The Infinite Zenith

Where insights on anime, games, academia and life dare to converge

The Giant Walkthrough Brain: Reflections on a life-changing project

“Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” —Melody Beattie

Neurosurgeon Joseph Bogen proposed in the early 70s a fantastical structure resembling a sixty-story brain that would function as a museum. In this brain museum, there would be galleries, exhibits, gift shops and canteens for visitors to explore, learning about the intricacies of the brain. As the stories go, engineers found such a building to be unfeasible (or did not otherwise desire to build it), but the ever-improving capabilities of graphics and the ability to create 3D, virtual worlds means that, even if such a brain is not built, they can be reconstructed in a virtual environment. This is the story of the Giant Walkthrough Brain, one that I’ve become very familiar with in recounting the project’s to audiences. The project itself began in the summer of 2014, after a tough start to the year: by April 2014, matters concerning unrequited love had taken a physical and mental toll on my well-being. I had just completed an iOS course and had implemented a navigational system for exploring 3D anatomy on an iPad, when Jay Ingram approached my supervisor and asked whether or not it would be feasible to create an interactive brain presentation. After a brief demonstration and discussion, Ingram found the answer to be a resounding “yes”; my supervisor was considering the application of the then-newly freely available Unity Engine and asked me to determine if the engine was suitable for deployment. Tasked with constructing a prototype, I immersed myself into the project: the first prototype convinced Ingram and his band that a 3D, interactive brain museum would be possible. For the next two months, I worked on the Giant Walkthrough Brain‘s Unity component, adding in user interaction, controls, navigational elements and slideshow mechanics to aid in Ingram’s talk. Over the course of the summer, I attended three performances of the Giant Walkthrough Brain: once at the Banff Center for the Banff Summer Arts Festival, and two more at the Telus Spark Science Center during Beakerhead. During the course of this project I learned more about game design and the Unity Engine itself; the pain of unrequited love fell to the back of my mind as I attended the shows to see the Unity project integrated with the Giant Walkthrough Brain show, and exiting the summer of 2014, sorrow had been displaced with a new sense of hope. With a summer’s worth of Unity experience under my belt, I was now ready to begin working on my graduate thesis.

  • Only lasting for two nights and two days, packing for Kelowna turned out to be quite quick, and I fit everything I needed into a larger carry-on article. Shortly after arriving in Kelowna on the evening of January 29, we visited a pub (I had dinner before leaving home and ordered nothing), before checking in at the Manteo Resort. I was utterly exhausted despite the short flight; following a quickly shower, I hit the hay. I woke up the next morning to blue skies and a light dusting of snow overlooking Okanagan Lake.

  • The air was quite cool, but still a ways warmer than the weather back home. The Manteo resort is a very comfortable establishment, and when I arrived, I found some complementary cookies were prepared. I decided to set them aside and eat them later, since my mind was focussed on sleep. I would eventually bring the recipe back home, although my busy schedule has precluded baking anything so far.

  • One of my favourite parts of travelling is the presence of a full breakfast: a platter of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns and pancakes are a perfect way to start the morning, and the quiet atmosphere of the Manteo resort allowed me to enjoy breakfast. As an early riser, I arrived before anyone else did, but eventually, my colleagues and the performers showed up. Their discussion went towards renumeration for the performances, but as I was a little tired, I was under the impression that I would need to cover some of the expenses myself. They were surprised at how I calmly I’d delivered the question (I wasn’t expecting to be paid for helping out) and clarified that, I would be paid for helping out.

  • It’s a three-quarter hour walk to the performance venue, and I arrived shortly before noon to help configure the Unity project. The performance would make use of an MSI laptop which surpasses my MacBook Pro by an order of magnitude in hardware; I would fulfil the role of a backup in the event that anything happened to the MSI laptop or its operator. As the staff worked to prepare the audio-visual elements, I was asked to re-tool some of the UI elements to make it easier to adjust the controls mid-performance if need be.

