Sony arguably stole the show at this year's GDC with the almost surprising announcement of its long-rumoured virtual reality headset, codenamed Project Morpheus.
Stealing some of the limelight from the pioneering Oculus Rift, PlayStation significantly added to the credibility of virtual reality as a commercial product with a device that could soon be in the hands of PlayStation 4 owners.
We caught up with Dave Ranyard, studio head at Sony's Londn Studio, whose team showed off one of the major first-party demos for Project Morpheus: The Deep, a deep sea diving experience that was available to play on the show floor in San Francisco.
Develop asked Ranyard about his team's work and his views on the growing virtual reality phenomenon.
Many see Sony’s unveiling of Project Morpheus as indicative of the viability of virtual reality. Is that part of the motivation behind it?
Right now, it’s an interest. It’s a statement of interest from us.
For VR, the stars have aligned: the processing powers, the screens, the latency and all the things that have stopped the technology from moving forward in the past are now in a place that means you can get the experience you want. The fundamental basics are there, so its time is now. I think it’s going to be talked about a lot. At Sony, we’re now showing our hand: we’re interested in this. And that’s really good because it means we can have open conversations about VR, and attract developers to it.
From a studio perspective, we’ve spent the last six to nine months really looking at this in earnest and it’s been fascinating. A lot of the experiences need to be designed from the ground up. It’s not like a port; you can work around 360 degrees, you can be inside the environment – it’s different to having a window into an environment and having everything within a certain range of a virtual camera. That’s been really exciting for us and we’ve come up with loads of things we want to do. We’re learning stuff all the time; things that we think will be great aren’t, and things we don’t think will be great are. So we’re trying lots of different things.
For VR, the stars have aligned: the processing powers, the screens, the latency and all the things that have stopped the technology from moving forward in the past are now in a place that means you can get the experience you want.
Our focus has been looking at new experiences. I’m sure there’ll be some great experiences that do port well – that depends on what the initial activity is. One of the things we’ve learned about new experiences is the less abstraction, the better. Our demo has you lowered into the sea in a shark cage: you’re standing up in both the demo and the real world, so there’s no abstraction in what you’re doing there. Even putting on a virtual reality headset is not dissimilar to putting a diver’s mask on. It helps you immerse. If you’re doing something in the VR space that’s very different to what you’re doing in the real world, you’re one step away from the presence and true immersion.
Things like EVE Valkyrie are seated experiences, and you’re sitting down to play it: you’re kind of tricking your brain into thinking you’re in this other place. The more of those things you can align, the better.
What else is involved in ‘tricking the brain’? The visuals and whether players are sitting or standing are important, but what about things like audio?
Something I’ve learned is that when we’re demoing, it’s really important that people have got their headphones on. Sometimes in the development environment, you’re in the moment and don’t think about it, but you lose so much by not putting the audio on because half your senses are showing you one thing, but the other half are telling you something else, so again you’re missing a big part of the immersion from that.
From a development point of view, I think there are some fundamental differences to be aware of. For example, when you’re making a traditional game you might worry about the framerate a bit later – but you need it to be a good standard for VR because it will have physiological effects on people. If it’s too slow, it can make them feel ill. When I was making The Getaway years ago, the framerate dropping – while frustrating in terms of visual fidelity – didn’t actually have a physical impact on anyone looking at the screen. That’s a fundamental difference: you’ve really got to nail that stuff and keep it nailed.
No abstraction is the biggie for us. If you can do things where you’re actually tracking arm movement rather than moving a stick on a pad, that can make a difference. A driving experience is better with a steering wheel, or at least tilting a gamepad in a steering way, rather than using an analogue stick. It’s a personal thing, of course, and some people might prefer traditional controls, but as we’ve experimented with different things, we’ve tried as many times as possible to do as close to one-to-one mapping as we can.
Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus surprised a lot of people, but what do you think it means for the future of virtual reality?
I was obviously pleased with the reception that everyone working in VR got at GDC. It seems to be a hot topic within games and with a broader reach. This acquisition is a validation of how the world is taking VR seriously.
So why is everyone interested in virtual reality now? Technology firms have been trying to master it for decades.
I think it’s two things. Firstly, the technology is there. Because of the mobile market, there’s been loads of technology improvement around screens, for example. Machines are now powerful enough to render frames quickly, we can achieve the framerates we need, reduce latency and do a number of other things in a way that means the brain can’t perceive that it’s being tricked.
I think the other side is there’s a passion for VR. That’s certainly the case within Sony: it’s not just one group of people telling everyone else what to do, it’s groups within Sony that actually have a passion to make this happen and are really excited about it.
And I’m sure that’s felt by other people outside of Sony. There’s a real positive vibe around VR because it’s cool and exciting. When I was at school, the thought of doing this years later would have been my wildest dreams come true.
Throughout history, disruptive technologies have stopped and started, so who’s to say how this will play out? But I’ve seen some incredible experiences in virtual reality, so I do believe that they can appeal to a large market.
There’s passion and demand for virtual reality – the briefest glimpse over the internet proves that – but will that translate into a significant audience?
Providing we make the right experiences that appeal to a certain sector of the market, then yes, I think there will be supply and demand for VR.
It’s a disruptive technology: throughout the history of media and entertainment, disruptive technologies have stopped and started, so who’s to say exactly how this will play out? But I’ve seen some incredible experiences in virtual reality, so I do believe that, done right, they can appeal to a large market.
For me the question is not whether there’s an audience, but how long it will take to get to a place where we can cater to it. There are a lot of factors to take into account – technology, price, platform – and they’re going to be complicated to navigate.
SCE London showed off The Deep at GDC, but this was just a tech demo. What do you have in the works when it comes to full games?
We’re certainly very excited about the experiences you can make in VR. We’ve looked at a lot of different protoypes. It was great to put The Deep out there and see people playing it. There’s still more work for us to do on what we might propose if we were to make a product, but we had a really good a reception to The Deep. Some of the people actually had a genuine, physical, excited reaction to it. We’ve learned a lot from that, and there’s more we can learn over the coming months seeing people try different ideas we’ve had with VR.
You mentioned before that disruptive technologies have often had a stop-start momentum in the past. How do we ensure VR is all start and no stop?
I think there’s a crest of a wave here that we can ride. There’s a groundswell of excitement around VR, so I think it’s just about keeping the momentum and moving forward. Working hard, being passionate and making sure we get great experiences out there.
Want to get involved in our VR special all this week? Have something to say about virtual reality and what it means for developers? Email James.Batchelor@intentmedia.co.uk to find out how you can take part.