Since it’s initial Kickstarter campaign in 2012, the Oculus Rift Virtual Reality (VR) headset has reignited interest in the concept of virtual reality as medium for immersive entertainment. As a kid, I vaguely remember VR headsets making a brief appearance on technology based TV programmes, though the trend seemed to come and go, and certainly never made it into the home. It’s latest incarnation, more than 20 years later, has come largely thanks to the rise of smart phones. Technology has developed so significantly that we are now in a position where everything from screen resolution, processing power and developments in spatial and motion tracking, have come far enough to allow us to compress most of the technology required for VR into a lighter weight headset that can be worn, I imagine, far more comfortably than those that were developed during the early 90’s.
At 9 yards we spent some time looking into the possibilities for the development of VR experiences, and as Application Developer, I prototyped a few rough concepts to demonstrate ways in which we could use the medium.
Being a format which is fundamentally rooted in the exploration of three dimensional environments, we opted to use a 3D development platform to create content to use with the Oculus Rift. Here, Unity was a natural choice as integration with the Oculus Rift is easily achieved using a prefab of the head set, which has cameras positioned correctly for perspective, among a number of games development based features which lend themselves well to VR development.
With a large number of our clients existing in the medicine and pharmaceuticals industries, our initial “Hello World” type VR application was a virtual journey through a bloodstream, in which the various cells where represented in a larger abstract form to demonstrate the movement of blood though the veins. Within this demo, we quickly realised how movement and perception of space are critical considerations when developing for VR. In particular, we noticed that there is a significant disconnect between the viewer’s real world movement and the movement being portrayed within the interactive experience. Getting this balance right is an essential part of the development of experiences for VR and can make the difference between content which is enjoyable to engage with and that which is physically uncomfortable to use.
In the demo, the viewer simply moves through the blood stream on a fixed track whilst red blood cells and other types of cell representing a virus also fly past at different speeds. It’s easy to see how VR can be used to create any number of real life or fantasy worlds and indeed, explore what it might be like to have alternative perspectives on situations or occurrences which you may not otherwise have access to.
Beyond this simple VR experience, I wanted to look at other ways in which the Oculus Rift could be used. One of my own personal reservations about the Oculus Rift, and indeed the many other forthcoming VR headsets, is that they seem to be leading us towards a future of entertainment technologies which create exclusive and self contained experiences. As a technology, VR is entirely reliant on using one person’s point of view as the perspective from which to manipulate a scene. It is therefore inherently a single user format in which only the wearer of the headset can become fully immersed. This, to a large extent, prevents or at very least reduces the ability of the format to allow for experiences which are inclusive, collaborative and which bring people together.
With this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to look at ways in which use of VR could be turned into a more collaborative or inclusive experience allowing more than one person to take part in the same experience. I thought that the multi player format would be a good way to provide an environment in which several people could exist within a VR world and enjoy the same content, whilst also maintaining their own personal view point. I developed a prototype in which multiple VR headsets can be used to drop into the same room. Each viewer can see one another whilst also being able to see the same objects within the room, consequently, each person can manipulate the objects and indeed see each other manipulating objects.
In this more abstract prototype, each person within the multiplayer VR experience is represented as a coloured cube. Within the room, there are coloured balls on the ground which can be pushed around by the movement of the player, and high within the room there is a model of planet earth which rotates. These simple interactive and non interactive elements were placed within the room test perspective and interaction between multiple players, kind of like a Cornell Box for VR interactivity. Within this prototype, it is possible to see how VR experience could be used to create inclusive and collaborative experiences, if developed as a multiuser experience.
Building these basic prototypes allowed us to gain a better insight into some of the challenges involved with developing VR experiences and the sorts of considerations we should make in future VR projects and hopefully we’ll get the opportunity to develop further projects for VR.
At present it feels as though VR, as a form of entertainment, is very much in it’s infancy but there is almost certainly a much stronger proposition in this iteration, when compared with previous attempts at bringing the technology to the mainstream. A number of companies are investing in research and development of VR technologies including Samsung, Microsoft and HTC which indicates that it is being taken more seriously as a medium.
Further to this, it’s really interesting to see the way in which Leap Motion, who’s motion control device I have written about previously, are really pushing their device as a peripheral for VR headsets. I think this is a particulary interesting move as it seems that so far, VR hardware being shipped consist mainly of a head mounted display with no appropriate means of input, other than what is attached to the computer being used. In most cases, this is typically a keyboard and mouse and these aren’t particularly well designed for scenarios in which your perception of space is altered and you can’t see them in your peripheral field of view.
It’s also worth noting that we’re just beginning to see some more interesting use cases for VR, beyond the obvious game based content. Oculus Story Studio, for example, is a seperate division of Oculus VR, setup for the purpose of virtual reality film making and I expect we’ll see more of this in future. Its first film ‘Lost’ looks really nice and I’m excited to see how this form of immersive entertainment develops.
I think the next logical step will be to see how peripherals could be used to enhance both VR, and its close relative, Augmented Reality (AR), both as a means of input and as a method of providing feedback by altering the environment of, and further enhancing the experience of the viewer. Microsoft Research’s IllumiRoom and Simon de Diesbach’s OccultUs present two contrasting but really exciting concepts of how VR and AR could provide truly captivating multi sensory experiences and I think it would really exciting to see VR develop like this, in a more inclusive and immersive way.