Having fantasized about owning a VR headset for years, I finally committed and bought the HTC Vive. With the base stations securely attached to my office walls, I wasted no time in building a library of games/apps that the community has been raving about: Tilt Brush, Google Blocks, Waltz of the Wizard, SUPERHOT VR, Raw Data, Vanishing Realms, Mindshow, and Virtual Desktop to name a few. Thus far, my standout favorites are Tilt Brush, SUPERHOT VR, and Vanishing Realms.
Let's take a look at Tilt Brush. This art application combines an intuitive interface with some simple, yet captivating visuals. One hand becomes the paintbrush, while the other provides access to your palette and menu controls. As someone who has been drawing and sculpting since childhood, I fantasized about creating beautiful 3D masterpieces, harnessing this tool that combines artistic disciplines and has become a unique medium unto itself. Instead, I spent the first few hours drawing happy faces, swirls, and scrawling "Tom Marvolo Riddle" in the air. I was truly amazed at how much wonder simply doodling instilled in me. Not to be distracted from my goal (too much), I set out to spend a night creating something I could be proud of. Stumped at where to begin, I pulled up the Tilt Brush menu and discovered that it provides a number of translucent volumes that you can use as models to paint around. Testing these out, I discovered that the shapes are subsequently invisible to when viewing your final piece. With that knowledge in mind, I chose a dress form model. Having been interested in pursuing costume design a number of years ago, I was instantly drawn to it. Starting at the neck, I began my work.
There were a false starts, but after getting comfortable drawing on the form I soon found myself building a dress composed mostly of intricate rose-like swirls. After constructing half of the bodice, I had a moment where I realized that to fully embrace the medium, I would need to discard some of my thinking related to the constraints presented by physical, real-world costume design. Looking at the other half of the bodice, I promptly switched brushes and constructed it out of what resembled purple lightning. In the end, I created a skirt composed of long, rough-edged strokes that evoke swirling feathers. Enjoying the asymmetrical aspect of the dress, I added a small shoulder piece made of geometric patterns and swirling smoke.
Finally done, I uploaded the piece to Poly, Google's hosting service for 3D content. Unfortunately, I found that the intricate details I had so painstakingly composed weren’t easily visible when viewing the dress as a whole. Above is a GIF showing some of that detail work, but it's otherwise washed out and muddy when viewing the entire piece. This taught me a valuable lesson about composing content in three dimensions- just as in real-world cinematography, the lighting and environment of my pieces are just as important as the subject.
For those interested in seeing Tilt Brush being pushed to its limits, check out my friend Estella Tse, as well as Danny Bittman and Liz Edwards. If they don't convince you that VR is a fantastic new medium, nothing will.
Having spent my first night in VR using Tilt Brush, I decided that it was time to dive into some games. SUPERHOT VR has been repeatedly suggested to me and I was excited to finally give it a try. The premise is easy enough to understand: you navigate beautiful low-poly levels and use your fists, guns, and all manner of objects to defeat your enemies. The main gameplay mechanic, though, is where the fun is- time only advances when you move. Any movement you make, whether it’s with the controllers or the headset, is registered by the game. If you stop moving, so does everything else; bullets freeze, objects in mid-shatter are suspended in the air, and enemies seem to watch you as they stand trapped in immobile bodies.
It. Was. Awesome. In less than five minutes, I completely forgot that I was swinging my arms in an empty office, jumping and dodging as if my actual life depended on it. In fact, I even earned a trophy for dodging a barrage of bullets like Neo in this famous scene. After finishing a particularly long level, I took off my headset to find myself sweating and out of breath. I was so absorbed in the game that I was temporarily unaware what was happening with my physical body! After buying a less...absorbent...foam band for the headset's interior, I jumped into what would become the most immersive VR experience so far.
