VRLA 2017 Debrief

I'm here at VRLA 2017 and I am stoked! I just met one of my VR idols, Kent Bye, who operates the Voices of VR Podcast. Listening to his in-depth interviews with industry visionaries is part of what inspired me to start this blog.

Read on to hear about the world's largest immersive technology conference.

Here are the presentations/panels I attended:

I was privileged to attend, and I hope you find my coverage of this conference enjoyable and enlightening.

VR Game Development: Developer Diary, Presented by First Contact, HTC, and Dell

The focus of this talk is on how to collaborate with partners (hardware developers, etc.) to elevate the quality of your final product. First contact is the group that produced Rom- a popular FPS (first person shooter) VR game. They successfully worked with HTC and Dell (Alienware) to create a polished, innovative, and enjoyable game. The takeaway I left with was that hardware companies want to partner with developers. They want to be associated with the best and the newest. If you, as a developer, can market your product as being able to attract consumers, they will work with you. It doesn't matter if you're a dinky studio with three employees- if you have something you're passionate about, use that passion to sell people on your product. And if you're not passionate about it, don't make it!

Side note: one of the really unique mechanics of Rom is the arm animation - they designed their game to accurately simulate the player's arms inside of the game. People were blown away by the convincing immersive experience they had due to this mechanic. This brings to mind a talk I heard about how if you can convince the brain that at least one element of the virtual world is indistinguishable from reality, it will fool your mind into feeling like the rest of what you're looking is real too.

News: They announced that they are working on a multiplayer VR experience! Not only that, they said it will have full locomotion capabilities. Based on what they described, these experiences will be playable at home and in VR arcades. AND, if that didn't already get you excited, this is what it's going to look like:

Photorealism! Given the power required to run VR, this mystery game may break barriers for gaming in this medium. Very excited to see whats coming next from this studio and their powerhouse partners.

Robo Recall: An Epic Journey in VR, Presented by Unreal Engine

For those unfamiliar, Unreal Engine is what's known as a game engine. In short, game engines provide the framework for running games. To demonstrate the Unreal Engine's capabilities, Unreal has been known to produce some wildly entertaining games (how I miss thee, Unreal Tournament).

To explore how their game engine works with the mechanics and technology of VR, Unreal produced a game called Bullet Train. This game showed the designers what mechanics worked and what didn't, as well as how to adapt to these new user interfaces. For example, they found that by integrating slow-motion effects into the gunplay, players had an entirely new level of interactivity. Another fun mechanic that tested well was the "throw the gun at the robot" move: players can throw guns at enemy robots after they run out of amo, but if they catch the gun after it bounces majestically , players will find that their shurikened weapon (yeah I made that a verb) has been magically reloaded! This is a great example of how mechanics that would be hard or impossible to create in traditional games work amazingly in VR. A new medium forces new ways of thinking.

Side note: The panel talked about the odd problems they encountered testing games that had, up until that point, only been worked on by a single person. Let me elaborate: if you design holsters that a player needs to reach for, it's probably a good idea to make sure they can be reached by people of all sizes...otherwise they may end up inside the body of a player. Similarly, stationary objects need to be small enough so that people of all heights can actually see around them! While these concepts seem obvious, it's one of the aspects of VR that designers are adjusting to as they transition into working in both virtual and physical space.

*shovels food into mouth*

Okay lunch is over! And now...

Google Daydream: VR Lessons from 10+ Years as an Executive Producer in Game Development

This talk was from Jonathan Krusell. His background is in gaming, and he boasts a number of famous games under his belt like Bioshock. Specifically, his work in gaming is with motion capture. This gives Jonathan a unique background when he started his work in VR. He had to learn how to "embody" physical people and objects in a digital space. He talked a good deal about the importance of improv from character actors. The only difference is that, in VR, the programming needs to be accurately reactive to our improv.

He went through his portfolio and discussed general ways he applied his knowledge. The general takeaway: don't be scared by a new field just because it turns everything you know on its head...that's half the fun!

