Return to Grindelind- a prototype Worldscale VR game

Worldscale VR is here, bringing massive risks and opportunities.

Last week, Oculus formally unveiled the Oculus Quest at OC 5. It’s a 6DoF (6 degrees of freedom) standalone headset, meaning no tethers, no external computer, yet essentially all the same features and capability as the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. At $399, the Quest and similarly priced standalones make VR affordable (compared to the current cost of a VR rig, which can easily run $2,000 including necessary computer). If things go as Oculus hopes, expect the Quest (and competitors) to sell like hotcakes come spring.

The real story, to me, is everything this news opens up. Unlike first generation VR systems (Vive, Oculus Rift), these new headsets can be used anywhere. Public parks, arenas, office buildings.

Obviously, there are major risks associated with players walking around in VR in public spaces, even if they’re engaging in limited room-scale experiences like Superhot. There are safety issues for them and other people, mostly regarding collisions. Right now, these same legal and health issues exist for 1st generation VR, but are circumvented by the reality that the requisite hardware, access to power outlets, and time required to set up a Vive of Rift means whoever is operating one in a public space probably has permission to do so. Think, demos at conferences, VR arcades, etcetera.

These same restrictions do not apply to 6DoF standalones. We’re likely to see a spate of news stories of people accidentally running into fountains or benches or whatever while playing VR in public spaces. Let’s hope nothing worse occurs. The same kind of public discussions and policy challenges posed by flying drones or shared electric scooters or insert tech craze here might occur as a result.

The very first review video I watched of the Vive Focus, a 6DoF standalone out in China (but not the US yet) featured people running around in a field.

Which gets me to the real question.

At SixerVR.com, my cofounder Jeremy Kirshbaum and I have been creating experiences for the Vive Focus for the past few months, mostly focusing on worldscale games. These games leverage large, conventional open spaces (soccer fields, for instance) to create huge virtual environments for players to explore. There’s been a lot of research and design for arenas and pre-designated playspaces (Dead and Buried at OC 5, for instance). But arenas require a much more extensive setup than simply going to a park and playing a game.

Below is a mixed reality video of our first prototype, called ‘Return to Grindelind’. (We have no plans to bring this game to market; this article isn’t about promoting or trying to sell a game). The prototype was designed to fit a football field.

One of the reasons we built the prototype was to test whether worldscale VR is actually worth all the trouble it poses. Yes, worldscale VR games require the player has access to a large open space. And, being in a public space, we often had friends ‘spotting’ us, to make sure we wouldn’t walk into objects or that strangers wouldn’t do whatever strangers might do to someone wandering around in their own world.

Despite the challenges, we found that the user experience and ‘feel’ of worldscale VR is transformatively different than conventional 6DoF. Walking tetherlessly is more than just a mechanical capability. The ability to see a far off thing and simply go toward it makes the virtual feel all the more real; a castle a half-mile away is actually a half mile away. When you take off the headset, you almost feel that the virtual environment is still there, albeit invisible. In my experience, worldscale brings VR immersion to a new level.

Whether other designers and the public feel the benefits outweigh the risk, or if worldscale VR will be relegated to pre-built and designed arenas, remains to be seen. Perhaps new forms of public spaces will emerge. There are other, far more lightweight solutions; the very same technology that makes inside-out tracking possible (the front-facing camera array on the standalone headsets) can be tapped into to warn players if there’s any object immediately in front of them. This approach would basically be an updated version of 1st generation VR’s “you’re approaching the edge of your capture zone” warning.

Actually, now that I think about it, the existing warning systems are called “chaperone systems”… a fitting name, considering the friends I had watch me explore while in worldscale VR were serving as exactly that: chaperones.

All risks aside, as long as the playspace is empty, playing a well-designed worldscale VR game on a soccer field is no more dangerous than playing roomscale at home, which posed similar, although simpler, risks (namely, stubbed toes on bookshelves and crashing into walls).

However worldscale VR evolves, this conversation- around using VR in public spaces, design responsibilities, and social etiquette- is one we need to start having now, before the epic fail videos start rolling in.

~Alexander Goldman & Jeremy Kirshbaum

SixerVR.com


VR for Art’s Sake

 

Alex and my latest project is a virtual reality poem, working title “My Brother’s Keeper.” The story revolves around two brothers, and their relationship, with the viewer in the role of the younger brother. It begins at the funeral of the older brother, who was killed in combat somewhere far away. The narrative explores themes of self-understanding, heroism, memory, and time.

It is an attempt to create an emotionally transporting fictional experience in VR, along with creating a VR-native narrative structure, neither of which Alex and I have seen much of in VR yet.

We both have an interest in using virtual reality for things outside of gaming, and we’ve done a lot of experiments with things like 360 video/ VR fusion, mechanics, and even VR journalism. But everything we’d done had, in some way (besides Alex’s genre-shattering SpaceFrog game), been a commentary on the medium and what it could do, not a transporting art experience that took the medium as a given. Some beautiful art is a commentary on a medium, but in most movies, books, paintings, or photographs we’d seen that really affected us, the medium had faded away...it transported us deeply into another world or idea. It is ironic that this doesn’t often happen in VR, given that total immersion would seem to be an easy opportunity to accomplish this.

