I hold in my hands what looks and feels like a wand from a Harry Potter film. But this isn’t one of the cheap replicas you can buy in a souvenir shop. It was 3D-printed right here, in the high-tech workshop where I’m standing. And once I put on a HoloLens headset, it’s incredibly effective against the hordes of advancing dementors.
The game—and the wand—were developed by Pat Starace, director of the digital fabrication course at Full Sail University in Orlando, Florida. Over a 20-year career, Starace has produced a huge range of models, special effects, and animations for motion pictures and television, including the iconic 1979 title sequence from 60 Minutes. At Full Sail, he teaches students the rapid prototyping techniques needed to convert 3-D drawings into objects like magic wands, while also working on his own projects (like an animatronic toucan and a 3D-printed prosthetic hand modeled after Iron Man’s glove).
The Dementor game was built to explore switching between augmented (AR) and virtual reality (VR) within the same experience: Players can either blast Dementors rushing at them from all sides of their living room, or be transported to what looks like a room at Hogwarts. In the industry, this type of game is still considered blue-sky thinking—experiences tend to be segmented into AR or VR—but students vying for Full Sail’s Simulation and Visualization bachelor degree, launched in 2016, are encouraged to think big. Already, this blended approach is being embraced by industry players like Microsoft.
“We talk about VR and AR as their own separate industries, but they are in fact simply screens into a virtual world,” says Full Sail program director Rob Catto. “The difference is that the screens actually put you into that world. VR is about much more than just putting on a headset; it’s about all of your senses.”
As with Hogwarts wizards, training AR/VR wizards is a complicated business. Full Sail’s workshop is packed with 3D printers, laser cutters, and milling machines. Students learn everything from basic carpentry and spray-painting to how to make their own circuit boards. They study artificial intelligence, physics, data modeling, and human-computer interaction, and learn a diverse range of technical skills that includes using engines like Unity and Unreal, and coding in C Sharp and C++. The program is not for the faint of heart, and more suited to your average Hermione than your average Ron.
Early on, students are given a project that requires them to use skills like laser-cutting and circuit-board construction. They then go on to assemble and program devices like one Catto shows me in the Full Sail lab. Called a Stewart Platform, it’s a miniature version of what most theme park rides sit on top of, except this one fits in the palm of my hand. It’s engrossing to watch the platform perform a wide range of dynamic movements—heaving, surging, swaying, rolling, hitching, and dropping—especially when those movements are synced to a character’s on-screen movements.
When Full Sail student Carolyn Smith was tasked with building a Stewart Platform, she too turned to J. K. Rowling for inspiration. Smith designed her own version of Quidditch—sort of like football, if football were played on flying broomsticks—complete with a Harry Potter figurine riding a broom. That got Smith thinking bigger: Why not make a broom you could actually ride while experiencing Quidditch in immersive VR?
Smith started by crafting a life-size Nimbus 2000—a high-end broom model featured in the books—using tools and materials from the Full Sail lab. She also found resources online: Being a keen cosplayer meant Smith was familiar with a community that enjoyed building realistic props, and various tutors offered help and advice. (One of them even lent her his personal power chisel.) After a lot of hard graft—she stayed up until 2am spray-painting and hand-layering broom bristles —the model came together, and Smith turned her attention to making it “fly.”
“Two instructors helped me with wiring it and… doing thing like fitting in an accelerometer and connecting it to an Arduino computer,” Smith says. “Two buttons are placed just below the accelerometer [to accelerate and to grab the snitch, if you’re close enough], which also connect to the Arduino, making complex adjustments that link the movements of the platform to those of the character generated on the screen.”
A huge Harry Potter fan, Smith plans to visit Universal Studios Harry Potter ride to see how it compares to her efforts, and it’s not unlikely that she’ll stay in Orlando after graduation: The city has more than 100 companies working in the simulation sector, and the VR boom is continuing to gain momentum. But for now, Smith’s only regret is how the project deadline prevented her from researching all the proper Quidditch lore. “I wanted to try to make the game as accurate as possible,” she says, “but I ran out of time.” Looking at what she’s managed to build, I can’t help but feel that Rowling herself might let a few inaccuracies slide.