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The Giant Walkthrough Brain: Revisiting a Presentation with Jay Ingram at the Five Year Anniversary

“Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages. Please take your seats, and welcome to The Giant Walkthrough Brain. Introducing your tour guide…Jay Ingram!”

Three years after Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon, neurophysiologist Joseph E. Bogen, MD, published A Modest Proposal, or The Planning, construction and use of a giant brain for the edification and entertainment of us all to the Bulletin of the Los Angeles Neurological Society. This “giant walk-through brain” was intended to be a museum of gargantuan proportion, standing some 150 metres in height. Bogen’s proposal was never taken seriously, and his vision faded into obscurity. Fortunately, in 2014, science communicator and host of Daily Planet, Jay Ingram, adopted Bogen’s concept of a brain museum and approached the LINDSAY Virtual Human lab at the University of Calgary with a proposal of his own: to construct and implement a giant walk-through brain show that would truly bring Bogen’s vision to life. Part musical performance and part science communication, The Giant Walkthrough Brain covers the essentials of brain function, from major structures to the electrochemical reactions that allow neural impulses to travel through the brain, and explores major figures in the history of neurophysiology. Whether it be Phineas Gage, who survived impalement from a tamping rod during an accident and his pronounced personality change, to how Alois Alzheimer came to diagnose Auguste Deter with what is known as Alzheimer’s disease, the whole of Ingram and The Free Radical’s presentation in The Giant Walkthrough Brain created an incredibly accessible, and successful performance that provides the public with a memorable and catchy introduction to the complexities of the human mind. Ingram and the Free Radical’s performance was accompanied by a virtual Giant Brain, implemented by the LINDSAY Virtual Human lab, which provided a highly viseral and immersive visual experience that brought Ingram’s performance to life. After opening to a sold-out crowd at the Banff Arts Centre during its début opening, The Giant Walkthrough Brain would go on to give critically-acclaimed performances at the Telus SPARK Science Centre in Calgary during Beakerhead 2014, two sold-out showings at the Timms Centre Edmonton during April 2015 and finally, two more sold-out performances at the Kelowna Community Theatre in January 2016.

Spanning an hour, The Giant Walkthrough Brain took audiences on a vivid journey through the brain’s major regions and presented pivotal figures in brain research. However, unlike a traditional lecture with its slideshows and dry presentation of the material, Jay Ingram and the Free Radicals bring each aspect of the brain to life by making use of the Unity project’s visuals in conjunction with a highly accessible, humourous and instructive talk. Each segment is broken up with a creative and clever song: from upbeat pieces that discuss dopamine and free will, to more sombre songs that explore Alzheimer’s Disease and Henry Gustav Molaison’s memory disorder. The wide spectrum of information gave audiences a glimpse of how complex the brain truly is. When it functions well, it functions exceptionally well and is counted as one of the most sophisticated constructs known to humanity. When any part of the brain malfunctions, the results are devastating and tragic. While neuroscience is something that is not always at the forefront of everyday thought, it is important to be aware of the highly complex machine that exists in all of us. In between the exceptional feats and sobering fragility of the brain, Ingram also discusses trivia about the brain, from how we perceive optical illusions to concepts of free will. A great deal of material is covered in an hour, bringing neurological research much closer to audiences in an accessible, informative and fun manner. This speaks to Ingram’s talents as a speaker, and also the creativity of those involved in the project’s development: while I am an alumni of the Bachelor of Health Sciences programme and have a some background in biology and medicine, The Giant Walkthrough Brain presented aspects of the brain in a different, novel perspective that led me to make new discoveries about the organ that makes us distinctly human. I learnt more about the brain by participating in the project than I did during the whole of my undergraduate degree. My involvement with the project also marked the first time that Jay Ingram and the Free Radicals had utilised a 3D, interactive visualisation in their performances before: a smooth implementation here contributed to the show’s successes.

While concepts surrounding a virtual brain museum predate my involvement with the project, The Giant Walkthrough Brain as I knew it began in the April of 2014. The LINDSAY Virtual Human lab was looking for an environment that was capable of supporting a virtual brain museum, and the in-house game engine, despite its extensibility, did not have the performance needed to render a model of the brain with satisfactory visual fidelity. In a curious turn of fate, the Unity game engine had been made free just a month earlier: having been employed in games such as Kerbal Space Program and Wolfire’s Receiver, the engine was a contender capable of handling the visual requirements The Giant Walkthrough Brain would need. The question remained: was Unity suited for creating an on-rails, scripted experience that could be timed with Ingram’s presentation and the Free Radical’s musical performance while at once providing traditional mechanisms for an image and video slideshow? The extent of Unity’s capabilities had not been tested at the time, and after successfully putting a similar brain model onto an iPad for coursework, I was tasked with determining whether or not Unity would fit the bill. After the first week of May had passed, I had ascertained that the component-based structure of a Unity project was flexible enough for the requirements outlined by The Giant Walkthrough Brain, and moreover, the use of C# scripting would allow for reuse and easy configuration of components that would allow any on-rails presentation to be easily reconfigured to synchronise with the performance. After my report to the team, The Giant Walkthrough Brain began development at full speed: I was made the lead developer in the project, becoming involved with implementation of the entire pathing and movement system, coordinated transitions between the brain museum, neurons and synaptic gap scenes, built the slide-show viewer that would allow images and videos to be displayed on the screen, and completed the minimap solution that translated the user’s location in world space to a 2D map on screen space to provide real-time feedback for viewers as to where in the brain the show was at any given time. Two full months of development later, and after rigorous testing of the Giant Walkthrough Brain Unity project itself, the software and the show were ready at last for a public performance at the Banff Centre.