  • I originally purchased a MacBook Pro to assist in delivering Keynote presentations and acting as a platform for building iOS apps to gain experience prior to entering the workforce. It’s been in service for a little more than a year now and, like a warplane, has some interesting missions under its profile: it’s travelled to Kelowna and Laval, France, delivered my seminar and thesis presentations, and presently, it’s my main workhorse for constructing iOS apps for work until we acquire new iMacs for development. Although limited in hardware and storage (rocking only a dual-core i5 and a 128 GB SSD), this entry-level MacBook Pro has proven to be surprisingly resilient and effective, similar to its operator.

  • As the afternoon wore on, I stepped out to help pick up sandwiches for the crew, who were rehearsing for the evening’s performance. I ordered a Montreal Smoked Meat sandwich and hit the green room to eat, before returning to the stage to watch the rehearsal, playing games on my iPhone while waiting for the evening performance to come.

  • With minutes left to the doors opening for the public to enter, I quickly entered the stage and got this photograph before taking off. Prior to agreeing to help my supervisor with this performance, I remarked that the best performance would be one where my role was an absolute minimum: it’s rather similar to a sniper operation where a backup sniper is deployed in the event the main sniper is rendered incapable of carrying out their assignment. When I make my statement, I am wishing for a solid performance that proceeds without a hitch — to require my backup would mean that something had gone wrong.

  • Besides acting as a backup, I was called to quickly create a set of slides for the screens to signify the University of British Columbia’s hosting of this event. After crafting the slideshow and verifying it was to specifications, I sent them off to the AV control booth. I still have the slides at present, archived away in a hard drive.

  • The Giant Walkthrough Brain proceeded smoothly, and every song was a trip down memory lane. My supervisor had asked for some photographs of the event, and every so often, I would disappear to take some photographs, while steering the Unity project to ensure that I would be ready to switch over at a moment’s notice should anything fail. Ultimately, the performance was a smash hit, and I would have dinner with the crew, along some faculty of the University of British Columbia, at the Bike Shop Café. The next day, we gave our encore presentation to another sell-out crowd and full house, before taking off for the airport to make the journey home.

  • One of the jokes is that a sequel to the Giant Walkthrough Brain is in the works, dubbed the Giant Walkthrough Gut. Having graduated now, such an undertaking would be left to other members of my old lab, although if it were ever to be realised, I would definitely go watch that show. This is the project that brought me out of a year-long slump that materialised during the summer of 2013, and subsequently, I would go on to realise several goals, most notably, experience the best things in my area, as well as travel internationally with a clearly-defined purpose.

Relentless, the march of time placed a year-and-a-half between myself and the summer of 2014. By last year, I was gearing up for the job search in preparation for wrapping my master’s degree, and was also occupied by several conference papers I was getting ready to submit. Unexpectedly, my supervisor had asked me whether or not I would be interested in helping out with the latest Giant Walkthrough Brain performance, to take place in Kelowna, B.C.; he was originally set to attend, but other commitments had arisen, so I agreed to substitute for him to help out. On a cold Friday evening, I flew out to Kelowna and checked in to my lodgings at the Manteo Resort. Falling asleep immediately, I woke up Saturday morning, sat down to a delicious breakfast and then began making some last-minute adjustments to the Giant Walkthrough Brain project, before setting off on foot towards the Kelowna Community theatre. The setup and rehearsals took much of Saturday afternoon, and by evening, the show was ready. To hear Jay Ingram and his band perform again was a marvellous treat — the code underlying the Giant Walkthrough Brain, although not documented or structured well, nonetheless stood the test of time and ran flawlessly. The music and presentation proceeded without a hitch (there were no thunderstorms in Kelowna to knock out our power this time around); the different songs brought back vivid memories of summer 2014, and I realised that my own interests and commitment to software came out full force roughly during this time. Deciding between an MD and MSc at the time, my experiences led me to ultimately go with the MSc, an experience that has guided me down the path I’m taking. It is not an overstatement, then, when I say that the Giant Walkthrough Brain has largely shaped the course I’ve taken: in addition to helping me overcome matters of the heart that would otherwise take a bit of time to heal, the Giant Walkthrough Brain played a substantial role in revitalising my interest in software and game development, as well as mobile platforms. Considering its impact, I am immensely grateful and thankful to my supervisor, as well as Jay Ingram and his band, for offering me this opportunity to contribute on a project that both brought science to the public, as well as help me discover where my passions lay.

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