Companies Work to Make Virtual Reality Appealing Beyond Gamers

[Corrected 10/7/2014, 11:47 a.m. See below.] Virtual reality has enormous potential in gaming and beyond, but it has to be presented to wider audiences in an accessible way. I saw several examples of companies doing just that at a VR event in Seattle last week.

The event at Paul Allen’s Living Computer Museum also highlighted how the concentration of video game talent in and around Seattle and Vancouver, Canada, position the region to be a major center for this new, transformative technology.

Some developers are working on VR games that are actually less immersive, thereby trying to avoid some of the off-putting effects of VR experienced by novices. I was also impressed by new VR input devices that do away with console controllers covered with unfamiliar buttons and triggers.

“I wanted to make something that doesn’t make me sick,” said Chandana “Eka” Ekanayake, art director at Kirkland, WA-based Uber Entertainment, as he introduced the game Ikarus. [An earlier version of this story misspelled Ekanayake’s given name.]

A longtime game developer, Ekanayake experienced discomfort when he started experimenting with VR. The feeling of rotational acceleration created when he turned his head and watched the view inside the VR headset move left him “kind of woozy.”

Playing Ikarus, a game by Uber Entertainment meant to help people get comfortable with virtual reality.

Playing Ikarus, a game by Uber Entertainment meant to help people get comfortable with virtual reality.

In Ikarus, players have a third-person view of the main character. The view cuts to new angles as the character progresses through the game, following editing techniques from film to help the player keep track of the character. The perspective pops to first-person for solving puzzles. “I wanted to make something that was sort of easy-access for people that are getting their feet wet in VR,” Ekanayake said, adding, “We’re just trying to figure out, is this a comfortable experience? Which is not something you really have to think about too much” in non-VR games.

San Francisco-based Leap Motion, which makes a small device that sits on a desktop and uses infrared cameras to track 3D movement in the space above it, demonstrated how this new mode of computer input melds with virtual reality.

Putting on a headset made by Irvine, CA based Oculus VR—the company Facebook acquired this year for $2 billion—I could see my hands in front of me in a dark, empty, infinite space. The Leap software illuminated the approximate location of my bones and the tips of my fingers. In one demo, the space filled with colored balls that I could swat around.

In another, a series of grids appeared to provide a sense of scale and distance in the virtual space. Tilting my hands up, I began flying through the space, the grids zipping by at high speed. I tilted my hands and began a gliding turn to the right. It felt intuitive; no buttons to press, no sticks to manipulate. It was a fun, untethered interaction with a computer that was unique in my experience.

Leap co-founder and chief technology officer David Holz said VR represents a major change in our relationship with computers and digital objects.

“What you’re seeing here is output is becoming more real, and input is becoming more real,” Holz said. “This digital stuff that used to be this weird not-real thing is becoming more real. That’s part of a really interesting, profound transition for people as a whole and culture as a whole.

“What does it mean when digital isn’t just ones and zeros, but it’s like a new material, like plastic and wood—this real thing that surrounds us, that we can interact with like a real part of the world. What is that?”

First-person light saber battle from Atomic VR.

First-person light saber battle from Atomic VR.

Real people, encountered in VR, also seem more real. I popped on another Rift headset and headphones, and stepped into a virtual conference room, guided by Jesse Joudrey, co-founder and CEO of VR Chat, a Vancouver, Canada, startup. There was a guy outfitted as the Halo character Master Chief—co-founder Graham Gaylor, in Houston, TX—and another who chose to present himself as, in Joudrey’s words, a “Transformer made out of cats.” He was in Las Vegas and is one of VR Chat’s avid users.

I wanted to know how this was different from online virtual worlds like Second Life.

“The amount of emotion you’re able to invest in another person in the room, or in your own person in the room—whatever you choose to look like—is greatly enhanced by the virtual reality headset, and the virtual input devices,” Joudrey said.

He continued, “It’s funny how some of the things from the real world translate into virtual reality that didn’t in other mediums. Personal space is an issue now. You can’t get too close to people or they wig out. Also, I’m shifting back and forth while I talk. People in VR do that, too, even with something as rudimentary as the keyboard. They’ll just sit there and twiddle the A and D keys to shift the perspective back and forth when they’re talking to bring that kind of real-world experience into virtual reality. That’s something that no other platform—other than virtual reality—has been able to offer.”

Sure enough, in the virtual conference room, Master Chief turned out to be kind of a close-talker, and rather than just brushing it off like I might have when bumping into another player’s character in a non-VR game, I felt a real need to take a virtual step back and get some space.

The VR event was organized by Envelop VR, a VR software maker, and Allen’s Vulcan Ventures. It featured about 20 companies—most, but not all, from the Northwest—showing off a range of VR tools, devices, games, and other applications.

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