Commentary and Personal Reflection

  • I only wish that my readers would have had the chance to view The Giant Walkthrough Brain for themselves: part science lecture and part musical performance, with a vivid and detailed visual component, the performance is a fantastic overview of different areas and functions of the brain, explaining each aspect in a highly engaging manner. As a reminiscence about the project, this post can also be seen as a “behind-the-scenes” of sorts, providing a bit more of a visual account as to what the The Giant Walkthrough Brain I’ve previously mentioned really is.

  • Jay Ingram treats the The Giant Walkthrough Brain as a tour on a bus, except instead of visiting the mountains or coasts in a motor coach, one is travelling through a vast virtual brain museum. The model itself is around 230 MB in size, and when I started the Unity project to test the engine’s viability, my first exercise was to determine what sort of frame rates could be achieved on a lower-end MacBook Pro.

  • I ended up averaging around 30 FPS on a 2012 MacBook Pro, which demonstrated that despite the model’s size, the game engine was suited for the task. One of the main challenges I faced throughout the project was that the brain model itself was constantly evolving: the platforms, walkways and exhibits inside are all custom made, and importing a new version of the model always took anywhere from a half-hour to an hour.

  • The component-based architecture in Unity was very similar to the architecture I used in our in-house game engine for my undergraduate thesis, and after I worked out how to set up the interactive pieces of The Giant Walkthrough Brain‘s Unity project, I began to experiment with a splines as the means of pre-defining paths for the guided brain tour. Placing the knots (points that govern where the spline must pass through) was the trickiest part, but within a week, I had a rudimentary walkthrough of the brain based on Ingram’s script, and after showing this to the team, they were convinced that we had our toolset, methods and developers to really bring the project to life.

  • The presentation opens with a talk on the frontal lobe, an area of the brain that controls for cognitive functions such as problem solving, reason and emotion. I’ve never been too fond of mid-twentieth century approaches towards neuroscience, where it was found that lobotomies could be used to impact one’s temperament. The process is fairly macabre, involving sticking an ice-pick like implement into one’s nose and then swirling the instrument around to dislodge brain tissue.

  • Phineas Gage is a well-known figure in neuroscience: a railway worker who was caught in an accident and ended up with a rebar through his brain, he survived the accident and was noted to be no longer his old self. Prior to the accident, Gage was friendly, professional and punctual. After the accident, he was less approachable, swearing more frequently. Textbooks often cite Gage as an example of what the frontal lobe’s function is, but neglect to mention that he eventually accepted a job as a stagecoach driver in Chile, where it is hypothesised that the rigid schedule and mental demands of negotiating mountain roads allowed some of his neurons to re-develop.

  • The “Retina Ride” was one of the trickiest parts of the spline to insert: I had to precisely place the path between two knots so that they entered a small passage in the eye and then navigate the optic nerve into the occipital lobe. There’s a small crimp in the path owing to how the splines were calculated in the first iteration that I subsequently fixed, and my challenge was controlling the journey so that the thirty seconds it took was not wildly out of control. One emergent property that resulted was that the camera would slow down at tight turns before speeding up on straighter trajectories.

  • In most images of the brain visualisation, a pair of orthogonal brain projections are visible. These mini-maps were for the viewers’ benefit, indicating where in the brain model the show was. I was initially worried that the minimap should be in 3D, which would have required that I take a smaller projection of the full model, scale it down and give it a transparent mesh, and then use a smart camera to track the user’s active location, but the requirements were fortunately more simple: with two projections, I ended up obtaining the camera’s (x, y, z) coordinates in world space and then computed the equivalents on screen space.

  • Even from this distance, the size differences from the Ebbinghaus illusion can be plainly seen. This is the slideshow system I worked on: capable of supporting both video and images, the implementation of this feature allowed Ingram to discuss certain aspects in more detail using traditional media. I was able to put this viewer together quite easily, but at the time, Unity’s free version did not support video, so my supervisor promptly picked up the Pro license, allowing me to finish building the slideshow viewer. The original version used assets hard-coded into the compiled project, while later, I wrote a more dynamic system that allowed users to drag and drop .jpg, .png, .mov and .mp4 files into a directory, and the program them picked these files up and displayed them in order of file name.

  • One cool feature afforded by Unity Pro was that I had access to emissive materials that could be used to create a glowing effect on the corpus callosum, a band of nerve that divides the left and right brain in two. I experimented with a wide range of lighting effects and textures: while one configuration had a diffuse light around the corpus callosum, it also negatively affected lighting elsewhere in the model. The simpler, LED-like approach proved acceptable, and I ended up keeping things this way for all subsequent builds.

