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Room-Scale VR Lessons Learned from Valve's "The Lab"

1. Photogrammetry is awesome, but still needs work

Valve has teased some photogrammetry stuff over last September, but this is the first time I’ve gotten to experience it for myself in VR. I’ll tell you what: it is impressive! The 3D captured environment is so huge and high fidelity, that you have to wonder how they pulled it off. It gets beyond the types of cracks in the veneer you might see with traditional environment art, like tiling textures in the distance, or repeated foreground elements.

However, it’s almost too good. The world around you is so lush, but it still seems dead. Without ambient animations, it’s sort of like walking around a photograph. The stillness of the scene broke my immersion a bit, which leads me to think that there may be an uncanny valley of environment that we’re not used to talking about. Still though, a well timed nudge from a buddy as I was looking over the edge, and through fear and adrenaline rush, I realized that I was still pretty invested.

2. Pets in VR might totally be a thing

While the first thing you notice about the opening level is the high fidelity environment, the little robot dog steals the show. Like a little robotic bean on 4 legs, this little guy scampers corgi-style to retrieve thrown sticks and bring them back to you. Each footfall plays a little tune, and the cuteness only escalates when you try and give him some love. If you pet the little guy on his head, he’ll roll over, waiting for belly rubs.

The AI isn’t perfect, and the animations are just repetitive enough to start to show some cracks in the realism. But overall, this little robotic pet is pretty close to the one I’ve always wanted. I think the emotional connection that you build with the thing is so closely tied to the ability to share a space, something that is only really offered in standing VR, and is really well done in the room scale experiences on the Vive.

3. If you suck at aiming, it’s your fault

Heading out of the Vesper Peak demo, of course the first thing we were going to try was the archery game that we had seen so much about. The first thing you notice about picking up the bow is how natural the motions come to you. The game instructions are just there in your head. Hold up the bow, reach over your shoulder for an arrow, put it on the string, pull back, let go.

However, as natural as it came to me, I was by no means a natural. I was not great at this game, Always just missing my target. I thought it might be something with the game, maybe that the trajectory of the arrow was a little wonky in the code—but then it was Brian’s turn. Brian was amazing at this game. And why? Because he had taken archery lessons as a kid. He seemed like a natural because he wasn’t. The game was such an effortless representation of the real mechanics of shooting a bow that real bow training helped him train for the game (probably not something that can be said about Call of Duty). While it was a little frustrating to do poorly at this game, the realization that it was my fault was pretty powerful. When I played again with some quick archery tips from Brian, I was able to do much better.

4. I’m out of shape

The reality of the motion in the archery demo was pretty eye opening. Hold up the bow for the duration of the game was no joke on my shoulder. And reaching back and knocking the arrows constantly got my heart rate up much more than expected. As these games get more physically accurate, they get more physically demanding. This is not like your Wiimote that can’t tell the difference between a sword slash and a flick of the wrist. It’s physically accurate, and physical accuracy demands some level of physical fitness. And I think that’s awesome.

5. Physics verisimilitude is important, but in what way?

The last thing I’ll say about the archery game is a point that I think is worth contesting. When firing the arrows, something felt just a little off about it. They seemed floaty, like they were firing properly but had too much drag to go very far. I would assume Valve would be pretty conscientious about the physics of their projectiles, but this didn’t feel quite right. The question, though, isn’t weather or not the physics were accurate, because while i’m not convinced they were, I’m also not convinced that they were not. The question is about the importance of the feel of the game over its accuracy. I think that the feel of these arrows was a little off from what I expected, but I’m not sure if what I expect is just from the vocabulary I’ve built up from shooting games. Should we play to those expectations, or is it ultimately more satisfying to ween off of that expectation delivered by fantasy and work in the constraints of the real thing?

6. Precision comes so much more naturally when the whole body is involved

When it comes to FPSs and dog-fighting games, I'm a terrible shot. Actually, when it comes down to just about any game that requires precision or accuracy in aiming, it's likely not the game for me (I'll stick with hacking and slashing, thanks). My thumbs are just not good at the micro adjustments that are necessary for actual competitive or even just reactive gameplay. I often over correct because of the excitement of the moment and what comes down to poor hand-eye coordination.

However, with my whole body involved, I'm actually not so bad. In both the drone game (in which the Vive controller becomes a little space ship in your hand firing lasers at enemies) and the slingshot game (in which you use a human sized slingshot to fire Portal personality cores at towers of boxes), I felt almost immediate mastery of the interfaces. I "flying" my ship and hitting targets with, what I perceived to be, great accuracy in the drone game. With the slingshot, a game with no time limit, I was able to find a great deal of satisfaction in the precision that went along with the interface. Both systems had me walking around the space to fire projectiles, and I feel that relying on the chain of muscles that go into body positioning as opposed to just the extremities.

7. The Swayze effect isn’t just for stories

Oculus Story Studio has done quite a bit of pioneering in the space of VR animation and storytelling, and lucky for us, they've done quite a bit of blogging and talking about their experiences for all of us to benefit. Perhaps my favorite little bit of unconventional wisdom of theirs to talk about is the "Swayze Effect," which refers to the strange feeling of being in a space, but not being recognized or acknowledged in it, mimicking the awkward feelings that Patrick Swayze's character feels in the movie "Ghost."

Story Studio feels that this is something to be specifically addressed in storytelling, but I think that the ghostly feeling might apply any time you as feel as though your presence should be acknowledged and it isn't. The drone demo brought this to light for me. By only taking the "ship" into account when asking players to dodge the incoming projectiles, players are left with an uneasy feeling that their body is being ignored. Projectiles can pass right through your head and body, and it feels really strange that, first of all, they can do that, and second of all, it doesn't even have an effect on the game. I think addressing the player's physical presence in a room-scale environment is going to be more important that we realize, especially in 3rd person games.

8. Visiting familiar worlds is powerful

Finally, a point that I addressed in my last post, but that I think is worth reiterating. VR provides us the unique opportunity to visit the words we love in a totally new and wholly immersive way. In the Aperture Robot Repair demo, seeing Atlas and P-Body in "person" brought me as a Portal fan such unadulterated delight. And I'd hate to spoil it, but at the end of that scene, being addressed directly by one of my favorite game characters left me a very giddy test subject.

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