For a few years, back in the early 90s, virtual reality (VR) looked like the obvious future for video games. Here was a technology capable of truly immersing participants in the digital environment; the essentially alienating presence of the 2D screen would be gone for ever, to be replaced by computer-generated realms that we could step into and exist in. Consumer headsets by companies such as Virtuality and Victormaxx crept on to the market, as films like the Lawnmower Man and Disclosure considered the implications of our soon-to-be lives in cyberspace. But the screens were low-resolution and the motion tracking primitive, the sensors prone to sickening lag. The gulf between expectation and reality was impassable. The future moved on.
Two decades later, in a packed room at the Washington State Convention Centre, Valve Corporation told the industry that virtual reality can become a consumer reality by 2015. When Valve says something, people in the technology sector listen. Not only has it produced two of the most beautiful and sophisticated science fiction game series’ of all time (Half-Life and Portal), it also runs the Steam digital distribution service, where 75m PC owners purchase 20m games a month. During a talk at the company’s Steam Dev Days conference, attendees discovered that Valve will be working closely with the creators of the Kickstarter-funded Oculus Rift, a VR device that has received a huge amount of positive attention in the gaming press. The aim? To “drive PC VR forward”.
The attendees have seen in Valve’s declarations a genuine desire to explore and support the technology rather than to stake a claim on the mega-bucks that could ensue. “I remember when computer entertainment companies were careful about toying with new technology, and constantly missed new trends because they lacked sufficient mainstream exposure,” says Leonard Ritter of German studio Duangle, currently working on Nowhere, an experimental RPG for Oculus Rift. “I’m happy to see that an established player isn’t afraid to meddle with cutting edge tech, not because someone did the numbers, but because they think it’s cool and they’d like to see it succeed.”
On a PowerPoint slide that has been widely photographed and shared through Twitter, the proposed specifications for a consumer VR technology were laid out. It would have a mere 20 milliseconds of latency, 110-degree field of vision, and one million pixels per eye. Valve now seems to be suggesting that it won’t bring its own prototype head-mounted display to market – despite impressing developers with a short demo. Instead, the company is set to release a VR platform that will make it easier for developers to create and share virtual reality games; there’s even a VR interface in development for its Steam service, which would turn the online store into a virtual space. It seems Oculus Rift,will be the go-to hardware.
And there is plenty of support for Rift from an enthused and curious development community. The main candidate for “killer app” right now is perhaps space combat title EVE Valkyrie, which astonished many who saw it at Gamescom and CES. But the likes of zombie survival adventure DayZ, forthcoming shooter Doom 4 and David Braben’s long-awaited modern day Elite sequel, Elite: Dangerous, have all promised implementation.
These are all a way off. Right now, the Rift is available only as a developer kit, which lacks some of the specifications of the proposed consumer version set to arrive later this year. The company, which has attracted almost $100m in funding since its successful Kickstarter campaign, showed the latest version of its head-mounted display (HMD) technology, dubbed Crystal Cove, at the CES show – to impressive effect. Developers are lining up to support the device, which is relatively easy to accommodate. The $300 developer version comes with an SDK, documentation and sample code, and current game projects can be retro-fitted with compatibility in a matter of days.”The process involves increasing the internal framebuffer resolution, inserting a post processing shader and applying an additional transformation to the camera,” says Ritter. “We integrated Oculus VR support across all three platforms – Windows, OSX, Linux – within a week or so.”
“Video games are one step before a whole other virtual universe” Vin Diesel
But the real challenge for coders and designers is to learn the new language and conventions that virtual reality demands. “Details are vital,” says Daniël Ernst, who has produced the highly regarded Rift demo, The Shoebox Diorama, and is now working on a narrative adventure. “In a traditional game, environmental micro-details are less important. You won’ t really notice the names of the books on the shelve, or what text is written on a piece of paper on a desk. There is always a distance between you and the environment. With the Oculus Rift, you don’ t have this distance. Things can be a couple of inches from your face and if the texture is blurry or pixelated it will break the immersion. You actually have to measure objects before replicating them in 3D. You will even notice if a telephone is a couple inches too big.”
Interestingly then, true immersion may well put the brakes on mainstream gaming’s constant sense of forward momentum. Titles like Call of Duty are always prodding the player forward through corridors of escalating sensory violence – is that just compensation for the lack of physical ownership of the game space. In VR worlds, we may be happy spending several hours exploring every aspect of one room. “We’ve found that a vast majority of our players behave differently in VR,” says Hrafn Thorri Thorisson, co-founder of Icelandic games and simulation company, Aldin Dynamics. “When you’re inside a virtual world, as opposed to looking at it on a regular monitor, the urge to explore and inspect is really compelling.”