Inducing Emotional and Cognitive States in VR, Presented by Liminal VR

The presentation started with a psychological study that was done in the 90's: People were given sentences to unscramble. The control group was given neutral sentences, and the other group was given sentences about being older (retired, grandmother, etc.). Amazingly, the scientists found that the second group took longer to move from their rooms to the elevator to leave after unscrambling their sentences. What's also amazing is that when this study was repeated with computers timing participants, the result was null - turns out, it was the researchers, rather than the participants, that were being primed and perceiving the situation differently. The message here: it's pretty damn easy to influence our perception.

There is already extensive research showing the power that meditation and biofeedback can have on the body's physiology. Using this research on how sound, color, and motion affect human psychology, Liminal VR went about designing different prototypes of VR experiences to induce specific emotions.

Elements that contribute to participant experience

They found that some of their designs did, in fact, relax people! They also found that some of their designs made people tense, but then oddly happy. While confusing at first, they realized it was the same phenomena observed after riding a roller coaster: tension -> endorphins -> excitement. Amusingly, one of the simulations made the designer's wife fall to the ground, rip the HMD off, and curse him profusely. Apparently floating in a peaceful cloud high up in the sky isn't as enjoyable if you're afraid of heights...

This is how they broke down their work:

  • Research
    • There is already a wealth of information (as I mentioned) on these approaches to inducing emotional responses. The trick lies in the next two steps.
  • Design
    • Given that our emotional responses are heavily dictated by our previous experiences, high level concepts can be dangerous to work with. In this case, high level means designing a virtual beach, cloud, etc. While some people in Southern California are going to respond very well to seeing a familiar beach, other people with different experiences may feel nervous. Maybe they're scared of sharks; maybe they don't like looking out over such a vast body of water. Whatever it is, these "high level" designs are highly dependent on the user (i.e. angry wife).
    • So where does that leave us? Simplicity is the answer. Simple designs, breathing exercises, nondescript music, etc. Things that don't invoke (or at the very least minimally invoke) personalized responses that are best. For these purposes, we want to be the sole source of emotional control, rather than the reaction being user-dependent.
  • Application
    • Explain what users might experience to them so that they can understand what to expect. For example, telling a user that they may be tense at first but should feel energized/excited afterwards allows users to choose experiences based on the possible outcome rather than how they may feel at first. Keep in mind that this after research has been concluded - you don't want to prime your user.
    • Make sure you understand the platform: Understand the science of the technology you're working with. For example, while white may seem like a relaxing color, white light actually contains the full spectrum of colors, some of which aren't actually relaxing to our brains.
    • Collaborate with experts in the field- measuring brain activity and biometrics aren't necessarily areas that designers can research on their own. Go to the experts- that's why they're there!

Liminal VR has created resources for devs interested in working with emotional induction: look into their partnership program if you're interested.

How VR Entertainment Will Finally Take Off, Presented by Inception VR

This talk was presented by David Neyman, VP of VR Content Development at Inception VR. Inception is a company that develops VR platforms for lifestyle brands. Examples include travel companies, Playboy, and the Dali Theatre Museum. David talked about VR adding levels of experience that could never have been achieved before for these consumer products. For example, the Dali Theatre Museum created an interactive experience to explore Dali's paintings in three dimensions.

But how do we sustain this? How do we keep the VR truck moving? The answer: bonfires, not fireworks. Huge VR experiences are common now; big, expensive productions that take a long time to produce. But we need more household experiences. We need to bring VR into daily life- music videos, shopping, TV. The more that we tap into established and recognizeable IP, the more willing consumers will be to start exploring the medium.

Given the newness of consumer VR, the biggest hurdle will be to get large brands to sign up. After that, the rest is just a game dominos.

That about wraps up my summary of all the talks. The expo floor was much larger than last year's, and it was so nice to have the extra breathing room. Unlike my last time at VRLA when I was just eager to try out VR, I was there to listen to the talks; I didn't even put on an HMD! It's odd how your priorities shift when something goes from hobby to career goal. 

I hope you enjoyed by coverage of this year's conference. To conclude, here are the remainder of my photos. Fight on my heroes!