  • My participating in The Giant Walkthrough Brain made me feel as though I were a part of a Discovery Channel special. During my third year’s second, three days of the week saw my classes ending at eleven, so I always ended up heading home for lunch. While waiting for my food to cook, I would often flip the television on and watch Discovery programmes, then eat my lunch and proceed towards reviewing whatever I had covered in lecture that day.

  • Later that year, I squared off against the MCAT, and turned to Discovery Channel’s programmes to relax during lunch, in between breaks from MCAT review and my physics class. While I’ve not mentioned it, watching shows like MythBusters Survivorman and Mighty Ships helped me relax to the same extent as K-On! The Movie. Discovery Channel ended up being an incredible inspiration. By the time of The Giant Walkthrough Brain, I had watched all of the Survivorman episodes.

  • The Giant Walkthrough Brain‘s world space consisted of three main levels: I handled the implementation of features at the brain museum level, and also coordinated with the other developers on the lower levels to ensure that their work functioned as expected. Here, we are looking at a network of neurons placed within the scene. The original plan was to fly through this space, but this introduced new complexities to the presentation, so in the end, I ended up placing a stationary camera here that allowed one to look around the space and watch the impulses travel. Each neuron was painstakingly placed by hand, since the algorithmic approach to generate them had not been implemented yet.

  • Delving in even closer to the molecular level, this was The Giant Walkthrough Brain‘s depiction of a synapse, where electrical impulses through the neuron created an action potential that released neurotransmitters (the glowing yellow and green spheres). When an artificial compound is introduced (the pink spheres), a neuron will keep firing. While the show only spent a total of five minutes in the neurons and synaptic cleft, it took upwards of two months to set these views up properly. One of the biggest challenges was importing these scenes: until I had designed the procedure, importing from the other developers’ projects into mine always caused objects to be misplaced. This problem persisted for a month until I worked out how to properly export supporting projects and then import them into the main application.

  • The mouse inside the green sphere represents the pleasure centre of the brain. This particular segment of The Giant Walkthrough Brain stands as one of my favourites: Ingram discusses an experiment involving mice hooked up to electrodes that would stimulate their pleasure centres when a switch was hit. These mice ended up forgoing food, sleep and even copulation to hit the switch, simulating a drug addiction, and while we may laugh at the mice for their simplicity, the reality is that addiction is a non-trivial problem.

  • The chemical at the core discussion surrounding the reward system is dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in directing a behaviour towards pleasurable experiences and away from undesirable experiences. Recent studies have suggested that rather than directly triggering pleasure, it is more of a salient motivational agent in medical terms – while medical definitions are a bit more stringent, for everyday purposes, dopamine can be thought of as one of the central agents in pleasure.

  • Discussion of the pleasure centre of the brain segues into my most favourite song in The Giant Walkthrough Brain: “Press The Lever”. This highly upbeat song speaks of the pleasure centre and its function, as well as how addiction is purely a consequence of brain chemistry, and brings to life the experiments that were conducted in 1954 by Olds and Milner. More recent studies have reproduced the results of the old experiments.

  • The animation in the background is actually sourced from a predecessor to The Giant Walkthrough Brain, which was a pure scientific communications lecture with a traditional slideshow and no musical accompaniment or 3D brain walkthrough. The latter was made possible by advances to game engine technology, and in particular, Unity’s well-timed decision to make the engine freely-usable. While a 3D visualisation would have been possible with the LINDSAY Lab’s in-house engine, the resulting show would have had a lower frame rate and lacked features such as the minimap and built-in slideshow display.

  • Because of the unique setup of The Giant Walkthough Brain and its ability to engage the audience, the project saw tremendous success wherever it was presented. Each and every showing was to a sold out audience, and in Kelowna, interest was so great that Jay Ingram and the Free Radicals were asked to put on a second, encore presentation. Even two years after its debut in Banff, the 3D brain visualisation was still-considered cutting-edge, attesting to the sophistication and elegance of the design that went into the original application: for 2016, I made minor adjustments to the Unity project for Kelowna to improve its flexibility, but the codebase and Unity build had remained untouched since the summer of 2014.

  • If memory serves, this is The Giant Walkthrough Brain‘s hippocampus, a structure responsible for short and long term, as well as spatial memory. Defects in the hippocampus impair memory, and one of history’s most well-known figures was only known as “HM” until his death. Because HM suffered from seizures, period science suggested brain surgery. During the operation, a piece of his hippocampus was removed to control the seizures. While the operation was successful, HM developed anterograde amnesia: he could not create new memories and was unable to recall something like what he had for breakfast, even though his older memories appeared to remain intact.

  • HM’s name was posthumously revealed as Henry Molaison, and his brain was taken to California to be sliced for analysis and imaging. After imaging, the full set of images was made available in 2014. Alzheimer’s disease was also covered: the accompanying song and talk was sobering, subdued in mood. As one of the more prevalent neuro-degenerative diseases, its causes and mechanisms are still not well understood, and there are no treatments for it.

