In Part 2 of our update discussing the experience we had at Vision Summit, we’re going to examine the current state of AR and VR as it felt from the conference show floor. Though some major players, especially in AR, were not present at the conference (Magic Leap, DAQRI and META for example) these events still often provide insights or “gut feelings” about how the industry is progressing, and if nothing else give a sense of how they’re showing at this specific conference.
Part of the massive value of Vision Summit is that we were not only given the opportunity to look at how each technology is doing in isolation, but were able to directly compare and contrast their progress. It should also be noted however that our thoughts in this area are centered specifically on how these technologies are developing as consumer entertainment products, and provides little thought in terms of how the technologies are developing more generally.
In case you missed it, here’s Part 1 which is focused on the Summit’s Keynote.
Show Floor and Demonstrations
As stated in the intro, almost all the major player’s were at the Summit, and almost all were demoing their wears. We had the opportunity to look at the latest and greatest from Project Tango, Samsung GearVR, PlayStation VR, The Vive and Oculus Rift, playing a wide range of games across setups that required us to stand, sit and even cycle. Each rig came with its own variety of controllers, from motion controls designed specifically for VR to conventional gamepads.
A Lack of AR at the Summit
While the conference maintained a nice mix of both AR and VR, the greatest focus was clearly on VR, which makes sense giving the amount of developer momentum towards the technology. 2016 is slated to be a year filled with major VR product launches.
That said, we were still disappointed by how much AR seems to have receded of late with only major players like Google and Microsoft showing anything of substance, and quite frankly even though their products are amazing, they are not ready to be leveraged as a consumer entertainment platform.
With AR always in the back of our minds, it became clear to us that combining AR and VR together could enhance mobile VR. By being combined with AR-focused tracking technology like Project Tango, it could solve some of the problems mobile VR has with tracking the user’s position. I’d not be surprised to see Google leverage Tango-style tracking when they release their GearVR competitor later this year, helping narrow the gap between mobile and high-end VR .
All this being said, we don’t feel the lack of AR has anything to do with the Summit organizers having a preference for VR or a bias against AR, it’s really more reflective of the current state of the industry. While there is still progress in AR technology, developers of that technology are focused primarily on industrial or training applications due to the lack of devices that can address a mass market audience. Given this lack of consumer hardware, AR for art or entertainment purposes is likely to stay restricted widely available mobile device (as our title Clandestine is) or deployed in niche settings like theme parks or arcades, where the costly hardware could be handed out for a specific and limited experience.
All AR app finalists and honorable mentions at Vision Summit used a mobile device to drive the experience. Here are videos showcasing some of those experiences:
Given the lack of AR focused hardware for the mass market, it’s our belief and hope that the continued development and miniaturization of VR hardware will, in time, facilitate the device ecosystem needed to finally launch AR into the mainstream.
Standing, Sitting and Nausea oh My!
With so many VR platforms launching this year (and GearVR already released as of Q4 2015) it was disappointing to see that so many games still give you nausea. We experienced different degrees of nausea on almost every platforms from GearVR all the way up the performance ladder to the Vive and Oculus. It seems only strong development principals can prevent nausea and that no current generation headset can prevent it. At the end of the day it will be up to the developers to ensure a good experience, though it’s our belief that platform holders would be wise to ensure all content they sell or support is 100% nausea-free.
The problem is we really don’t see the technology taking off as quickly as it otherwise might if consumers get sick playing even 10-20% of the content they consume, beyond mobile VR all VR platforms are an expensive and to varying degrees complicated endeavours. With costs like $1500 for a min spec Oculus Rift set-up, we can’t see that many people being satisfied with ever being sick.
However, going for a zero nausea requirement comes with a whole other set of issues when it comes to the types of designs and experiences that can be created in VR. Make no mistake for those who are unfamiliar with VR, the technology works best when your body is in control of the camera movement. To ensure users won’t get sick the camera can only pan or tilt when users tilt or pan their head. Similarly, lateral and vertical movements are best achieved when the user themselves is creating the movements, or is controlling a 3D character. Movements like acceleration and deceleration are also quite treacherous to achieve successfully.
