discussing the importance of respiration and gas exchange in the alveoli of the lungs, I relate it to the discomfort of holding your breath, or being winded after a run.
  • If you’re talking about anatomy, ask if anyone gets queasy, then give them a heads-up before showing pictures of anatomy. I take for granted that the inside of a body is fascinating. Not so for everyone.
  • Make it fun! Science is about curiosity and discovery.