Two years after the successful Kickstarter fund that projected Oculus Rift into the mass consciousness and launched the new era of consumer virtual reality, there are still a lot of questions to answer.
What will VR apps actually look like? How will they work? Will they resemble the games we play on current consoles, or will they work more like virtual tourist attractions, giving us access to extraordinary environments and just letting us explore them?
It’s a problem that every developer in the field is still grappling with. At the recent South West VR conference in Bristol, the main talking points were how to coax consumers into virtual experiences without scaring or alienating them – or making them feel sick. A whole new methodology is required.
It’s definitely something Sony Computer Entertainment’s London studio is thinking about. Originally founded in 2002 as a merger of other UK PlayStation development houses, the team has, from the beginning, concentrated on experimental projects, initially under the guidance of R&D head Dr Richard Marks, an Avionics major at MIT, with a PhD in aquatic robotics. In the late-90s he had envisioned using a cheap web camera as a PlayStation peripheral to produce mixed-media entertainment concepts. In 2003, the London studio produced EyeToy: Play, a selection of augmented reality mini-games that used the PlayStation 2 EyeToy camera and motion detection technology.
From here on, the studio specialised in exploring new interface technologies, creating karaoke sim SingStar and, later, the PS3 augmented reality project WonderBook. It’s now one of the key internal teams working on demos and concepts for Sony’s forthcoming virtual reality headset, Project Morpheus. Like Oculus Rift, the device, which connects to a PlayStation 4 consoles and fits comfortably on the user’s head, filling their visual field with a 5.7-inch OLED screen, promises to bring a new era of immersive VR games and applications.
“There’s a whole bunch of things we needed to solve for augmented reality that you also need to solve for VR, so as a studio, the leap wasn’t so great,” explains Sony London head Dave Ranyard. “Within Sony, work on the headset had been going on for a while and we all just started collecting around it. We’d finished a big project – the Book of Potions – and we enjoyed that, we wanted to be involved in this technology. Everyone talks about the design challenges of VR, but this stuff is bread and butter to us: we like to get technology while there are still wires hanging out of it. Early on, Morpheus was literally a cycling helmet with a PlayStation Move controller taped on the top. That’s exciting to us!”
So Sony London started working on some demos, exploring different elements of the VR experience. At last year’s E3 event in Los Angeles, the studio showed The Deep, in which the player is plunged into the ocean in a shark cage just as a great white swims by, and Street Luge, a simple racing sim where the user is hurtling down a narrow road on a luge, avoiding oncoming traffic.
Both of these have been iterated to fine tune the experience. Originally, players would crash when they hit a car in Street Luge – exactly how impact would be handled in a traditionally screened game, but Ranyard says that was too jarring and disorientating in a VR experience. He equates this with the one-to-one nature of the VR experience: you feel like you’re “there” on the street, so getting hit by a car is traumatic; it’s not like viewing a car crashing on a screen, which provides a window that separates you from the experience. Now, when contact is made with a vehicle in Street Luge, it simply slows the player down.
But to Ranyard, however, the biggest challenge for Sony is to make virtual reality a social experience – not just in terms of connected virtual worlds, but in terms of engaging other people in the same room as the Morpheus user. As Google found with its Glass AR prototype, people are quick to mock the users of AR and VR technology, and partially this is about exclusion – they don’t feel part of what that person is experiencing. That sort of social alienation needs to be defeated if these headsets are to become mass consumer items.
“There’s this kind of sci-fi view of VR being about isolation, but we want to turn that on its head,” says Ranyard. “We’ve made a lot of local multiplayer games – SingStar, EyeToy, etc – and we’re actively using some of the things we’ve learned from them.”
One method is simply to share what the Morpheus user is seeing. Ranyard claims that, while Morpheus was in the early stages of development, his studio petitioned for a feature that would show on the TV whatever the Morpheus player can see, so that everyone in the room can participate, if only as cheerleaders.
But there are also plans for more inclusive experiences, including asymmetrical multiplayer games, involving one player on the Morpheus and another interacting via a DualShock controller and the TV screen, or a companion app on smartphone/tablet. “For example, we have a version of The Deep where someone has a radar view on their screen and they can speak to the diver,” says Ranyard. “We did another prototype where we put [SCE president] Shuhei Yoshida in a haunted house and you could control the scares on a tablet. We’re even looking at turn-based experiences. We just want to get other people involved, even if you only have one headset.”
Sony isn’t alone in envisioning asymmetrical multiplayer experiences, of course. Game jams have become hotbeds of VR exploration and creativity, and we’ve seen lots of interesting ideas around the concepts of co-operation and instruction. Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, for example, puts an Oculus Rift wearer in a virtual room with a complicated time bomb and other participants get a printed manual which explains a variety of puzzles that the device may feature. Also interesting is the installation game Taphobos, a sort of buried alive simulator, where the Oculus wearer gets inside an actual coffin and must look around its virtual onscreen representation for clues, which will allow a companion working on a PC to locate where their friend is buried.
Many consumers will recoil from these concepts, but Ranyard thinks it’s all about slowly introducing the possibilities. So far, the prototype process has been geared toward establishing basic building blocks of VR experiences – The Deep was about fear, Street Luge was about adrenaline. Apparently, the studio is now working on demos around character interaction. Get the foundations right, and VR developers will begin to understand what people can and can’t take.
Although, he says, history shows us that there will be a long period of adjustment. “When we started with virtual reality I was keen to see what we could learn from the development of cinema. I found out that it took 10 years to go from silent movies to talkies – they had to re-fit every cinema across the US, so for a decade films were being made for both. That’s interesting to me.
“There’s been a resistance to VR from some people who were doing well from the status quo. I have come across dismissive reactions from quite senior people in the games industry. I did a DICE talk this year where I quoted the 30s movie maker Conrad Veidt who said: “In the middle of my third Hollywood picture The Magician, the earthquake hit Hollywood. Not the real earthquake. Just the talkies.”
Ranyard says he’s not sure whether virtual reality will be a replacement technology, like, say, colour to black and white, or a companion technology, like television became to radio. But Sony is not alone in preparing for the future. Alongside Oculus Rift there’s also the Valve-backed HTC Vive, which has excellent technology and, unlike its rivals, a 2015 launch date. With Microsoft and Google also looking into a range of VR and AR technologies, the fates are aligning behind the tech.
“I often think about the technological icon of the age,” says Ranyard. “In the 80s it was the Walkman, in the 2010s it’s the smartphone. When I’m retiring these handsets will look so old; there will be some other way of dealing with apps. Maybe that will be VR.
“I’ve seen everyone from high-ranking industry executives to non-gamers playing with the Morpheus headset, and one thing I’ve learned is that, if there’s a visual icon for our coming age, it could well be someone wearing a VR headset, reacting to something the rest of us can’t see.”
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