Controlling virtual reality

Develop asks the experts how to offer the best gaming experience in VR
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The VR revolution is nearly upon us.

At least, that’s what many in the games industry believe it will be. It appears the main contenders have now all emerged for the initial rush. Oculus, which kick-started the entire sector, is set to open pre-orders on the Rift later this year with a view to launch its first consumer headset in 2016.

Sony meanwhile has the Morpheus, likely to be targeted for PS4 use, while Valve has its HTC headset with the innovative new laser-based tracking system Lighthouse. There’s also the cheaper end of the scale with Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR. It’s an exciting time for VR.

Yet despite getting closer to a consumer reality, there are still some major question marks surrounding VR. One of those is: What is the best control input for virtual reality gaming?

The contenders

There are a few camps right now. The traditional console controller – the Oculus Rift will ship with the Xbox One gamepad for owners to use right off the bat, and motion controllers: PlayStation Move, the Nod BackSpin and the Oculus Touch, though the latter will not ship straight away. Then there’s near-full body control, including treadmils such as the Cyberith’s Virtualizer and Valve’s aforementioned Lighthouse tracking tech.

Traditional controllers appear to be the easy default option, but Oculus, Valve and Sony seem to be heading toward dual motion control, where your hands rather than a whole host of buttons interact like with the game world as they would in real life.

“Our goal was to create something to let people interact with virtual worlds in the same way they interact with the real world – grabbing, throwing, examining, poking, etcetera,” says Oculus founder Palmer Luckey of its recently unveiled Touch controllers, which also includes haptic feedback.

“We also wanted to enable communicative gestures like waving, pointing, and giving a thumbs up. Touch is only the beginning of what we all want VR to eventually be, but it does let players interact with games in ways that no other controller allows.”

nDreams CEO Patrick O’Luanaigh, whose studio has shifted fully to VR development, says people who try out the tech for the first time instinctively try to reach out and touch the virtual world, making hand tracking the most intuitive control system.

“Hands are our primary control system for the real world, and we all understand how to touch things, pull things, pick up and throw objects,” he explains. “What better input device could there be if you’re trying to simulate reality?”

Something like Cyberith’s Virtualizer treadmill, meanwhile, takes the experience even further to using your legs to explore the virtual landscape. Co-founder Holger Hager says it allows users to walk, run, jump,
crouch and sit in virtual environments, tracking movements through integrated optical sensors.

“This fully integrated optical tracking system enables decoupled viewing and walking directions, making it possible to achieve an unprecedented level of presence and immersion,” he explains.

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Vying for control

Having personally tested Valve’s VR hardware, the motion controllers feel completely natural to use. The brain can even give you a sense of real depth perception to reach out and touch objects, even in the virtual space. It’s an ideal solution for immersion. But what about those genres where a keyboard or traditional controller may be more ideal? Such as real-time strategy, or a MOBA?

VR enthusiasts don’t seem to be worried by this, and Luckey says he has already seen solutions to this potential problem.

“Touch incorporates traditional controls like an analogue stick, buttons, and triggers so developers can make hybrid experiences that combine VR with proven genres and control schemes,” he says.

“Tracking position and orientation of the controllers also means you can simulate mouse-type controls by pointing the controller. We have already seen some interesting VR strategy games that treat the playing field like a giant board game – it lets you interact with the game in cool ways, like, for example, picking up units and moving them to their destination.”

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Rebellion CEO Jason Kingsley, whose studio is working on a reimagining of classic Atari game Battlezone, says virtual reality doesn’t have to mimic real-life, and in fact his studio’s aim is to do the complete opposite.

“It’s to create environments and experiences that you can’t do in real life,” he states. “At E3 we saw a lot of people really enjoyed the unreality of our Battlezone demo, that abstract sense of being inside what is clearly a digital world – and virtual reality is the only way to really be in a digital world. In any case, with VR still in its infancy and people still experimenting, I don’t think we should really be ruling anything in or out at this stage.”