  • Discussions turned towards free will in The Giant Walkthrough Brain, and the Free Will song is another one of my favourites. While determinism and free will have been the topic of philosophical discussion, a study done by Benjamen Libet in the 1980s asked participants to decide when they would stop a clock. During the process, their brain activity would be measured, and it was found that brain activity began even before the individual consciously knew they were about to stop the clock.

  • The Libet experiment remains controversial in its validity, and the matter of free will is still unclear from a scientific perspective. One curious outcome of free will is that individuals who are more likely to be unfaithful if they did not believe in free will. The gap between determinism and free will from a philosophical perspective is not in the scope of this reflection, so I won’t pursue the topic further or delve into which side I personally believe in.

  • In this post, I’ve only shown a few areas of the virtual brain model: its cavernous interior was modified to feel more like a museum, featuring walkways, benches and exhibits. The finished virtual brain that I worked on actually has numerous features and functions that were present but never used in The Giant Walkthrough Brain itself. The most prominent one was that the skybox could be changed, so that when the show started, it would be daytime, and at the show’s end, the sun would set. This was intended to give a sense of the passage of time but ultimately was deemed unnecessary to the show, so it was never used.

  • I’ve alluded to this previously, but during the Banff Centre performance, a lighting storm had actually knocked out power to the area. All of the audio-visual equipment powered equipment was knocked out, and Ingram began improvising. The transition was so smooth I did not notice the power was out until a technician had stepped onto the stage and informed him the power was lost. It was restored, and as the 3D virtual brain was run on a laptop with its own internal power supply, once the power returned, it was a matter of continuing the show.

  • The Giant Walkthrough Brain notes that most of our knowledge of the brain comes from situations where the brain is not operating normally, and towards the end, mentions that after Albert Einstein’s death, his brain was studied. While some researchers claimed that certain attributes of Einstein’s brain made him uniquely capable of developing the Theory of Relativity and other contributions, it turns out that his brain was actually quite unremarkable from a structural perspective.

  • As the performance ended, Jay Ingram concluded with a series of myths about the brain, including how the notion that “ten percent of the brain is actively used at a given time” is totally and utterly false; no other organ in the body has a high oxygen and energy requirement as the brain, and it stands to reason that our brains are always operating at full capacity. This brings The Giant Walkthrough Brain to a conclusion, and at the end of the show, all of the contributors, myself included, walked onto the stage. I’ve chosen not to include that moment in this discussion.

  • With the first successful performance in the books, The Giant Walkthrough Brain officially opened at Beakerhead 2014 at the Telus SPARK Centre. On the evening of the first presentation, I was invited out to dinner with the entire team and we ended up going for pizza in a community near the performance venue. In a curious turn of fate five years later, I returned to the same community to celebrate a successful Otafest with some of the volunteers. The weather was beautiful and allowed for activities long associated with summer, such as grilling hamburgers and hot-dogs, playing with a Frisbee and going on a scavenger hunt (that I lost interest in).

  • I spent the past weekend watching Spiderman: Far From Home and with a delicious crab-topped salmon bake in the books, we’re now passing through the halfway point of the summer months: in a few days, we roll into August, my favourite month of the year. The summer this year’s been quite enjoyable: while a ways cooler and rainier, we have had some nice days and with them, the attendant opportunity to enjoy the sunshine. For August, I have a few posts lined up, including a special talk for Your Lie in April and Ano Natsu de Matteru. This summer season’s also been reasonably solid for anime, and a preview of the upcoming season shows a handful shows that look interesting, as well.

  • The first run of The Giant Walkthrough Brain ended with an electric violin performance from Jay Ingram and a promise to do the “Giant Walkthrough Gut”. While this project became a bit of a running joke in each performance, the giant walkthrough gut materialised in my time. In the years following, Jay Ingram published several new books, including The Science of Why (and three sequels) and The End of Memory. A sequel is very unlikely, although with the sophistication of game engine tools and the groundwork laid down, I can see future students taking these older projects and building on them to create more complex, powerful and exciting projects.

July 30, 2014 was opening night. I had sat through no fewer than three dress rehearsals, and had spent the day working from an iMac from the LINDSAY lab to make continuous adjustments to the Unity project’s configurations. I was admittedly nervous: even though the project had been tested extensively to ensure it was functional, Murphy’s Law states that anything unexpected could happen. After sharing dinner with the LINDSAY team, my supervisor and Jay Ingram’s team, we headed over to the performance venue as the skies began darkening. The show began smoothly enough, but when we reached the part on dopamine, the power suddenly went out: a thunderstorm had hit the area. Within ten minutes, the power was restored, and I breathed easier. The remainder of the performance continued smoothly, wrapping up with an electric violin performance from Ingram himself. No matter how many times I had seen the performance in rehearsals, Ingram and the Free Radicals were refreshing, engaging and immersive each and every time. Ingram’s masterful storytelling captured the audiences’ attention fully, being simultaneously entertaining, amusing and instructing. In the background, the Unity virtual brain ran seamlessly. After walking across the stage as a part of the development team, we left Banff and returned to Calgary under darkened skies. I spent the next day off, sleeping in, and after a debriefing with the team, it was decided that the remainder of August was to be spent tuning up the Unity project: because the initial build had been assembled in two months to meet the July 30 deadline, some best practises had not been observed, and it was important to refactor the project. A week ahead of the Beakerhead performance, the work was done. The Giant Walkthrough Brain Unity project had become extensible, easy to configure and sleeker than ever, just in time to be put on the planetarium screens at Telus SPARK. While there have been no more presentations of The Giant Walkthrough Brain since Kelowna, the project left a large legacy in its wake: for one of my colleagues, The Giant Walkthrough Brain would become the centrepiece in their Master’s Thesis, and the discoveries I had accrued as a result of the project led me to decide on the topic of my own Master’s Thesis. While The Giant Walkthrough Brain is no Apollo 11, and comes a mere five years later where the Apollo 11 moon landings have reached fifty, the project for me remains highly significant for having helped me come to terms with who I am, rediscover what it means to have a goal to reach towards and ultimately, for reminding me that even if unrequited love happens, I can still find my own happiness in lending my skills and knowledge towards the happiness of others. While not reaching anywhere near the same number of people or involving the same level of resources it took to bring Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon, The Giant Walkthrough Brain ultimately came to represent what the journey towards self-discovery look like – for me, this was one small step for me, and one giant leap for the future.

