As gamers are well aware this is the year of Virtual Reality and with Oculus/Facebook, HTC/Valve, and Sony all releasing their long awaited headsets, it’s hard to know where to look to avoid the topic as it seeps further into the mainstream consciousness. Little wonder, then, that a good proportion of the panels at this year’s Develop conference in Brighton addressed the topic in some form. But far from untrodden ground, this industry has been here before.

Following much theoretical speculation in the late eighties, early VR experiments lumbered half formed into the dazzling light of day throughout the nineties, but failed to stand up to scrutiny despite being championed in pop culture by shows like VR Troopers and Reboot. One might argue that the first wave of VR became too infused in the new age techno-mysticism of Silicon Valley prophets to ever fully deliver on the fantasy being sold to the public. It was also a favourite target of critique or ridicule in dystopian cyberpunk novels like William Gibons’ Neuromancer, from which we derive the term cyberspace, and films such as The Lawnmower Man, where its revolutionary potential was no less exaggerated. Promises of the transformative potential of virtual reality, whether negative or positive, could never be realised by the crude reality the industry actually delivered, with its blocky graphics and limited interaction. We were promised the Holodeck, but we were given the Virtual Boy, and the promise of the first wave of VR died in 1995 with the unprecedented flop of Nintendo’s half-baked system, which became the most high profile of the VR failures. For the last twenty years VR has been in hiding gathering allies, building its strength, waiting for its time to pounce.

The face of 90s VR.
The face of 90s VR.

Anna Sweet, head of Oculus Developer Strategy, gave the keynote talk on the first day of develop, kicking off the VR focus, and it was fascinating to hear her speak on Oculus’ vision for creating VR as “the next big platform” for developers. Whilst videogames principally privilege the visual, Sweet points out that with VR, because you are there bodily, game design needs to radically adjust and new genres need to form. When it came to figuring out what genre Job Simulator belonged to their solution was simply to write Name: Job Simulator. Genre: job simulator. A lot of what is being made for VR is completely new.

We get to go back to our crazy ideas that we had to abandon because the language didn’t exist.”

As such VR levels the playing field, giving small studios with fresh ideas as much chance of succeeding as massive corporations: “We get to go back to our crazy ideas,” she says, “that we had to abandon because the language didn’t exist.” To that end she notes that the biggest selling game on Oculus Rift thus far hasn’t been an FPS or a racing game, but a simulation of mountain climbing. All assumptions need to be questioned. For instance, Anna notes that whilst at first the only thing they were sure would work in VR was first person shooters, everybody eventually decided that was the only thing that definitely couldn’t work. Now they’re coming around on the idea again.

This time around the same mistakes haven’t been made. Whilst the first wave of VR was driven by poets, dreamers, prophets and radical intellectuals, VR 2.0 has been the preserve of level headed businessmen, PR savvy developers and people like Anna Sweet, who are quietly visionary but always careful not to put the cart before the horse. Rather than naval gazing and excessive speculation around concepts like transhumanism, VR has been allowed to speak for itself. For something as strange and magical as VR to succeed, the logic seems to go, it needs to be introduced in a counter-intuitively pragmatic manner.

Even on a panel with the somewhat more promissory title Next Generation Visuals: Creating Art for VR, caution was the watch word. Brynley Gibson of PlayStation VR Worlds, Matt Jeffrey of Rebellion, and Shawn Spetch of Guerrilla games all agreed the most important consideration for making games in VR was player comfort. Whilst the triple A industry chases ever more graphical detail, those working on VR titles stress the importance of placing believability over realism, and pragmatism above creativity.

Rigs Mechanised Combat League by Guerrilla games is a case in point. The trailer (above) could have initially passed as a slickly produced Formula 1 advert, until you realise that the sleek, fibreglass chassis coming into frame are not cars at all but piloted combat mechs, about to duke it out in one of the more believable looking takes on future sports I’ve seen. The impressive stadium, all concrete and metal, is something you could imagine cropping up in wealthy Dubai, and the mechs are simple and elegantly designed, in short believable; strutting on bladed feet like Paralympic sprinters and adorned with sponsors logos (there’s even an appropriately uplifting pop song for a sports sizzle reel in the form of Gravity by DJ Fresh). Whether it feels as intoxicating to play as it looks I can’t say, but given the care that Guerrilla seem to be talking about in terms of getting the game to feel right, it seems PlayStation VR might have a killer app on its hands.

In another talk Martin de Ronde of Forcefield VR, who are working on an as yet unannounced exclusive for Oculus, discussed how they were building themselves up as a studio for cutting edge VR games with an uncharacteristically large 70 strong team devoted to VR development, making them in De Ronde’s own words, “fairly unique, but also fairly stupid.” It may seem like a gamble to put all your eggs into the VR basket, but having founded Guerrilla games and then Vanguard, De Ronde has a background of sound choices behind him, and their current ambition is to translate the kind of top down strategy games they’ve typically worked on, such as Halo: Spartan Assault, into VR. He describes this perspective as ‘top down diorama action,’ clearly taking a leaf out of the playbook of miniature wargaming (I asked him whether they’d taken any influence from board gaming and he said that they were looking to design one in VR).

