Opinion – In the zone: lessons from VR

Rebellion’s CEO and co-founder Jason Kingsley details what we’re still learning about VR.

Doing VR for Battlezone, we learnt a lot of things – some things we were doing right, but mainly things we were doing wrong. And, surprisingly, a lot of that fed back into the knowledge I picked up studying Zoology at university.

The key point about VR is that it’s trying to fool your brain into being somewhere, but the brain is very good at knowing your arm is in a certain position. In VR, if you can’t see your arm there it creates a dissonance in the brain. 

Now dissonance in the brain of early hominids was probably caused by bad food, and if you have bad food you need to throw it up – and quickly. So if your senses are giving you funny signals from the world, there’s a good chance you’ve chowed down on a bad hyena, and you’d better get it out before it does any more harm to you. Unfortunately, VR can trigger the same response, though on the bright side, we don’t have to eat hyenas any more. 

We’re used to the horizon being a completely fixed point. Because we’re bipedal, the horizon is your reference point for staying upright. So even if you tilt your head to one side, the horizon remains fixed in your mind. So what we learnt very quickly in VR is that if you tilt the horizon artificially and your head isn’t actually tilted, it causes a problem in your processing – and your stomach is back in bad hyena land.

So in Battlezone, we kept the horizon locked and tilted the cockpit instead, though people don’t notice it’s doing that. We don’t tilt the world, even though it looks like we do, as the landscape around you is tilting. You can notice this if you go back and play the game now, but it’s largely invisible unless you’ve been told. 

On a screen it’s fine – you tilt the horizon and it’s still on a fixed screen, so your brain can use all the different components of the landscape around you to fix you in space. The reason we get seasick is because the world is moving and we are not, and most of us aren’t really equipped to deal with that.

The side effects of VR follow a normal distribution curve. There are those who won’t be sick whatever you do, they are the potential fighter pilots of the world, but there’s not that many of them. Then there are people who just won’t cope at all with the current technology. The mass market is all those people in the middle.

You can get used to VR, you get your VR legs so to speak, just like people get their sea legs. But that actually caused problems in QA. We found we’d have to rest our QA team from VR, as the brain is incredibly good at coping and adapting to things that are wrong, and QA brains, which are spending a lot of time in VR, are just as susceptible. So then someone else comes along and tries it, and tears the headset off straight away. 

So we had to work out different ways of rotating the QA department by getting fresh people in. We basically had a queue of people lined up to try a mouthful of bad hyena, just to make sure the others hadn’t simply built up a tolerance to it.

We’re still learning more about VR, and we’re doing Battlezone on other formats soon. I’d like to do more VR games in the future, though we have nothing to announce now, as there’s just so much more to learn about this immersive new technology.

Jason Kingsley, OBE, is the co-founder and CEO of Rebellion, a chair of TIGA and a trustee of the Royal Armouries. He breeds, trains and rides horses, and jousts in a reproduction 15th Century Milanese harness. You can find him tweeting @RebellionJason

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