Is The Order a Giant Walkthrough Brain?: On the use of setting to immerse users in virtual spaces

“An author knows his landscape best; he can stand around, smell the wind, get a feel for his place.” ―Tony Hillerman

The construction of neurosurgeon Joseph Bogen’s “Modest Proposal” for a Giant Walkthrough Brain museum into a special performance that was one part musical and one part science lecture during 2014 represented a pivotal milestone for game engine environments: built for the Beakerhead 2014 performances, the Giant Walkthrough Brain utilised the Unity game engine to present a virtual space that augmented Jay Ingram and his band’s performance. By providing 3D visualisations of the locations within the brain, audiences immediately connected with the different areas of the brain and their attendant stories, following figures in brain history ranging from Phineas Gage to Auguste Deter. By all counts, the Giant Walkthrough Brain was an absolute success. From Jay Ingram’s first performance at the Banff Center in July, to the flagship showings at Beakerhead and several subsequent performances, The Giant Walkthrough Brain opened to a sold-out audience. The software infrastructure designed for The Giant Walkthrough Brain would be utilised extensively in one of my colleague’s Master’s project, and principles would later be adopted towards my own thesis work. There is no denying that The Giant Walkthrough Brain has had an impact on a great number of individuals: it is a powerful example of applying computer science in a community setting through presenting scientific talks in an approachable manner. What is perhaps surprising, then, is that some of the design elements of The Giant Walkthrough Brain parallel those found in 2014’s Gochuumon wa Usagi Desu Ka? (GochiUsa for brevity). While a seemingly far-fetched comparison, there remains the fact that I directed the design development of the application and navigation tools that would eventually become integral towards building a virtual world that helped to guide audiences on a journey of discovery.

The element from GochiUsa that made its way into the Giant Walkthrough Brain that these two unrelated works share is the attention paid to details. In GochiUsa, I noted that the first season’s charm was primarily in its exceptional setting: the town Cocoa finds lodging and friendship in is modelled after Colmar of France, and the animators had taken great pains to ensure that the cityscapes were authentic. From the design of timber-frame buildings to cobblestone streets and gas lamps, the town of GochiUsa presents an idyllic environment for Cocoa and the others to explore. It creates a sense of immersion and uniqueness that really draws in viewers; in fact, the first season proved quite distinct from any slice-of-life anime I’d previously watched, and in retrospect, it is not unreasonable to say that the town in GochiUsa‘s first season was a living, breathing entity as prominent as any of the characters. It is not until the second season that the characters begin coming into the spotlight to present a tangible narrative, and consequently, when I finished watching GochiUsa, I began looking at the architectural and design elements that made the first season such a pleasure to watch and applied the principals towards displaying 3D spaces of a virtual brain. GochiUsa succeeded because of its commitment to a consistently authentic environment, and so, I strove to ensure that the tools and logic implemented into the Giant Walkthrough Brain was similarly consistent in creating an authentic guided museum tour. The pre-set paths were carefully placed to give the sense of walking along a walkway or taking an elevator. Transitions between different scales were scripted, reducing the abruptness of moving from the brain into a synapse where neurotransmitters could be seen. A minimap provided audiences with constant context of where in the brain a story happened, and I used Unity Pro’s powerful functions to construct a system that allowed The Giant Walkthrough Brain to double as a slideshow for both images and video. Much like how GochiUsa creates a compelling European town’s historical district, the end result for The Giant Walkthrough Brain was a visualisation tool that really enabled audiences to feel as though they were moving through a vast brain museum that Joseph Bogen had envisioned fifty years previously: seven consecutive sell-out performances speaks volumes about as to whether or not the learnings from GochiUsa were successfully applied to The Giant Walkthrough Brain.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • It’s been quite some time since I’ve written about GochiUsa, and three years now separates the present from when I started work on The Giant Walkthrough Brain. In my original post on GochiUsa, I did not discuss any major themes in the first season because quite frankly, there were no central messages or ideas the anime conveyed. This is not a bad thing by any stretch: what I found was a fantastic slice-of-life anime whose use of setting set it far apart from any shows in the genre that I’d previously seen. While conceptually similar to other anime of its type, the exquisite setting is ultimately what set GochiUsa apart.

