Seven Things We Learned About Virtual Reality At GDC

by Mike Futter on Mar 24, 2014 at 08:15 AM

Last week at the Game Developers Conference, I spent a significant amount of time talking with virtual reality designers and trying out different products. Thanks to the diversity of experiences, I was able to get a better view of the landscape.

There is no singular VR solution
When we spoke with Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey and CEO Brendon Iribe, we asked if they thought the number of entrants in the space was causing fragmentation that might damage consumer uptake. “The more people that get into this the better, because the more investment and momentum the industry will get as a whole,” Iribe said. “It’s exciting to see all this take off.”

“I think fragmentation in this early stage is almost inevitable,” Luckey told us. “We’re all solving problems in such a different way.”

During the week, I tried six different VR experiences that were all different, and while I think Oculus leads the field, I can see other solutions working. Sony’s Project Morpheus is off to a great start. Gameface has a great deal of potential. Each approaches the problem of consumer virtual reality tech in different ways, but all could simultaneously succeed.

Seated VR is wildly different from a standing or mobile experience
Oculus has been adamant in their assertion that the Rift is designed for seated experiences. While it’s possible to look around a 360 degree view, software designed for the Rift will likely be focused (at most) on a swivel chair.

That’s not to say that people won’t be able to design more mobile experiences for it, but it isn’t the intent. Having tried a “holodeck-like” device, the Solun Cortex, I can tell you that it is disconcerting. Perhaps it was because of a lack of “presence” in the virtual world of the Cortex prototype, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was walking around an empty hotel room blind.

To a lesser degree, it was odd using Sony’s Project Morpheus on my feet. Kneeling on the ground in the Mars demo wasn’t nearly as off-putting as walking around a room with a headset on, but I still felt off-balance. In order for vertical differentials to work, I think I would need to be able to see my body as I do when I’m kneeling down or standing up from a crouch.

Seated VR will still likely have limitations
When I was testing one of the devices, I was in a fixed-leg chair (and not a swivel chair). Reorienting myself to the proper “forward” direction meant sitting sideways, and it was extremely cumbersome to rotate my body.

VR in a stationary chair works extremely well for something like EVE Valkyrie, which puts players in a cockpit of a moving vehicle that can, itself, be moved in different directions. Those who wish to bring a device into their homes will likely need to consider a number of furniture and room layout factors, most of which we haven’t yet even realized.

Even good VR experiences might make you nauseous
When we spoke with Oculus CEO Brendon Iribe, he revealed that he is the most sensitive user in the company. With the new developer kit, he can stay in longer than before, and the experience should be even better when a consumer model is released.

My stomach isn’t cast iron, but I’ve had few problems with the Rift and with Sony’s Project Morpheus. Bad VR though, can make me very ill. 

I also experienced a sudden onset of nausea using one of the devices because we had very little time and I was rapidly putting the device on and taking it off to switch among demos. Don’t do that. Trust me. Going in and out of VR rapidly, even if you aren’t moving much, is a recipe for intestinal evacuation.

VR experiences are hard to communicate
If you’ll recall when we were leading up to the launches of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, we discussed how difficult it was to convey the visual fidelity of the some of the titles. Video compression means that even gorgeous games like Infamous: Second Son don’t look quite as good in a trailer as they do on your television screen.

With VR, that problem is further compounded. We can’t use traditional video or screenshot assets to show you what it’s like to wear a virtual reality headset. You can’t mimic being inside a scene with a 2D image.

This is why you’ll find excessive description as we talk about VR experiences. Until more users can try Oculus, Project Morpheus, and other solutions for themselves, our vocabulary is limited. Once you have demoed it though, you’ll find that talking to others who have becomes easier as you have a shared visual vocabulary.

First-person content is the beginning, not the end
We assume that because VR is an experiential medium that the ideal experiences will be in first-person view. Oculus displayed two new demos that flip that thinking on its ear. 

Couch Knight, which puts players in a living room environment with action played out in front of them is a perfect example. I looked around the room, saw my opponent, and peered around obstacles in the environment all without seeing through the eyes of my character. It’s proof that third person implemented for VR can work extremely well.

Elemental Defense is another example of how a traditional top-down perspective can be applied in a virtual world. Being able to move around the “table,” lean in and examine the map, and more accurately time attacks against the oncoming march of monsters shows that there flexibility in what can be done in the space.

First-person might work well, but if you think about fast first-person shooters and some of the verticality involved, it’s reasonable to think that some stomachs might not be able to handle it. And if there isn’t a robust market for that kind of VR experience, then you’ll see developers shying away from it. No buyers means no revenue.

VR is a marathon, not a sprint
The reason why Oculus has iterated throughout its development is because those in the company leadership know that there won’t be a second chance. If the first consumer VR experience isn’t great, a large segment of the population will be lost.

Oculus continues to refine its best practices document with each new hardware update, helping developers implement software based on the company’s learnings about the medium. Others are taking a different approach, though.

We spoke with companies that believe that mainstream interest will be driven best by putting some technology, however imperfect, in the hands of end users. I tend to agree with Oculus, but I can’t deny that there will be some that jump at the chance to be early adopters. If you’re unsure though, I recommend waiting. A good first VR experience can open your eyes to a brand new medium of entertainment. A bad one could send you running for wastebasket and sour you on it for good. 

For more on our virtual reality experiences, check out our coverage lineup: