Opening the Door to Virtual Reality

January 15, 2016 • Blog Post • By Atlantic Re:Think

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IN THIS ARTICLE

  • Gamers are eager to discover Virtual Reality (VR)s full potential
  • VR generates a constant stream of data from numerous devices and requires high-end hardware to deliver stellar experiences

Virtual reality gaming will be within grasp this year, but game developers and designers will have to stretch their imaginations to take advantage of it

One of the many movies scheduled for release in 2017 is titled “Ready Player One.” Based on a 2011 science fiction novel by Ernest Cline, the film will recount a high-stakes scavenger hunt that occurs entirely in virtual reality (VR)—its contestants need only “jack in” to the virtual universe. Before the movie comes out, we will have the technology to do exactly that, turning a science-fiction narrative into a real one.


The foray into VR

The first physical evidence of virtual reality was Google Cardboard late last year—a pair of $20 goggles into which VR experiences can be screened through smartphones. The much-awaited Oculus Rift, famously snapped up by Facebook in 2014, is scheduled to release its gaming headgear and tracked controllers this year. Also coming soon are Microsoft’s “mixed reality” HoloLens, PlayStation VR and HTC Vive.

No one is awaiting this future more than the gaming community, which is already embedded in simulated reality and primed for more-immersive experiences. Gaming in VR is essentially an elaborate deception: a network of sensors, displays, graphic and audio data and a user’s physical movements working together to build an artificial but convincing world. It’s “a hack on the human sensory system,” as Brendan Iribe, CEO of Oculus, puts it.

Say, for example, that a player suddenly finds a virtual foe’s snapping jaws virtual inches from their avatar’s face. This would typically entail some response on a controller: a button to push or a joystick to pull. In VR, those snapping jaws will be inches from your face, and the reflexive instinct will be real-world fight-or-flight: flinch, jerk away, raise your arms to fend off the beast. Because you’ll be wearing a headset that cuts off your bearings in the real world, it’s even possible you could lose your balance trying to get away.


A new approach to gamer engagement

The player’s comfort—emotional and physical—is a new challenge for game designers, and it’s not the only one. “In a broad sense, for VR to be successful you have to rethink everything you know about gaming, films or anything else you can bring from a 2D screen to a 3D, virtual world,” writes Dan Hurd, the lead designer and director on Lucky’s Tale, a VR game set to be released along with Oculus Rift.

In Lucky’s Tale, created by the game studio Playful Corp., the player controls Lucky in a run-and-jump-style caper reminiscent of classic Mario games. It’s a third-person-perspective game, with the player hovering and following Lucky as his controller-based movements take him across bridges and past trees and streams. It might not immediately sound distinct from a regular, 2D gaming experience, but what the VR tech does is immerse players in that world: they can turn their heads to watch the landscape fly by as Lucky runs forward, crane their necks to peek around a corner before Lucky can, even look up to see coins falling from the sky when Lucky receives a reward. “The sense of presence is staggering,” marveled one early reviewer of Lucky’s Tale in Wired. “It’s like you’re actually in there.”

A compelling VR game, then, can take on a vast, innovative range of forms that don’t necessarily need to be in first-person. Playful Corp. experimented with almost 40 different experience types when they began working with Oculus.

An industry poised for creative growth

As the technology becomes more accessible and more ubiquitous, Hurd believes that narratives and games that take full advantage of the VR medium, in first person or not, are going to drive creative and commercial growth in the field. “Content will really become the driving force,” Hurd writes. “Are there games that make use of VR in such a way that they can only exist in this medium and are genuinely the better for it? Will the consumer be able to justify the expense—as they must do for any new console purchase—to have that experience?”

That expense will be both technical and monetary. Virtual reality generates a huge amount of data at a constant rate: visual data is fed from a console or computer into the headset that displays the virtual landscape and immersive audio data fills the headphones with the sounds of the designed experience. The user generates data, too, with sensors on headsets or handheld controllers that tell the console how to make the display match the user’s real, physical actions.

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The digital ‘nuts and bolts’ of VR

And that data requires high-end hardware to process it. Users would need top-end computers to be able to successfully run VR in their own homes; otherwise, the sheer quantity of data would cause latency, the lags between the user’s movement and the consequent change in the display. If a game’s visuals start and stutter too much, the user might actually end up feeling sick.

Fortunately, the big-name companies interested in VR have shaved down the lag times of its systems enough that they’re barely noticeable. PlayStation’s is a mere 18 milliseconds; HTC Vive and Oculus are both just a couple milliseconds behind.

In other words, mainstream tech companies are betting that VR is going to play an important role in the future of entertainment, the gaming sector in particular. Game developers who want to do the same and create experiences as compelling as Lucky’s Tale will need to expand their thinking, reckon with the technical demands of VR, and consider alternative forms of game-playing and storytelling that can best harness the unique possibilities of the VR environment.

Once they do this, Hurd believes, they will “help to shape the technology into something that has a perceived benefit for everyone, not just self-identified ‘gamers.’ Maybe once it does, then we can say that VR has truly entered the mainstream. Until then, we’re opening the door as widely as we can.”


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