  • One of the aspects about GochiUsa‘s first season is that unnecessary exposure is a lot more commonplace than the second season, and Cocoa’s first encounter with Rize is with the latter in her undergarments. She claims to be hiding from an unfamiliar individual, and the gun she’s wielding is a model Glock 17. Whether or not it was a real weapon was one of the biggest topics of discussion in the first season: if we go by French gun laws, Rize is wielding a model gun. While it is legal to own a weapon chambered for the 9 x 19mm Parabellum cartridge provided that the weapon’s magazine does not exceed 20 rounds, the wielder must be at least eighteen.

  • It may come as a surprise for folks that GochiUsa does have a few Hinako Note-like moments, such as when Rize images herself in a revealing outfit complete with mammary oscillation and subsequently is embarrassed by the thought. Revisiting GochiUsa means being able to look back on the different moments that characterised the first season, and finding more entertaining frames, such as this one. For the purposes of this post, I have thirty screenshots, each chosen to be different than those of my first discussion from three years ago.

  • Rize and Cocoa run into one another with increasing frequency when Cocoa tries to make her way to school, leading Rize to wonder if she’s entered the multiverse of Rick and Morty. During their respective commutes, the streets of the town are shown in loving detail, and it became quite obvious that the town itself was as much of a character as each of Cocoa, Rize and Chino.

  • The moment that Chiya and Cocoa meet for the first time is adorable, as Chiya is trying to entice some wild rabbits with chestnut Yōkan, and Cocoa is cuddling with the rabbits hanging about. A couple of lop-eared rabbits can be seen in the upper center part of the image, and after learning that classes don’t start for another day, Cocoa and Chiya strike up a fast friendship. of everyone, Cocoa grows closest with Chiya the quickest, since they share similar outlooks on life.

  • Cocoa describes herself as having very little talents to speak of, but is reasonably skillful as a baker and has an eye for mental mathematics. With her newfound friend, Chiya, Cocoa, Chino and Rize spend a day baking bread and enjoying the results. Bread is said to be the only thing Cocoa can prepare properly, and while we’ve not seen her prepare other food items, one can surmise that she’s not exactly incapable to the point of creating lethal dishes.

  • Although refined and seemingly of regal background, Sharo is actually quite poor, living in a small wooden shack beside Chiya. Her being honest to the others about her background forms her internal conflict for a portion of GochiUsa, and when she finally comes forwards with the truth, it turns out that Rize and the others don’t mind at all, showing that everyone is friends with one another because they choose to be.

  • Here, Cocoa watches as the herbal tea leaves are steeped at the Fleur Lupin, French for “Flower Rabbit”, on invitation from Sharo. All of the cafés the girls work at have some relation with rabbits: “Rabbit House” is rather plain to spot, while Chiya’s Ama Usa An (甘兎庵) approximates to “Sweet Rabbit Cabin”. Throughout the town, rabbits can be seen this way and that: in my town, there aren’t any rabbits, but plenty of snowshoe hares (L. Americanus) roaming the streets, and it takes great care to ensure I don’t hit any while driving about.

  • While the town’s idyllic setting and older architecture in GochiUsa seemingly suggests a world set in an earlier time before the rise of modern technology, but the characters’ use of phones plants their time period as being similar to ours. Cocoa uses the Fujitsu F-01C, a feature phone that dates back to 2010, while Chino uses the Sony Xperia SP, a mid-range smartphone. Chiya rolls with the  Sharp Aquos Phone SL, a phone in the same class as Cocoa’s, while Sharo rocks a Honey Bee 201K, a rudimentary Android Smartphone. Rize has an iPhone 5, the most expensive of the lot and a device that can still hold its own even five year after its release.

  • Here, Chino and Sharo are shopping at a local supermarket. While I did an episodic review for GochiUsa‘s second season, this exercise came out of the blue when I realised that there was quite a bit to discuss and talk about during the second season. The result was my first-ever attempt at episodic reviews, and while immensely fun, it was only possible because my thesis project was progressing at an acceptable pace. Looking back, I’m actually not too sure if I would have been able to do a talk on GochiUsa‘s first season back during 2014, if only for the fact that most of my time was spent working on The Giant Walkthrough Brain.

  • GochiUsa‘s first season features numerous locations in town that showcase the area’s unique architecture: this is the local library that Chino and the others visit to study, as well as to find a book Chino’s been seeking. The diversity of locations in GochiUsa is nothing short of impressive, as are the details taken to render all of the structures: close inspection of this image will find that reflections of the sky are seen.

  • Rize and Chino share a short conversation about the latter’s doubts about performing well during a badminton mini-tournament at her school. It would appear that Chino is not particularly athletic and skillful with arts, as seen in her reservations about performing and drawing, but given her character, it stands to reason she’s pretty studious.

