I worked with Mann Made to design and direct a web-based virtual art gallery for the Africa Rare metaverse. The project included the installation of the first NFT collection by renowned South African artist Norman Catherine. The brief was to create a sophisticated virtual experience with a premium feel to embody the the concept of "rarity".
To communicate rarity and value, I proposed that the design of the gallery suggest a rare discovery - a precious gem embedded in a rugged landscape.
Research into African gemstones led to Tanzanite. This geological marvel was first discovered in 1967 at the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro - the only known source in the world.
Although Tanzanite is most well known for its blue and violet varieties, the mineral can also be found in pale gold or translucent colouring. These less common varieties were the perfect starting point for communicating rarity.
Using the gemstone concept as a starting point, I sketched the gallery exterior and the surrounding rocky landscape in Gravity Sketch.
The benefit of designing in VR is that I can simulate the visitor's perspective by zooming in to avatar scale. This process allows me to rapidly block out the main elements of the scene.
Because the web-based experience needs to run on mobile devices, all 3D models are created in a low poly style. This ensure that scene will be lightweight enough to run on older devices and operating systems.
After initial testing, it was clear that users were struggling to spot the gallery entrance at the base of the minimal gemstone-shaped building. To solve this, I added a front facade of tall vertical panels that guide the eye down towards the entrance.
Inside the gallery, the exhibits are the focus. To create a clean backdrop for the artworks, I designed the gallery interior using simple white volumes, and faceted glass walls in light gold tints.
I envisioned the interior gallery levels as elegant floating platforms that follow the contours of the outer glass shell. These spacious levels are connected by delicate stairways that are easy to recognise, and wide enough to allow visitors to pass each other comfortably.
MATERIALS & LIGHTING
Our challenge with web-based virtual worlds is to create a polished final look, while keeping the scene lightweight enough to run in real time on mobile devices.
I worked with Ronnie Ho Hip to get the scene ready for release. Ronnie streamlined my prototype model, applied materials and baked in lighting and occlusion.
I chose to work with light sandstone as the main material for the gallery building and welcome area. The sandstone gives the surfaces texture, and creates a clean look when viewed from a distance.
By contrast, the black rock material of the surrounding landscape adds rugged texture to the scene. The rocks are modelled in a low poly style to ensure the scene runs smoothly on mobile devices.
The walls of the gallery are constructed from glass facets that suggest mineral forms. The glass materials range from an almost translucent, to light gold tint.
The lighting of the scene captures the moment the sun breaks through the clouds after a storm. The virtual gallery is illuminated in a warm pool of light, and surrounded by darker, cooler areas.
The gallery interior brings focus to the artwork, with a neutral white light providing even illumination of the structure. Artwork images are not affected by the lighting of the scene, ensuring that the original colours of the work are accurately preserved.
Visitors to the virtual gallery appear as avatars moving about the space. For the avatar designs avatars, we drew inspiration from traditional African art from across the continent.
Because web-based experiences reach a diverse audience, visitor avatars work best when they are inclusive and gender neutral.
In keeping with the premium feel of the gallery, we chose to work with neutral colours and subtle metallic finishes.
The avatars were designed by Robyn O.
Digital artwork exhibited in the virtual gallery has three possible states: Dropping Soon, Bid Now and Sold Out.
In physical galleries, paintings are often shipped in wooden crates. To build excitement for new releases, we created digital shipping crates with a "sticker" displaying the date of the drop.
Once an artwork is released, a 3D button appears below the work with the text "Place Bid Now".
When the visitor interacts with the button, a 2D info panel pops up as an overlay. This panel provides more information about the artwork, and a link to an external marketplace where the visitor can place a bid.
Once the artwork is sold out, the 3D button changes to a greyed-out "Sold" version.
To complete the immersive experience of the gallery, we added animated elements, including moving water textures, a rotating sculpture and a flock of birds heading into the distance.