Henrique Olifiers is overseeing the Oculus Rift version of Bossa Studio’s hugely successful Surgeon Simulator title. For him, the problems are in jettisoning some of the effects we usually see in first-person games designed for a 2D screen. “The difficult bit is grasping what works and doesn’t fly on VR from a content point of view,” he says. “For instance, you don’t want abstract interfaces in a VR game, the information has to be shown in the world itself. You want to avoid movements that are not triggered by the player, such as camera shakes as they cause discomfort. You have to strip out unnatural behaviour like running backwards or strafing laterally – all hallmarks of first-person shooters. The manual on game development for virtual reality is yet to be written, there’s a lot to learn before we can create amazing games with it.”
James Parker at Bristol-based developer Opposable Games sees similar challenges. “There’s an ongoing issue with what’s the most appropriate control system, particularly in shooters,” he says. “Traditionally, players are used to pointing their gun essentially in the same way as their face – as soon as you separate those two things, it’s a pretty radical shift in control experience. On the other hand, if you keep the two locked together you lose a lot of what make VR so immersive.” Meanwhile, David Braben, founder of Frontier Developments, believes developers will need to consider the playing position of the participants. “Oculus Rift is great, but it works particularly well with games where, in the setting you’d actually be sitting.”
Clearly, there is powerful potential in the concept of inhabiting a virtual environment; indeed the technology has been used in science, medicine and the military for many years, aiding in everything from training to therapy. If nothing else, a cheap HMD like Oculus Rift will allow more researchers to try out a greater range of serious implementations – just as the Wii Remote and Kinect camera have done with motion tracking. “Imagine VR for learning life-saving skills such as first aid, for example,” says Thorisson. “That’s something that the Icelandic Institute for Intelligent Machines has been exploring in collaboration with us.”
But for consumer appliance, it’s about whether developers can pull themselves away from the forms we’re used to. “My general view of VR is sceptical,” says Ed Key whose exploration game Proteus is currently being retro-fitted with Rift compatibility by programmers Aubrey Hesselgren and Nick Ludlam. “At the moment it seems like not many people having figured out good things to do with it beyond naively trying to make current FPS games into a holodeck. I think there are a lot of unsolvable problems if one just assumes you can put on a headset and amplify immersion. You’re still just pressing buttons to move around, and you’re not getting most of the sensory input that you get from actually moving – ie inner-ear stuff, forces on the body, proprioception. Any successful VR work has to understand the limitations before making something satisfying.”
“Does virtual reality provide us with new ways to augment, enhance, and experience reality, or does it undermine and threaten that reality?” Derek Stanovsky
The big uncertainty, perhaps, is less to do with content and more to do with consumer interest in the whole concept. Is there a mass mainstream market for virtual reality? There certainly seemed to be in the early 90s, when the much-hyped rise of the technology was accompanied by worried researchers envisioning people dying of starvation at their VR terminals. But in reality, many users went on to suffer overwhelming nausea due in part to lag from the motion controls. Even now, gamers have reported feeling ill after 10 minutes or so on Oculus Rift, which has higher resolution screens and much better motion tracking than the early headsets but can still induce motion sickness. Basically, your brain says you are moving but your body disagrees, and for some people, this is probably always going end with a rush to the bathroom.
Beyond the physical effects, there is just the idea of being totally immersed in a game world. It’s pretty intense for a start, as game designer Adam Sawkins discovered last year. “In the charity Dungeon Crawler I wrote and showed at the Eurogamer Expo, everyone gave positive feedback, but about 10-15% of people simply took the helmet off at a large lava chasm and went, ‘Wow, that’s brilliant, but I simply can’t continue – it’s too scary’. The whole ‘cynical gamer’ hat comes off, and we’re back in 1992 again, being completely scared by Doom. Fifteen minutes in the Rift and you’re no longer playing a game; you’re simply there.”
The sheer physicality of the tech may also be off-putting. Do mainstream consumers want to pay upwards of £200 to wear a helmet and be lost in a virtual domain? People didn’t really want to wear silly plastic glasses in their living rooms to watch 3D TV, as the consumer electronics and television providers have found to their cost. So a whole helmet? And possibly not only a helmet. For the full effect of physically exploring a virtual world, there’s a chance we’ll all need to buy things like omnidirectional treadmills or wearable gaming exoskeletons. Do you want to wear a gaming exoskeleton? Does your gran? It’s possible that until there is a means of externalising the virtual realm – until there is something approaching a holodeck (which is certainly a possibility) or a workable, non-invasive brain-computer interface – many consumers will steer clear of becoming leisure cyborgs, kitted out in technology, their senses co-opted by screens and tracking motors.
