So virtual reality is officially back! With Facebook's Oculus Rift acquisition offering the potential of a mass-market head-mounted display (HMD) device and Sony's innovation strategy focused very clearly on Project Morpheus, consumer HMD devices and the VR experience are set to soon be part of everyone's everyday lives.
As a games studio focused on helping people look at, and feel differently about, the world around them, VR presents some hugely exciting opportunities to improve the engagement, drama, authenticity and resonance of what we do. Perhaps, maybe, even the efficacy.
Back to the Future
Whilst it feels like a new thing, VR has actually been around for over 25 years.
Back in the 1980’s the term virtual reality was popularised by a researcher called Jaron Lanier who founded VPL Research which created some of the very early HMD-like devices. Subsequently the idea of virtual worlds started creeping into popular media, with films such as The Brainstorm and The Lawnmower Man showing its potential.
By the mid-1990’s, devices such as Virtual I-O’s iGlasses started being released commercially, but never caught traction due to, amongst other issues, the high price, bulky size, minimal software support and motion sickness experienced by users.
E3 2012 was a big turning point for HMD devices. John Carmack discovered VR enthusiast Palmer Luckey’s fresh attempt at creating a HMD and they teamed up to create a prototype version of Doom 3 – running on a very early Oculus prototype. This demo was a massive hit among industry attendees and press alike as the possibility to create a fantastic VR experience at an affordable price finally seemed possible.
Now there are many different HMD devices coming to market. The new Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus are two that focus on tracking the position as well as the orientation of the head. Other companies have started to play with mixing VR with augmented reality (AR). AR enhances the real world rather than putting the player in a virtual one. The True Player Gear’s Totem, CastAR and Valve’s Prototype are bringing virtual components back into the real world.
Cheaper devices mean a larger audience. Sulon Cortex and Gameface Labs Mark IV use custom Android devices in their kits, while Durovis Dive and vrAse take it further by creating what’s effectively a smartphone head mount.
For what purpose?
VR has always been positioned as the holy grail of authentic and realistic experiences. The recreation of accurate scenarios within an immersive simulation has long been used by the military for training purposes, but as HMD devices become affordable and ubiquitous, what opportunities does this present other industries interested in games with purpose?
Any time, any place
Virtual reality’s primary benefit is being able to teleport the player to any environment; to any time and place. This freedom is especially important for those with limited mobility. An elderly woman in a retirement home recently used an Oculus to explore a garden and walk stairs again. This simple environment brought her to tears.
Work is also being done to help PTSD sufferers deal with their trauma by replicating the scene within virtual reality and there is great interest in using a similar approach for other conditions like amnesia, Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Therapy using VR could also help sufferers overcome the crippling debilitation of phobias. PsyTech is creating an Anxiety Management Virtual Reality Platform for exposure therapy, creating a space for the player to go at their own pace within a secure environment.
Beyond health, allowing players to enter a space from their own home opens up avenues that the commercial sector are only just exploring. For example, being able to visit a house up for sale from your work desk would mean not having to take a day’s holiday, saving travel expenses and time. A ‘virtual’ preview of the ‘real thing’ is a tantalising prospect for the retail and leisure sector alike.
Perhaps most exciting are the possibilities for education. The first use of a VR presentation, back in 1994, was a museum-based interactive walk through a reconstruction of Dudley Castle as it was in 1550. It’s now possible for museum spaces and schools to teleport students to specific moments in history, to allow them to experience being executed by a guillotine, take tours of space or even explore the depths of the ocean. Those interested in natural history will also soon be able to watch a VR nature documentary narrated by David Attenborough.
The controlled environment
VR can be used to create and explore controlled environments where either the player or the game creator has full control of the outcomes.
VR (and games generally) allow skills to be learned without risk. Examples include learning to drive, using specialist vehicles, testing new fire and rescue techniques, in surgery, or even in space. Not only can this type of training be more effective, but it can bring with it cost benefits by avoiding material damage and wastage. It also most importantly keeps people safe.
In the future researchers can use VR to test how players might react in highly risky (virtual) situations, such as driving when drunk. The results could be easily analysed with statistical analysis built in, and variables changed on the fly with careful design.
