Creative routes from A to B: adding engagement to AR way-finding

HotStepper is the world’s first augmented reality, character-driven way-finding app. Pick any location on a map and HotStepper will be your virtual guide, encouraging you to follow him to your destination.  HotStepper makes getting from A to B a whole new experience and combines technological innovation with strong creative storytelling.

Created by Nexus Studios to coincide with the launch of its new office in LA and illustrate the potential of AR and data location, the starting point for HotStepper was born from a simple premise of using AR technology to guide you from London to LA. Pretty soon, the ambition of the project grew; as data is everywhere, why not create a guide who could lead you to any address in the world?

Innovation in AR way-finding

The project marked a shift in what you can do with AR stories by adapting and responding to its space using real time data. As Luke Ritchie, Head of Interactive Arts at Nexus explains: “Until now, 3D animated models in augmented reality have been limited in what they can do. They don’t have information on where they are and what they’re doing, in effect they perform the same wherever they are. The HotStepper is significantly different in that he reacts to his surroundings”

HotStepper is driven by a complex steering algorithm that draws on a variety of data sources to keep him on track. This includes GPS and the compass in-built into phones to calculate location, so the character can be rendered accordingly. A third-party plugin is used to help with mapping and a Unity pipeline was used to develop the app. It took around seven weeks to develop and test.

HotStepper from Nexus Studios on Vimeo.

The challenge of bringing the HotStepper to life

“The hardest part of the project development came with the issue of the accuracy of GPS and the in-built compass on phones. GPS can be out by 10ft in any direction, and the compass by 15 degrees in any direction.”

— Luke Ritchie, Nexus

These issues around accuracy  presented a major challenge throughout the development of the app, where any discrepancies in view would impact negatively on the experience. In effect, until the user starts to move, the app is not sure exactly where they are. This is aggravated further in cities, as tall building also affects the accuracy of GPS.

This posed a significant challenge for the Nexus team, who initially looked to bring in data experts to help overcome this issue, before realising that this would be a waste of time and money as the technical accuracy they were looking for does not exist. The in-house team looked at more creative solutions to tackle this challenge.

“Calculated guesswork was employed, and some key hacks were introduced to address these issues” explains Luke Ritchie. “For example, when walking down a road, the app doesn’t necessarily know which side of the road you’re on, or where the end of the road is. Knowing that people naturally tend to slow down when they are reaching a street corner gives us the chance to estimate where they are and where they are going to”.

Another innovation included was the introduction of directional arrows at key points, which was a real breakthrough point in tackling the accuracy issue. Luke Ritchie explains: “Putting arrows into the real-life space gave us another data point to work with. It’s something no-one had ever done before. By working off a 2D map, rather than tracking technology, we could then begin to calculate where true North is, which helped to improve the accuracy of the app.”

The HotStepper character was also crucial in helping to tackle the technical challenges. The confidence of the eccentric character gives users conviction in his abilities, and therefore in the reliability of the app. His style of walking and the way he reacts reinforces this confidence and this was integral to the development of the app.

As Luke explains; “the confidence of the HotStepper character reflects the confidence of the data. When he’s striding further away from the phone, the location data is relatively accurate; if he’s closer to the phone, the data is less reliable.” By shifting the focus to a more character driven approach, tracking issues are, to a large extent, hidden from the user.

The importance of character and storytelling

Chris O’Reilly ECD at Nexus Studios explains the importance of animation and design in the development process.

“ We are creating an experience not just a tool, so HotStepper needed to bring a sense of fun and engagement.  Our background in character animation is essential to the process. We are able to rely on are own Academy award nominated animation studio to ensure that HotStepper’s performance is entertaining and fun.  We wanted to create an eccentric character with a likeable self-confidence.  Someone you’d want follow into unexpected adventures.”
— Chris O’Reilly; ECD, Nexus Studios

With the in-house 3D animation skills available, HotStepper was a character developed through an intuitive VR animation tool, VLO. To make him as realistic as possible, the app takes information from the phone’s camera to reflect colours from the surroundings back on to him, calculating where the sun is and rendering shadows on to HotStepper to reinforce the element of realism.

Who is following the HotStepper?

Nexus Studios has received overwhelmingly positive response from clients and industry, and with limited marketing surrounding the app, its viral success has taken the team by surprise. Initial results showed HotStepper’s popularity in Spain, followed by a surge in Japan and China, peaking at over 35,000 downloads in one day. Luke Ritchie sees this as testimony to the compelling storytelling and characterisation of HotStepper.

Where’s the HotStepper’s next journey?

Recent developments with Apple AR kit and Google AR Core has opened up the possibilities of AR.   There are immediate applications especially around large scale sports and cultural events, festivals and venues that mean we can bespoke the experience.

As a self-funded project, the HotStepper has showcased the creative possibilities around way-finding in a unique and personable way, which has led to numerous new business leads for Nexus Studios.  Luke Ritchie believes that this is only the start of the HotStepper’s journey of innovation and there’s plenty of room for it to grow – and that new stories should be at the heart of future development. “Bringing on new characters is the obvious next step, we’re already been asked about creating zombies and dogs.”

Luke also highlights one part of the app that has huge commercial potential to explore. On the existing version of the app, when the HotStepper walks by a hairdressers or barbershops, his hairstyle changes.

“Stories can change and adapt according to their surroundings, and this is potentially a huge area for development. With open data and street maps readily available, different shops and businesses could be reflected in the character changing – for example changing his clothing to reflect the stock in clothes shops he is walking past.”
— Luke Ritchie, Nexus

It looks like the HotStepper will be taking us on many more interesting journeys in the future!

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Animation, AR, Augmented Reality, GPS, i Phone, Nexus Studios, Way-finding