Sony demoed London Heist, which contains a great sense of movement that didn’t produce any nausea for us.
Its fast-paced feel is achieved through removing control that a player would normally have in a non-VR game in the same gene. If you look at the video closely you’ll notice the movement contains no acceleration, deceleration or quick turning and the entire driving sequence is on rails.
If you’re using a traditional controller (what ships with the Oculus and works with GearVR and PSVR) as opposed to a motion controller, the on screen first-person content cannot move forward, backwards, up or down, so the game’s design is limited to either non-first person experiences (which are less immersive), or stationary experiences where player-controlled characters are virtually unmoved. This is because using controllers sticks to move, as would be done in most first-person console games, creates a disconnect between the brain and the eyes and will lead to nausea.
Without major design or narrative conceits popular first-person game styles like flight sims, shooters, racing games, and sport games like hockey and soccer will remove movement control from the user.
Issues surrounding this user-generated movement principle is why so many VR pursuits not only forsake traditional controllers, but are adamant that the “best” VR experience are standing, with motion controllers.
Thoughts on Standing Games and the Limits of Physical abilities
The problem with that is, if we allow the user to take control of their movement through motion controls and camera/room sensor, the very nature of having vision obscured by a VR headset, and being tethered to a computer means that their movement will either be unnaturally limited or dangerous if required to do much beyond walking in circles or pivoting on the spot.
This is a problem developers are more than aware of, and are actively trying to solve. In one of the best talks we attended, titled “Building Inside the Box: Creating Complex Rooms and Covering a Lot of Ground in Room-Scale VR” Jono Forbes of Archean / Defective Studios discussed techniques to try and expand the sense of movement about a digital space when physically confined to the limits of a tethered headset.
Here’s a video of Jono talk discussing some room-scale VR design techniques that will help you get a sense of the issues room scale VR designers are contending with.
It would seem that despite many ingenious approaches to solving the problem of movement in VR spaces, each approach currently available comes with major design or stylistic trade-offs.
These difficult trade-offs are probably why the developers behind Job Simulator, limited the game’s virtual space to a cubical users could navigate naturally without needing to cover too much ground in the real world.
This “room space” motion controlled design approach while limiting in terms of the experiences you can create, seems to work rather well. That is unless, of course you have difficulty standing and walking when you can’t see your feet.
Below is a picture of Corey playing on the Oculus. The problem is, Corey has difficulty standing, and when his eyes are covered he cannot easily rebalance himself. When losing balance in this way, games that are generally designed to be “nausea free” can still lead to nausea when struggling to regain balance.
While many games show virtual hands in the VR space, no games we tried showed virtual feet, meaning in the game your real world foot position cannot be visually relied upon, creating a sense of physical dissonance between the body and what you’re seeing, especially when losing balancing and don’t try grabbing onto any of the virtual furniture to steady your balance!
Of course it’s possible this issue could be solved simply by tracking feet through markers or a body suit. However, even if such tracking turns out to be a valid solution to this problem, this generation of VR will not have wide availability of this type.
This points to an even deeper problem, as there are many users of wildly varying physical ability. Do developers simply opt to exclude them from VR experience, or do they go through the effort and difficult of making games that adjust to fit the abilities of any user? Given how hard it is to make any type of VR game compelling, making one that doesn’t exclude the physically disabled seems untenable.
So even in cases where there is no flying, or doing anything super-human the experience of VR can be harshly limited by your own physical abilities, and disabled gamers are not likely to find current VR is any more able to free them from the bondage of their bodies than current games. For at least in non-VR games, those unable to stand in reality can run, jump and climb virtually so long as they can hold the controller.
A final thought on standing, walking and motion controls in VR experiences returns to issues that plagued motion gaming. It’s interesting to consider how much of the VR experience is actually built upon technology and design techniques first explored during the motion gaming craze. While VR builds nicely upon motion gaming technology to create an ever more immersive experience, it still faces some of the usability setbacks.