VR can also be used to increase the performance of company staff, by allowing them to practice public speaking for example. More traditional e-learning and serious gaming software developers such as TechTransfer have started providing software solutions with VR, and will no doubt be applying the technology to simulations to teach their clients’ requirements, for example in their Combined Cycle Plant simulation.
On a lighter side, HMDs allow for some interesting teamwork exercises. Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes was created for the Global Game Jam 2014. Only the HMD wearer can see the environment while other players have to guide that person through defusing a bomb using a series of printed instructions.
Design, test and iterate solutions
VR has the potential to revolutionise the product and environmental design industries, by allowing the audience to interact with their ‘products’ in a virtual prototype. Perhaps most exciting is the potential to rapidly iterate this ‘product’ led by the audience’s feedback from their hands-on experience.
There are already industries incorporating VR into their design process. Ford are currently using an Oculus Rift and producing a virtual lab where customers and designers can look around a concept car, to scale, without it needing to be physically created. Companies such as Arch Virtual and Immeractive provide a third-party solution and create 3D environments and have started using HMD devices to better visualise their simulations.
An ad agency recently put out a promotional video showing an HMD user “walking” around an interactive VR Tesco store. This proof of concept shows that VR allows anyone to visualise and explore their designs without having to create a physical prototype, whereas traditional 3D modeling only allows the user to guess how something will ultimately look in real life.
See yourself differently
Games and Virtual Worlds have always allowed players to become someone else, but VR has the potential to make that act more believable. In VR it's no longer just role-playing, but the total embodiment of a character in world seen through their avatar’s eyes.
This altered perspective can be used in an educational context to help people understand other’s limitations or experiences. It could allow users to be a child, use a wheelchair, to experience what it is like to suffer from Dementia - or even become another sex.
Empathy doesn’t have to be full body. There is now research into using virtual reality to treat Phantom Limb Pain. By augmenting the missing limb back to where the player expects it, and doing some exercises, the pain can be reduced. Similar techniques can be used in learning to use new prostheses and for playing physio and exercise games.
As the player is naturally controlling an avatar of themselves there’s nothing to stop them from controlling a real avatar - a robot - at the same time, with camera input into the HMD device from the external device. NASA have started using an Oculus Rift to control a robot’s arm, for a more natural control method than a joystick. It’s predicted that this sort of technology will help them control devices in dangerous areas, or where humans can’t yet reach.
New experiences to “old” media
VR enables us to explore and appreciate existing media through a new medium. One of the more popular VR applications is VR Cinema, which is exactly what it sounds like - a movie playing application which allows the user to watch their film from the comfort of their own private VR cinema.
Pushing it further, the makers of Zero Point believe that it is possible to create an entirely HMD-based film, designed to be watched with an Oculus Rift. They are attempting to be the first to produce a full VR movie.
Fans of shows love to role-play, so much so that they have started creating VR spaces of their favourite films and shows. One such space is an apartment from Seinfeld, but it’s not just real sets, the Boiler Room from Spirited Away has been recreated too. It’s only a matter of time before marketing companies decide that allowing their fans to feel part of the world is a powerful driver for securing their fanbase, and potential new revenue streams.
Fancy being in a theatre production? With the VR stage play The Entertainment, there are now opportunities to allow players to practise being on the stage within VR. Not only can you view the production from every angle, but you can also be inside it. Players are given the part of a mute observer in a bar scene and are left to explore the play in their own time.
The consumer is about to have choice, creating the market forces which will solve one of the biggest VR challenges to date; the cost.
Just as the self-publishing revolution brought a richer, more varied gaming landscape, the increasing ubiquity of HMD units will facilitate an equally rich landscape of powerful bespoke VR games with purpose.
As these above examples show, VR allows players to get closer to the intended purpose; to be transported to different environments, to learn skills in a safe risk-free environment and to see the world through another’s eyes. This new authenticity of experience will not only create more memorable experiences for the audience, but become a powerful tool for business, education, health and creative sectors.
[Katie Goode is a game designer at Preloaded, a BAFTA winning applied games studio creating games designed to improve the way people live, learn and engage with the world around them.]