Some Rug Burn
I only heard about Vanishing Realms a few weeks ago. Speaking to one of my coworkers about the different games I've played, he recommended it to me after hearing about my love of the RPG genre. Satisfyingly, my coworker hit the nail on the head. Let me preempt this next bit by saying that the game isn't perfect. It's not the best gaming experience I've had by a long shot, and the graphics are reminiscent of cel shaded games circa 2000.
You might be wondering how a game with cartoonish qualities can feel more immersive than something like a 360° video. What the developer, Indimo Labs, understood about creating immersive VR experiences is that people want to interact with the virtual world in the same way that they interact with the real one. If a player sees something on a table, they should be able to pick it up. If they see a candle, they should be able to light it. That's where so many VR games cut corners, and that's exactly why Indimo's experience delivers. My first few hours in the game weren't spent leveling up or trying to earn new weapons; rather, I was teleporting around the world, picking up coins, lighting archaic candelabras with my Indiana Jones-style wall torch, and climbing chains to get aerial views of the area. Every single item placed in this game can be interacted with, and it's incredibly satisfying to do so, the game rewarding exploration and creativity over speed. Inevitably, I soon found myself face-to-face with a large ogre . Having no weapons, I swung at the creature with my torch. It blocked my blows deftly, and as I frantically ducked a sword swing (spinning my physical body so hard that I gave my foot rug burn), my torch accidentally touched the pile of dried leaves we were standing on. To my astonishment, the leaves caught fire and the creature started taking damage, slowly backing away to try and escape the flames. Even more surprising was that I took damage as well, having been standing on the leaves too. With my health bar low and regenerating too slowly for my liking, I felt my fight-or-flight instinct kick in, and quickly found a place to hide and recuperate. Though the ogre eventually died from the fire damage it had incurred, I had no idea if more would spawn from that spot or if they would come looking for me if I dawdled. Looking around my hiding space (a small room off the main hallway), I noticed some bread sitting on a table. I picked it up, and took note that my inventory icon indicated I could store the bread, which I did by stuffing items into a pouch tied to my belt. If I could store the item, it most likely meant it was something I could use. Knowing that many games provide food as a healing item, I retrieved the loaf from my inventory but stopped to consider how I was supposed to "use" it. When playing the usual console games, consuming an item is usually as simple as tapping a button. But I was holding the bread in my hand. And that's when it hit me. I lifted the bread to my face, and to my satisfaction my character began munching on it. Between my panic at being attacked and the surprise I felt at discovering the fire, I half expected to taste bread in my mouth because of how immersed I was!
Reflecting back, it's moments like these that really impress me about Vanishing Realms. So much of the VR content on the market struggles to correlate virtual actions with their real world corollaries, and Vanishing Realms shows how well it can be done. Playing this game really makes me excited about the possibilities of VR. While realistic visuals play an important role in a player’s immersion, I think it's important that developers take a cue from Indimo and focus on creating engaging environments and interactions. My experience seems to only add support to studies about immersion and presence, and it’s important that these lessons become canon going forward.
What's Next, News, and More
Now that I'm settled into my job and our house is no longer filled with boxes, I'm going to commit to writing more frequently. Especially now that my days are filled with things like VR tournaments, I can't help but feel reinvigorated about the immersive tech community. Along those lines, I recently tweeted about my friend's experience in VR, and how developers can work on making the medium more accessible. I have a call with a developer in Australia who is doing work in this field, and after I speak to her, I'm going to be taking an intensive look at the responses I received and what we as a community can do to create content and hardware with accessibility in mind.
Pixar has released a VR experience for their upcoming movie, Coco. Check it out on Oculus.
Amazon has announced that they will be developing a TV series based on the Lord of the Rings franchise.
HTC has officially announced their standalone VR headset, the Vive Focus.
Feedback! I want to hear from you. Do you like the topics I've covered? Do you want to see something different or wish I had talked more about a specific concept? Comment here or click the "contact" button at the top of the page. Being new to writing a blog, I want to make sure I'm creating relevant posts that answer the questions you're asking.
Thanks, and game on!