De Ronde notes a few challenges with moving top down strategy into this new format, most of which are caused by the fact that you are giving full 360-degree camera control to the player. Whilst in traditional top down games it was sufficient to only animate the terrain framed by the screen, now everything including the sky and sufficient landmass to provide a horizon line needs to be created, and given the greater draw distance this adds the problem of animating things as soon as they can be seen. In short nothing can be considered out of the frame, and all the extra work this creates has to be undertaken with about half the processing power given the technical demands of VR. Other more unexpected problems Forcefield are grappling with include how to accommodate the ‘human factor, the fact that everyone is a different shape and size but needs to believably feel an agent within the world; and the subtle but seemingly intractable problem of perspective distortion in relation to the controller (in short if you press up on the controller whilst looking slightly to the left, do units move upwards based on your perspective or the map’s?).

We don’t all want to be reinventing the same wheel. We need to share and promote, it’s the only way to move things forward in VR.”

De Ronde jokes that they might patent the solution to the perspective distortion problem before stressing how important it has been for studios to share knowledge when dealing with the myriad unexpected issues that a new technology like VR throws up. “We don’t all want to be reinventing the same wheel.” Says De Ronde, “We need to share and promote, it’s the only way to move things forward in VR.” If the games industry are, perhaps uncharacteristically, recognising the importance of cooperation in developing for VR, they also know the danger of how easily the well can be poisoned for everyone by one bad product rushed out the door for a quick buck. A bad VR experience, which can be so much worse than a bad game experience as it can make you physically ill, might be enough to turn someone away from the medium forever, so platform holders like Oculus are putting quality first above all else and game developers are closing ranks to defend against the kind of shovel ware that defined the Wii and arguably buried the potential of motion controllers in the process.

John Riccitiello’s ‘gap of disappointment’ (no sniggers at the back)
John Riccitiello’s ‘gap of disappointment’ (no sniggers at the back)

By focusing on triple A experiences so early in VR’s lifecycle, De Ronde is operating against the logic outlined by John Riccitiello’s projected ‘gap of disappointment’ for VR uptake. The argument goes that analysts have projected the uptake of VR as a steady rising line on a graph by applying the model of the mobile phone industry, yet that industry, Riccitiello says, was heavily subsidised compared to the very expensive VR units. Instead he believes VR will have a much slower start, before experiencing an accelerated uptake when the technology becomes more refined and affordable, eventually outperforming projections. The gap between the ideal and the actual sales figures in those early years he calls the gap of disappointment, and could endanger the nascent VR industry if press and public perceive it as evidence of a flop rather than a slow start. Not only does De Ronde and his team have to tackle considerable technical and creative problems in creating a big budget VR game this early on, but they have to avoid the potential ‘nuclear winter’ of VR Riccitiello predicts may occur.

I still maintain, however, that when it comes to VR, games are just the beginning. Last year I found myself impressed by VR’s contribution to science and big data research; this year Develop opened my eyes to the rich potential VR has in documentary. I realised this as I was walking around in Chernobyl. The Chernobyl VR Project, developed by Farm51, is an attempt to allow ordinary people to experience the tragic aftermath of the notorious nuclear disaster. A mixture of 360 degree video and photography, as well as full 3D environments, allow the player/viewer a chance to explore this still very dangerous and abandoned site, accompanied by virtual tour guides and informative archive video. It’s an incredible opportunity to explore a place you never could in reality and learn something about it at the same time.

chernobyl plakaty

During the show I also met Simon Lumb who works at the BBC on their interactive storytelling projects, including Virtual Reality. The BBC have already worked with Aardman to produce an animated VR experience drawing on the real experiences of Syrian refugees as interviewed by the BBC, and another experience that puts the viewer into the shoes of a rebel during the Easter Rising. The potential for creating empathy using VR, to allow people to look through the eyes of others in drastically different lives and time periods, is a potential revolution to the documentary and it’s good to see an institution as traditional as the BBC embracing the opportunities of that new technology.

This is something that is very much on Oculus’ mind too, as Sweet stresses, “VR drives empathy much more than other mediums.” She is also very interested in its social potential to bring people together. To illustrate this point, she tells a story involving a journalist being demonstrated the Toybox Oculus demo. The journalist and the demonstrator play together and share an experience, even though their physical bodies are in different rooms, but later in the bar the pair recognise one another instantly in real life. “There’s so much humanity just in the way we move,” says Sweet, and that humanity is captured in VR.

Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness
Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness

One of the pioneering works that Sweet draws attention to in her talk and illustrates this, is Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness, a VR experience that accompanies the recent poetic documentary Notes on Blindness, which is based on the diaries of British academic John Hull, who chronicles the emotional and intellectual experience of going blind. Oculus have also developed a programme called ‘VR for Good,’ which seeks to connect the potential of VR to non-profit organisations and documentary makers in the hopes that they can use the technology to enact positive social change.

In short, video games are a small but important part of the potential VR paradigm shift, given this is the industry that the technology developed. But it is already clear that the application is being taken up far and wide, promising to blur the boundaries between games, education, art and entertainment even more. At the end of her keynote Anna looks around the room and says: “Games are only the beginning, but game developers will be here throughout… look around you because the people in this room may very well change the world.”