Alex and I both write a lot of poetry and short stories (Alex has also written an excellent YA novel), and we are great lovers of literature. So we decided to start with the medium of poetry. Poetry affords a particular kind of freedom of thought and flexibility of composition that we were interested in leveraging. We spent a long time talking about the narrative and the world around it. Both of us grew up in families with two other brothers so we drew a lot from our childhood memories (although neither of our experiences were anything like what appear in this experience). We had also been having a lot of discussions about heroism and American identity, so we knew this would come through as well.

We also wanted a form of narrative that would leverage the potential of VR. When a new medium emerges, the first attempts to use it are almost always just replications of a previous medium. Early uses of film were just “moving pictures,” and they looked like that--steady, repetitive shots of a single viewpoint. Early cars were “horseless carriages,” and looked the part. VR has done basically the same thing, porting linear narratives into the medium, so we have “VR movies” and “VR video games.” Creating something native to VR at a conceptual level meant developing a non linear narrative...specifically, a three dimensional narrative.

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We constructed the narrative with three axes: symbolic, chronological, and emotional. This formed a cube with many intersections. Since we already knew the key events in the brothers’ lives and emotions we were trying to evoke, we discussed at length recurring symbols we could use to represent these ideas. This gave us many different intersections of the three axies that we used as guides when writing the prose poems that would populate the space.

 

In our initial plans there were 6 time periods, 4 key symbols, and two core emotional tones, which would make 48 individual intersections. Ultimately we didn’t actually procedurally create a poem or short prose piece for each of those intersections, but they served as guides, and we have been mapping them along this as we create them using a table like this:

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We have tried to be careful about length for the poems, since they will need to be read in VR:

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The protagonist, embodying the younger brother, will navigate through space via walking and teleportation (although we are searching for a new navigation tool...teleportation is kind of the lesser of evils in terms of navigating a space at this point). No one will navigate chronologically through the spaces...they will navigate back and forth through time, triggered by the different symbols. The connective tissue is not chronology, however...it is the connection of the symbols and content. Sometimes when people reappear in a scene, the narratives will have changed. This replicates the way that we actually navigate identity and memory...relationally and iteratively.

The idea is that the person, along with getting to know and exploring the house in which the narrative takes place, will also “wander around” within the narrative, building an increasingly clear picture of what is happening the longer that they spend in there. The idea itself is three dimensional, and along with wandering around in the three dimensional space, the protagonist is wandering around a three dimensional idea...a sculptural concept.

“Sticking the landing” on the idea will involve doing some of the banal details really well. How the text appears to people, and what size, will make or break the experience for people. Also, how and when people end the experience will be important...we want to give people “permission to exit” and avoid an “infinite scroll” kind of fatigue-based ending. The navigation between scenes will be important too. We want these mechanics to be invisible and so simple that someone using VR for the first time could flawlessly navigate them. And as any designer knows, making a simple mechanic invisible and seamless is much harder than making something creative and obvious.

The cutting edge of virtual reality is not the latest technology or haptics, it is the new emotional experiences that we can create for people that were not before possible. We can create incredible immersive experiences with simple a paintbrush, a canvas, and paint. The point of strapping a screen to our face and connecting it to a 2000 dollar supercomputer must only to be to achieve something that goes beyond this, that transports us in a way that way simply not possible before. If we can’t achieve this, then the project of virtual reality itself is pointless, and we would be better off sticking to painting and movies. Prognosticators are right that technology will continue to advance, but not at the speed of Moore’s Law or the speed of light. Technology will fly forward at the speed of art.

Crafting a literary VR game part 4) Room layout + atmosphere testing!

Crafting a literary VR game, part 1: Concepting + Story Design

Crafting a literary VR game, part 2) from Concept to Narrative Timeline to Script to Set Design!

Crafting a literary VR game, part 3) Nailing down the story / Design document drafting!

Greetings world!

When last we checked in, I'd been working on the story for this crazy game involving inter-dimensional gods who eat happiness, 70's and 80's retro decor, and a grizzled Midwestern cop who's forced to investigate the disappearance of his estranged father.

Next on my design/development schedule for this game was supposed to be mocking up all the interactions with code. But I was having trouble persuading myself to get back into development, so I decided to take a few hours to focus on something simpler than prototyping the player interactions. And something a bit more immediately rewarding: environment design.

So I went on Sketchfab and the Unity Asset Store to find models to populate the estranged father's apartment. This is about a lot more than just decorating though: environment design is about finding visual elements and creating a space that heightens immersion, resonates back the game's primary themes and tones, and supports way-finding (navigation) and the player journey.

You can see, first of all, the color palette of muted greens, yellows, and blues, with a flair of orange/red for the kitchen for contrast.

Through this design experience, I encountered a few challenges / learned some new things:

1) The estranged father (who went missing) was an emotionally remote and repressed man for most of his life, but in the past couple months went through a dramatic personal blossoming. Figuring out how to reflect that in his space is challenging. I'll have to add some elements that are in blatant contrast with each-other, yet are still in keeping with the overall ethos of the game.

2) Almost any color, when used throughout a scene, has the effect of being depressing. Color tone variation alone is enough to spice up the composition to help the player feel that the environment is energized, rather than subdued.

3) It sounds  stupid, but homes have a lot of things in them. That's a huge opportunity for storytelling, and a major challenge / timesink as well. Sure, you can always place cabinets with closed doors, but the space will still feel empty.

NEXT UP: Interaction prototyping for the main scene!