  • This is another instance of the beautiful architecture seen in GochiUsa: Cocoa and Chino overlook a ramp, and Cocoa contemplates the joys of having a bike here, while Chino’s imagination is rather more gloomy in outlook. As far as content goes, GochiUsa‘s first season has enough to talk about so that I could probably have done an episodic review if asked to revisit it, but my schedule in the three years since the first season has only become busier.

  • There’s a right way to pick up rabbits: they are quite fragile and start easily, so most suggestions involve gently using both hands to reduce the risk of frightening and injuring the rabbit. The preferred method is to place a hand underneath their chest and then gently lift their hindquarters, while here, Cocoa’s method is used for moving a rabbit short distances – their heads should always be above their hindquarters. That the rabbits of GochiUsa do not mind being picked up suggest they are very much acclimatised to a human presence; in general, rabbits do not like being picked up.

  • When I was working on The Giant Walkthrough Brain, I would watch GochiUsa during lunch hour, and this scene of Rize making a heart stands out to me – I still vividly remember watching this in a windowless player in iTunes while Unity and Monodevelop were open underneath. By this point in the summer, I had become quite comfortable with the Unity Engine and C#, having created the prototypes of almost all of the systems that we would utilise for The Giant Walkthrough Brain. The project was progressing very smoothly until a request came in to incorporate a slideshow with movies: back then, Unity could only handle static images in its free incarnation.

  • I ultimately received permission to upgrade to Unity Pro, and promptly implemented the movie playback functionality. Returning back to GochiUsa, Sharo has leporiphobia, a fear of rabbits, and befriended Rize after she’d saved Sharo from feral rabbits. Here, the rabbit who would later become known as Chuck Norris Wild Geese is resting on Sharo’s café’s fliers, causing her to beg for mercy. Rize arrives to help shoo the rabbit away.

  • Cocoa presents Sharo with a baby bunny to see if Sharo can lessen her fears slightly. Rize’s dome is just visible in this image: she’s still recoiling after a bug lands on her. Strictly speaking, the rabbit in this image is probably three to four weeks old: they’re small enough to rest comfortably on one’s palm, attesting to how small young rabbits are. My friend had two rabbits once, and when I’d met the first, she was roughly this size, but grew to full size in no time at all.

  • While imagining herself under the effects of coffee, Rize fires a Barrett M82A3 anti-materiel rifle. A recoil-operated, semi-automatic rifle firing 50-calibre rounds, the weapon is immediately recognisable by its distinct muzzle brake. There are bullpup versions of the M82, but the magazine of the rifle here has a conventional placement. Rize’s firing rate and stance suggests a semi-automatic firing mode: the M95 looks quite similar but is a bolt-action rifle.

  • If memory serves, I do not think it ever rained in GochiUsa during the second season. Weather remains generally pleasant in all of the episodes. By comparison, season one has a bit more diversity in weather, ranging from snowfall to rain. One detail that is subtly present in GochiUsa is the fact that the ground becomes increasingly reflective as the showers continue – this was done previously in Tari Tari, and is a subtle but clever touch, indicating that more water has fallen during the course of the showers.

  • Besides a library and swimming pool, GochiUsa‘s first season also brings Cocoa et al. to a movie theatre, where they watch “The Barista who Turned into a Rabbit”, a film adaptation of Aoyama’s novel. The older architectural choices of the theatre fit in with the timber-framed buildings in town, and also brings to mind some of the LEGO models of modular town buildings.

  • Regardless of where one goes in GochiUsa, timber-framed buildings dominate the architectural scene. The styles seen in GochiUsa are derived off those seen in the Alsace region, which have a strong German influence. Such buildings can be constructed relatively quickly, and the framing itself accommodates flexibility of interior walls and doors. However, preserving timber-framed building can be tricky, as the buildings may undergo deformations that make them difficult to maintain, and the wood itself can become infested with fungi, moulds or other pests.

  • Chino runs into Aoyama here after the latter misplaced her fountain pen and loses the motivation to continue writing. She subsequently takes up a post at Rabbit House as an interim job and provides advice for customers. In the background here, the leaves are taking on yellow-gold hues as autumn sets in, giving the town a new feeling. While most of the season is set in spring and summer, the arrival of autumn and winter adds additional depth to the anime: the second season is set during spring and summer, with only the first episode really being winter.

  • While this image without any context would not make much sense, Cocoa is helping Chino look for Aoyama’s fountain pen by evening. The warm orange glow is indicative of an autumn’s evening, when the air is cool and the days slowly grow short. Cocoa grows distracted chasing rabbits, but Tippy locates the pen. Numerous sources state that Cocoa is implied to be the reason why Chino’s grandfather’s spirit inhabit Tippy’s body, suggesting a supernatural cause not unlike that of Your Name, but beyond this, everything else in GochiUsa is quite ordinary.

  • The customers at the Ama Usa An seem bewildered as Chiya and Coca dance about in delight, underlining their friendship. I certainly would have no objection to seeing this happen at a sweets shop, myself, but owing to the culture here, such a display, however adorable it may be, would be very unlikely to witness. While Rabbit House employees, Cocoa, Rize and Chino have worked at Ama Usa An and Fleur Lupin to some capacity: Rize did so to earn some extra money to purchase a Father’s Day gift, while Chino does so as a part of her school’s curriculum.

