Team Spotlight: Kognito’s Lead Virtual Human Designer

This blog post on Kognito’s lead virtual human designer has been adapted from a career story interview published at VocBio – Vocational Biographies.


“Can you send me some photos of the cut on the head?” Holly asks a colleague over a chat message.

A few minutes later Holly gets a link with an array of photos, pink wounds that scratch the surface of skin off a cheek, brow, or leg. Most people who don’t work in medicine wouldn’t want to look much closer at these photos, but Holly zooms in to view the closeup and study every detail. Brushing her stylus pen across a gray mat, she paints a copy directly into her computer, viewed on a second screen. The wound forms on a flat “texture” of skin that will later be wrapped onto a 3D animated character, or virtual human.

Holly is the Lead Character Designer at Kognito, a 3D learning simulation company in New York City. “Really, it’s video games that we’re making, but with more complicated goals than just entertainment,” Holly explains.

Kognito builds simulations (sims) that teach people how to improve their skills to have difficult conversations and help others on issues related to bullying, suicide, substance use, or simply making healthier choices. Many professionals such as teachers, doctors, and police officers use these sims to have more successful communication with their students, patients, or the public.

The sim Holly is working on helps nursing students learn how to assess a patient and describe the wounds. Even though it is hand-drawn, the wound needs to be very realistic so a student can practice using what they learn with a real patient.

Getting Started at Kognito

Holly joined Kognito in 2010, after working as a commercial and cartoon animator. “Kognito was so small when I joined, only 8 people. I had never heard of it, but I wanted to find as many opportunities as I could.”

It was a big challenge to move to a small video game company in a few ways. “Animation for games was new to me. Previously I had worked mostly on television or commercial projects. I would work on small files, only a couple seconds long, that made up a larger whole in a project. At Kognito I took on more responsibility, collaborating with a team to solve problems and make creative decisions.”

Holly also had to learn new terminology in order to work with developers and understand how her animation sequences were programmed to be interactive.

Training for New Upgrades

After all the time Holly has spent building up her skills animating in Flash (which is 2D), the company realized it would need to change how it made its games. Flash was being discontinued by web browsers, and wouldn’t work on mobile phones and tablets. The team explored ways to import their work from Flash into another animation program, Unity. Holly suggested that the team learn to make 3D characters and animations. It was a big change but seemed natural since she had gotten used to challenging herself and picking up new skills.

Kognito agreed this was the best way to make the sims more versatile and compatible for the long term. An investment was made in training current animation staff in the new Unity software and 3D animation. Holly was in charge of making new virtual humans that still looked similar to the previous, flat, 2D characters. “Anytime a company makes a big change in their products, you need to make sure people can tell that the old stuff and the new stuff is from the same company.”

“The characters were designed to be universal and relatable,” Holly says “realistic enough to be believable, but not meant to be like photo or video realistic. Sometimes when something tries to be too realistic, it can look creepy, or the character might look like someone a viewer knows in real life, so we have a balance between abstraction and realism.”

Day to Day

Holly starts her day building an animation library a virtual human. This means making a set of movements for all the actions the virtual human will need to do during the sim. She watches reference videos to make sure the movements look natural for a human. “You know, not just a movement that we are anatomically capable of doing, but how someone will actually walk, gesture with their hands, or shift their weight while talking.”

Later she has a series of short meetings, or scrums, where everyone working on each project comes together to speak about their progress and what they are working on.

In the afternoons, Holly might put on music or a podcast if she is only working on visuals, like painting a texture. If she needs to sync voice actor recordings to the animations, then her headphones will still be on, but her ears will be working too.

Looking Ahead

“I’m really happy here; there is a lot of variety in the work and I want to keep doing it as well as I can,” Holly says when asked about her future plans. “One of the nice things is the product grows and changes so there are opportunities to develop new skills. Maybe we will be doing VR in the future, who knows?”

Holly’s final advice to young artists pursuing animation, character design, or related fields: “Be adaptable and foster a collaborative mindset. Many of us, myself included, are independent by nature and have specific things we enjoy doing most; but to be successful you will often need to work with a team and on things that may be challenging or even boring at times. Being adaptable and cooperative can help you move up within the field and eventually give you the experience and leverage to pursue the things you want to do the most.”

Curious about virtual humans? Learn more about Kognito’s unique approach to training and improving communication skills here

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