With such an array of control schemes, developers may have their work cut out integrating all of them for us in their games. After all, developing for a touchscreen is a completely different beast than creating for console controllers or a keyboard and mouse. It’s interesting then to see a company like Oculus promoting two types of input, requiring very different experiences and approaches to development.

Assuming the initial wave of consumer VR headsets will in fact stick mostly with the console controller, what genres are emerging early on as the most popular? First-person games seem like an ideal fit for VR, but isn’t the only solution.

“In fact third-person cameras can work very well,” explains O’Luanaigh. “In particular, diorama-style viewpoints work extremely well, so an real-time strategy or turn-based game from a high up viewpoint would be superb in VR. There is no need for the graphical style of VR to try to simulate reality either – stylised graphics can work just as well. It’s just as easy to believe that you’re in a Tron-style world as it is a photo-realistic universe.”

It’s something Luckey agrees with, too. Though he states first-person is an obvious fit, including simulation games like racing, flying or set in space, he says he’s seen a lot of third-person and god view games “that are also incredible”.

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Violent reality

In almost any genre, one thing big triple-A games are often notorious for is violence. Whether it’s gunning down hundreds of enemy grunts in Call of Duty or taking a chainsaw to the Locust Horde in Gears of War, the violence can often be gratuitous. This can be fun on a 2D screen, but being pitted in the action up close could prove an uncomfortable experience.

It’s something Oculus recognises, too. The Rift will display comfort ratings for games that have the potential for motion sickness or may provide a scary experience for the user.

O’Luanaigh explains that as emotions are amplified in a good VR game, developers need to avoiding “turning things up to 11”.

“Fear is stronger in VR, as players feel that they are in the action, rather than watching it,” he says.

“Happiness and excitement can both be stronger as well for similar reasons. Therefore, I think the shock of graphic violence is likely to be similarly affected. Developers need to be aware of this, and make sure that players are warned about anything that they may be uncomfortable with.”

Kingsley states that once immersion reaches a certain point, devs need to be careful not just about the intensity of the experience, but the duration and pacing as well.

“For example, one and a half hours of non-stop action in a movie is, quite frankly, not very compelling. You just get numb to it,” he says.

“Also, with VR we can do a lot of different things to broaden horizons. For example, a number of our early users have said they’ve simply enjoyed driving around the abstract world of Battlezone. So why not have a mode in there that’s all about sightseeing, as it were? If you don’t want to shoot things, that’s fine. You can just trundle around in your Battlezone tank, enjoying and taking in the incredible virtual, neon landscapes.”

A lot is riding on the early adopters of VR. Some of the biggest publishers in the games industry are currently operating on a ‘wait and see’ approach with the sector, before putting in any significant investment. From the tech to the games, everyone needs to get it right to ensure consumer adoption, and also ensure those users have good things to say about their experiences.

Despite some naysayers on the potential for virtual reality, Kingsley states that within the industry there’s a feeling that this new wave “isn’t a flash in the pan”.

“The tech needed for VR has progressed a long way in the last couple of years and has now reached a tipping point, and it’ll continue getting better – we’ve seen a number of devices from hardware manufacturers, each with their own strengths, and they’re all exciting. But the thing that remains the real drive in the games industry, however the games are presented, is content. Ultimately with VR, the content will be the key.”

Luckey, meanwhile, adds that for early VR headsets, despite the promise of a new kind of controller, it actually makes more sense to supply a traditional gamepad early on, given the decades of experience developers have with this. That’s why the Oculus Rift will initlally ship with an Xbox One Controller.

“Many genres have been shaped and defined by the tools gamers use to play games,” he explains. “Contrast that with 1:1 motion controls, which have very limited history – it is going to take time for developers to figure out what works best, and it does not make sense to force every Rift buyer to purchase something that is going to be of limited use in the immediate future, especially when it comes to Rift buyers who have little interest in motion controls.”

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