The problem is, people just don’t always have the energy or desire to stand and move about while gaming. Many people use gaming to relax, and enjoy other worldly experiences with minimal physical effort. Asking users to stand and move about for extended periods of time can be physically draining, even sitting games like Skyward Sword that required extended use of motion controls ran into this. This issue will ultimately limit the duration and style of these experiences in ways that could push all these game away from the depth found in console games, making the experience decidedly more causal, despite many of the devices being costed far out of the causal market.
We need not forget that even the hassle of clearing space was an ongoing barrier that kept uses from engaging with Kinect as much as they otherwise may have. This is a hassle that these types of VR experience can’t solve as, simply put, many people just do not have the space, and making space temporarily adds yet another barrier to putting on the device.
Given all these physical and technical limitations, the dream that VR will free you from the world and allow you to do things you cannot do in life is still possible, but only in specific compromised ways.
The question is: is a dream without compromises the one end-users are expecting?
If so, they are bound to be quite disappointed by the technology after the initial charm of the experience wares off. Overcoming this requires properly managing expectations, and focusing on good design, lest VR entertainment follows the same path as motion gaming.
Market Confusion – Mobile vs High-end VR
This brings us to another possible setback in bringing VR to the mass market. While we are pretty well versed in the differences between mobile and high end VR, standing and sitting experiences and different controller setups, the average person is unlikely to understand the difference between all these experiences (which are vast) and what the system they are purchasing is capable of doing.
The most straightforward and cost effective setup is wireless mobileVR (which is lower res, and lower immersion) and PSVR. Each of these is built off systems and infrastructure (mobile and console respectively) that average users already have experience with, and this factor alone will likely give these platforms the most mass market appeal at the outset.
However, many developers we’ve spoken with seem to swear off mobile VR as the low-quality enemy of true VR, an experience more likely to turn people away, then convert them into higher end experiences.
This fear may not be misplaced.
Though one counter point may be that mobile users are accustomed to rapidly improving tech released on an annual basis, and are thus prepared to start with a less-than-ideal version of the technology, knowing the experience will improve rapidly in the years to come, and follow an upgrade cycle they’re already committed to.
Looking five years down the line, we can’t help but imagine a future where the cheaper, untethered mobile experience is able to advance quickly enough to displace the top of the line platforms before they are properly established.
Great Potential Amid Uncertainty
All this is to say, the right type of VR experiences, regardless of platform are out there and can be amazing, but the future for the industry overall may not be as certain or obstacle-free as some seem to believe. As we experienced first-hand in the AR community there is often a tendency among the “converted” who have come to embrace a new technology early on to take on a religious-like conviction about its future. This conviction can, we believe, cause many perfectly credible leaders to over estimate a technology’s impact, and its speed of proliferation while perilously downplaying its short falls.
Perhaps it’s this type of zeal that John Riccitiello was cautioning the industry about in the Keynote. Everyone involved with the advancement of VR and AR needs to take effort to properly set their own expectations and that of the end user, if the technology is to succeed.
There is a lot of great potential here, and some amazing experiences that give hope that VR is indeed here to stay. Games like Adr1ft are attracting acclaim and converting skeptics, but as we’ve yet to play it, we cannot fairly comment.
Despite this and other optimistic signs it will take more than a few great games to launch a revolution. Though we believe the industry will get where it seeks to go, it would be unwise to believe the path forward is certain.
Part 3 VR Cinematic Experiences
Our final “Thoughts of the future at Vision Summit” be focused on cinematic experiences in VR, even more than VR gaming, is in its infancy. There is much heated debate about was does and does not constitute VR Cinema. Given ZenFri’s deep love of cinema, gaming and VR, this discussion is quite close to our hearts. So against all good sense, we weigh in with our thoughts, and provide a look at some interesting emerging technologies that may ultimately form the future of VR Cinema.
You can read Part 3 here.