“Communication in the age of virtual reality is in some ways about transportation. Tele-presence replaces tele-vision.” Frank Biocca
The thing is, it’s can’t just be about games – there need to be other mass-interest enticements. It’s likely that the consumer future of VR that Valve hopes to engender, will be about a wide array of interactive entertainment and services. We may, for example, see online stores adopting virtual reality interfaces. “We’ve been talking to some brands about using the VR as part of the shopping experience,” says Ben Trewhella at Opposable Games. “Rather than looking through a grid or list of items in a web browser, the user can walk into a virtual store and look around for goods in a way analogous to their normal shopping experience. There’s a lot of groundwork to be done, but I’d expect the technology to be integrated into online fashion fairly quickly.”
Brad Jeffrey, who is working with his studio Urban Logic on the VR-based space strategy game, Flagship, sees other benefits. “The potential for interactive education is staggering. Students could experience what they’re being taught in context, or be exposed to 3D representations of things they’d never be able to see in real life. Imagine walking around a spinning hydrogen atom, or visiting recreations of important historical events. Far more engaging than anything I ever experienced at school.”
This takes us toward the idea of virtual exploration. Google is already looking into rendering its Google Earth data to be viewable through Oculus Rift – how amazing will it be to be able to “visit” anywhere on the planet? Add an online connection and you can go on holiday with friends, without leaving your front room. For most of us, this could be a good way of staking out potential holiday destinations – but for those with limited mobility it could well be something truly liberating. “I talked to a group at Eurogamer who wanted to use the Rift to offer experiences to disabled children – for example, going to the top of Mount Everest,” says Sawkins. “This is a completely brilliant idea, and I sincerely hope that it takes off. I told them to think bigger though. Why go somewhere possible? You could take people to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, fly along the Grand Canyon, go to the Apollo 11 moon landing site, visit Mars – the possibilities are endless. Scott Adams once wrote that the holodeck will be mankind’s last invention. I’m beginning to believe that he might be right.”
Certainly the movie industry will watch all this with interest. The corporatisation of virtual space is inevitable, which means we can expect immersive animated experiences from the likes of Disney and Dreamworks. But there are fascinating indie prospects too. Welsh studio Mr Dog is currently working on a virtual-reality game to accompany locally made horror movie Banshee. The company is also prototyping a live action 3D immersive sci-fi film designed especially for the Oculus, and filmed using a 360-degree camera mount. “Viewers can watch the main action or turn their back on it and see what’s going on behind them,” explains managing director, Si Stratton. “It’s their choice what they look at and in that way, they’re the editor of the movie. We will also record in 360 degree sound, so that if two conversations are happening at once, behind you and in front of you, you only hear the one you’re paying attention to. The audio environment will respond to your perspective.”
Stratton expects both Banshee and the studio’s virtual reality movie to be out in 2015 – Valve’s year of consumer VR.
“You see in virtual reality, the whole world is your body – equally – and everybody shares the same body.” Jaron Lanier
Even if virtual reality remains in the niche it currently is, Oculus is likely to make money on its invention. There are enough hardcore gamers out there thrilled with the very idea of the technology and ready for something that seems new. The arrival of a fresh console generation last year showed us that, at this point, the 2D display is becoming the limiting factor, not the chipsets in the machines: the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are great, but they represent no paradigm shift over their predecessors. High definition affordable home VR with masses of developer support certainly does.
But for Valve to really drag the whole world into the virtual space, it will need to enable developers who have a broader vision, alongside the game creators. We’re now seeing a growing number of VR hackdays where weird new concepts can be developed and explored.
For a little while, consumer virtual reality will probably be about putting veteran gamers right into first-person action and horror games – and that’s fine. Beyond this somewhere looms a sort of virtual singularity, a point at which the whole idea of the human-computer interface is re-written. 30 years ago, for example, William Gibson imagined a version of the internet – cyberspace – as a “physically” explorable space, as a grand architecture of data. It could be that Oculus Rift will bring something like that about. “For a long time I’ve been waiting for the internet to become more spatial,” says Ritter. “I can imagine web servers hosting spaces instead of sites, a quirky mixture of disjoint places that people visit via whatever would be the VR equivalent of browsers. Second Life was a neat proprietary demo for what such a space could look like, but it’s never been completely decentralised. I’m looking forward to seeing that happening.”
Valve has the corporate clout to drag us all in this direction, the question is whether everyone will let themselves be dragged. The developers are there, and the equipment is becoming good enough. What will encourage us to leave our bodies and our world behind?