Virtual Reality Shifts Into Greater Focus

Todd Martens
Golem by Highwire Games
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Virtual reality is something of a great unknown, and that’s what has developers excited.

SAN FRANCISCO — Jaime Griesemer’s Highwire Games will be among the first companies to release a video game in the modern virtual reality space. But at San Francisco’s Game Developers Conference this week, he recalled a time when he was at work on another potentially revolutionary game.

One problem: It made early testers sick.

He’s not talking about VR itself, which is poised for a breakout year in 2016. In the weeks and months to come, three major VR headsets will be unleashed on the public. While they won’t be cheap, they will signal a new era in gaming, one in which long-held truths about game design will no longer apply. And while they will bring with them new frontiers, there are also new challenges.

Chief among them: How to minimize motion sickness. This is where Griesemer thinks it’s important to remember a lesson from the past.

In the early 2000s, Griesemer was working on a title that would redefine what it means to be a first-person shooter via a video game console. That game was “Halo.” In the decade-and-a-half that followed, first-person shooters became the dominant genre on home video game systems. But at first, players couldn’t handle it.

“When you’re trying something experimental like we are, you have to bring people along,” Griesemer said. “The first time we ran a play test of ‘Halo’ one, a third of people in the play test got sick, and that was on a TV. They couldn’t coordinate their thumbs, and the screen wasn’t doing what they wanted and they had a bad reaction.”

Players at the time were still unaccustomed to controlling a complex array of movements via a video game controller — those of the character, the camera and the weapon. Even to this day, it can be daunting for the uninitiated.

Virtual reality presents a greater challenge. In a fully immersive world, the player’s head essentially becomes the camera.

Crafting solutions to this problem may very well result in the most experimental era of game design yet.

In Highwire Games’ “Golem,” for instance, seated players will subtly tilt in the direction they want to move. Occasionally they will do so from the perspective of a tiny doll. Sometimes they will see the world as a giant monster. At times a bed will tower over the player, a sensation akin to visiting the Broad museum and standing beneath “Under the Table,” Robert Therrien’s mega dining table set that looms over visitors.

“Moving around is a tough problem,” Griesemer admitted. “You see lots of different experiments around here with people trying to solve it. Some people don’t let you move. Some people put you on a rail. Some people put you in a cockpit. But for the kind of games that we wanted to make, you need to be able to explore a space and stick your nose in different crannies and not feel constrained.”

Researcher and developer Kimberly Voll reminded designers that players, when putting on a VR headset, are placing trust in the game maker. She added that a player’s brain will be working overtime to make sense of this new digital world.

“Our brain,” she said, “is designed to move us around the world, not have the world move around us.”

Though it’s clear at GDC that motion sickness is something of a tired topic, it’s also one that can’t be avoided. One designer after another has different ideas on how to conquer it.

The independent game “Xing” encourages players to move slowly through a meditative vision of the afterlife by simply turning the controller. “Super Hypercube” is a techno-futuristic puzzle game in which a player must look under and around floating blocks to gain a proper perspective. Imagine “Tetris,” only the shapes float around you.

Virtual reality, says “Super Hypercube” developer Heather Kelley, reminds her of a world she once only read about. “A lot of us,” she said, “grew up reading science fiction and sort of felt like this was inevitable anyways.”

If there are growing pains, Kelley urges people to remember that it’s early days yet. “It feels like we’re at the beginning of where it becomes real and not just something that’s in a university laboratory,” she said.

Such excitement about VR at GDC is contagious. On Monday, the first day of the industry conference, VR talks were standing-room only and many attendees were forced to watch the discussions on TVs in hallways, prompting organizers to move all VR talks to larger convention halls.

The market for VR, experts at GDC predict, will be huge. Developer and designer Jesse Schell theorized that 8 million VR headsets will be sold by the end of 2017.

First out of the gate is the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift, due for release later this month. In May, HTC’s Vive will follow and in October Sony will release its PlayStation VR for the PlayStation 4. Prices range from $399 for the latter to $799 for the Vive, which comes with wall sensors that will allow for players to walk around a room while wearing the headset.

“VR is not applying what we already have,” said Richard Marks, a primary architect of Sony’s PlayStation VR. “It’s actually making something new. I think that happens not all the time. It happens rarely.”

So why now?

“We reached a level where we were very good at making mobile games, we were very good at making console games, and now I think people are embracing VR because it’s a new kind of a challenge — a completely new set of experiences.”

Curiously, VR may actually simplify gaming.

While Voll notes that VR does indeed ask a lot from players, what with wearing a large, blocky headset that closes people off from the real world, a fully surrounded view means that a complex control scheme must be thrown out the window. Most VR games get back to basics — one or two buttons intermixed with motion controls.

“Golem,” a PlayStation VR exclusive, aims to slowly transition people to this new world. When players first don the headset, they won’t be able to move.

“That’s a trigger for some people,” Griesemer said, adding that the title, in its beginning, will instruct players to remove the headset at times, wanting to gradually acclimate newcomers to the medium.

Ultimately, VR is something of a great unknown, and that’s what has developers at GDC excited. When asked, for instance, what works particularly well in the space, Sony’s Marks had a succinct response: “Doing it exactly the way we did it before is probably not the right answer.”

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