  • In a stroke of luck, the artbook for GochiUsa‘s first season was restocked, and I hastened to order it online before stocks depleted once more. As with the second season’s instalment, the artbook is beautiful, filled with artwork of the different locations and even photographs of Colmar itself. Both artbooks are perfect companions for the anime, essential for all fans of the anime. They cost 2500 Yen apiece before shipping, but provide insights into the anime that genuinely demonstrates how much effort went into creating the world that Cocoa and the others live in.

  • I’ve chosen to skip over the Christmas episode of GochiUsa, having done a whole post on it two Christmases ago, but in this talk, I’ve also included some winter screenshots of the town covered in a light dusting of snow. Rolling through episodes one per day, every lunch hour, I finished GochiUsa on very short order and found an anime whose world was simply magical. It was influences from GochiUsa and its immersion that led me to translate Jay Ingram’s script into a more fluid adventure through the virtual brain: I wished for The Giant Walkthrough Brain amaze and immerse audiences the same way GochiUsa had done for me. Thus, the incarnation that went into the Banff Center Show was a modification that I made after deciding to take audiences through a more interesting route, and during a demonstration to Jay, he and my supervisor approved of it, making a minor request to time the route with the script.

  • In the end, The Giant Walkthrough Brain ended up being a great success: during our first showing, the power had gone out. There was a thunderstorm in Banff that evening, which was surprising considering that it was clear skies when we had sat down to dinner in the Banff Center’s canteen, a modern area with large glass windows that provide a beautiful view of the Bow River valley. Fortunately, the fact that The Giant Walkthrough Brain had been optimised to run on a 2013 MacBook Pro laptop, paired with Jay Ingram’s exceptional improvisational skills, meant the show progressed very smoothly.

  • Back in GochiUsa, Cocoa, Maya and Megu walk into the sunset after Cocoa helps them learn more about local cafés (even as her wallet takes a few hits) during the finale episode. After the Banff Center performance, I spent the August of three years ago further refining The Giant Walkthrough Brain. One of the biggest concerns I had was the fact that our next venue, the Telus Spark Science Center and its dome theatre, could present problems for our projection, but after learning the requirements were to accommodate a flat projection, the month was dedicated towards tuning the model, as well as adding new features and visuals. The Beakerhead shows were a massive success, selling out fully both nights.

  • Unlike Hinako’s friends, who totally prank her while she’s sick, Cocoa’s friends genuinely care for her when she catches a cold. We’re nearing the end of this post, and I’ll take a moment to say that, for folks who are curious, I am following Rick and Morty, and the third season’s second episode is bloody phenomenal, being hilarious and dark, as per Rick’s promise in his opening rant about their adventures. The biggest joy about Rick and Morty is its unique combination of over-the-top black comedy with quasi-scientific concepts that invite discussion; it’s similar to Futurama in a sense, but with a bit looser feel to it, and much more gratuitous violence. Unlike GochiUsaRick and Morty is certainly not for everyone.

  • While some folks consider the ending a little unusual, having Chino step into a snowy night to find medicine for Cocoa shows that despite her cold attitude towards Cocoa, she does care for her. It’s a subtle character growth that is further explored in the second season, and with this, my revisitation of GochiUsa comes to a close. Some posts upcoming in August, which is looking to be a much quieter month after the excitement that was Your Name, will be a talk on the Amanchu! OVA, and the Brave Witches OVA. Because of the unexpected depth and enjoyment Sakura Quest has provided after eighteen episodes, I will also be visiting this very shortly. Finally, Battlefield 1‘s Łupków Pass map will be released later this month in advance of In The Name of The Tsar, and having tried the map in CTE, I’m looking forwards to seeing how it will play out.

I originally concluded GochiUsa‘s first season was enjoyable for its portrayal of a calm, cheerful life in a European-style town but otherwise had very little to say about the characters and their experiences. In GochiUsa‘s first season, the setting ended up being the star of the show – it was not until the second season where the characters really began to shine. However, as the star of the first season, GochiUsa‘s intricate, consistently high-quality and authentic setting contributes substantially to the immersion that the first season was able to confer. As a slice-of-life anime, this set GochiUsa far apart from other shows of this genre that I’d seen previously, and it continued to hold my interest long after I finished the final episode a month before The Giant Walkthrough Brain’s opening night at the Banff Centre. The reason why GochiUsa is so successful is because its first season was able to capture the feeling of an old town consistently to create a place that is inviting and friendly. The Giant Walkthrough Brain likewise makes use of visuals in order to create a very specific image of the brain to maintain the audience’s attention. By fully capitalising on the visual elements to evoke a particular feeling or impression, both The Giant Walkthrough Brain and GochiUsa make the most of their respective formats to immerse audiences into another world – it is this immersion that my old supervisor aims to capture in biological visualisations, although I would imagine that Jay Ingram, his band, my colleagues and supervisor would be a bit surprised to learn that some of the design choices I imparted into The Giant Walkthrough Brain come from an anime with bunnies. I say surprised, but not displeased; these are very open-minded people, and I was able to cite Rick and Morty in my thesis, after all.

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.