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VR: Delivering On Old Promises

Instead of sitting down to write this blog post like I should have, I went to a friend’s to play Budget Cuts a VR title that launched with the Valve and HTC’s Vive virtual reality system. Maybe skipping out on my work wasn’t the most responsible decision, but why not? It’s a big moment for VR, and it only seemed right to celebrate a bit. Over the last couple of weeks, both the Vive and the Oculus Rift have been shipping out to early adopters, along with a whole slew of launch titles for both systems. We’re starting to see the first truly consumer-ready virtual reality experiences, which in many ways are totally the same and totally different from what we expected.

Totally the same: Old ideas made new

The first thought just about every gamer has about virtual reality is that they can finally fully experience their favorite games. Even Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus, talks about how he first built the Rift so that he could fully experience the moment the vault door opens at the beginning of Fallout 3. Now with a headset and a stereo injector, this is more than possible. Stereo Injectors, like Vorpx or DolphinVR, essentially take one in-game camera and make it 2, one for each eye, and use the head mounted display to control the camera’s position and rotation. This allows players to be in the world of their favorite games and experience them in a whole new way. Unfortunately, this new world isn’t quite the utopia we were promised.

Stereo injectors allow you to experience the games and their 3D environments, but beyond that, many of them point out the fallacy that old games can just be ported to VR. For anyone that experiences even minor sim-sickness, any amount of time with a traditional shooter and a stereo injector will realize that games that aren’t designed from the ground up for VR is going to make for a physically uncomfortable experience. Early on in this new wave of VR development, that was a hard pill to swallow, but it’s better than all the Dramamine and ginger ale I’d be taking otherwise.

While it was tough to concede that old games tend not to make for good VR experiences, we are seeing, even in this wave of launch titles, some old tried and true genres that translate surprisingly well to this medium. Space sims, like Eve: Valkyrie, seem like a natural choice in VR from the get go, but given what we know about simulation-sickness, it seems like space sims break all the rules--plenty of acceleration, deceleration, yaw, pitch and roll--and yet Valkyrie is a surprisingly comfortable experience. Though certainly not for everyone, because of the way the cockpit blocks your peripheral vision, the open level design, and the way the turning is tuned in the game it’s a remarkably comfortable experience compared to space and flight sims that are ported over without much thought.

Another old genre that seems primed to make a resurgence in VR is, oddly enough, the third-person platformer. Games like Lucky’s Tale and Edge of Nowhere are like traditional platformers, but were built specifically for VR with special considerations in mind for comfort in the medium. Most notably, is something that the Edge of Nowhere team calls north facing design. In their research with sim-sickness-prone people, games that asked players to move their avatar (and the camera along with it) laterally or backwards in the game world. The whole level should be laid out so the character is most often heading “north,” basically moving forward whenever possible. Also, when dealing with camera locomotion, Playful, the studio behind Lucky’s Tale, were smart enough to use low graphical fidelity where possible in the game, especially with texturing. By making their world out of large blocks of color, there are fewer cues to your visual system that the world is moving, which makes it easier to reconcile with the inner ear. When it launched, I was able to play Lucky’s Tale on my aging DK2, and though it is by no means game of the year, it proves that with proper considerations made, old paradigms can still work well, even those we don’t expect.

Finally, in terms of Old Made New, VR is really showing off it’s transmedia potential. In a world where San Diego Comic Con sells out 130,000 passes, fandom has never been more celebrated. The one thing about VR that we promised ourselves which has held true is the ability to transport ourselves to the fictional worlds from which we have always been sadly disconnected. 2 years ago at south by South by Southwest, HBO premiered a virtual reality experience in the world of Game of Thrones called “Ascend the Wall.” In the experience, no one is fighting dragons or usurping the Iron Throne, you’re simply riding an elevator. What makes it so special is it’s one you know from TV and from books, one you never expected to see, much less ride. There’s power in the ability to fulfill the fantasy of bringing someone to a place that exists only in their imagination. Now, Industrial Light and Magic’s virtual reality research department, ILMxLab, is dedicated to doing just that. Their first public facing product was a short Star Wars experience, Trials on Tatooine. Trials is not the a game as you might expect, but, as ILMxLab have taken to calling their work, “a cinematic virtual reality experiment.” As far as wish fulfillment goes, ILMxLab know they have an immense amount of power in their position. And they ramp it up quite nicely: from standing on Tatooine witnessing the double sunrise, to being guided by R2D2 to press a button on the Millennium Falcon, there are so many fantasies brought to life, by allowing a gateway into the world you know and allowing you to just be there.

So, VR is certainly delivering on the promises we made for it years ago. We can play our old games, or new ones in familiar genres, and visit the worlds we never thought we’d see in person. However, this post started with the mention of the game Budget Cuts, which I think is a sign of the unexpected developments to come. In a future post, I’ll be taking a look at VR experiences that are more forward thinking, that leverage the strengths of the medium and avoid the pitfalls that we fall in by expecting it to always behave itself.

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