Through my career I have tested many different VR systems, from entry level to high-end, with systems costing several million euros. I have developed a feeling of what VR represents for me. This feeling of being present in the virtual world is very strong. I have already defined "presence" at length in this article. To summarize, you have cognitive immersion (like in video games, stories, books..) and perceptive immersion (fooling the senses), which is the part that makes VR distinctive.
For me, there seem to be two options:
- your brain thinks the simulation is a regular video game with just a fancy display (3D and/or 360). You will not feel very involved with the simulation. This is not VR, even if you have a very expensive system.
- your brain accepts this simulation as reality and will react as such: natural reactions, natural interactions, natural emotions. You will have fear of heights, you will try to catch an object thrown at you, you will fear for your life! You feel present. This is VR, even if the system is cheap.
A perfect VR experience should make you feel present for the whole time. Recreating a reality that can fool your brain is hard to achieve, so VR game designers should at least try to minimise the breaks in presence.
What makes you feel present and what breaks it is still a big research topic. As we are working with the human brain this feeling of presence is also highly personal. People who have never tried VR can be overwhelmed quite easily. The same happened a century ago: one of the first movies was showing a train entering a train station and people in the cinema ran away thinking this was really happening.
[Although this may be a myth].
[Update 17/01: Oculus has just released a "Best practices" which is very interesting! It is quite low-level though, this article is about higher-level interactions.]
The Oculus Rift is the first low-cost VR system to provide this presence feeling “easily”. I have been lucky to test it before the famous Kickstarter, back when it was all duct taped and presented in a shoe box. I tested Doom 3: the immersion was great, but I got sick really quickly. Even before that, I didn’t really feel present in the game. Neither did I feel present in Team Fortress 2 or Half-Life 2. My brain did not accept the simulation as reality. I felt like having a 360° view, but not that I was actually there. In particular the interactions were quite poor and non "natural": sitting in a chair, interacting with a keyboard/mouse/gamepad, moving at high speed does not feel natural. Those games are perfect for desktop PC (I spend a lot of time in those), they are not perfect for VR in their current form. The content was not designed to maximise presence, which should be the first goal of any VR application. Without presence, I wouldn't call it VR.
I have tested several of the new VR games and experiences recently released and haven’t felt present in much of them. My “presence barrier” has unfortunately been pushed far.
[Update 17/01: I do not mean this as condescending. I'm extremely happy that so many people are joing the VR cause, and this article is all about providing constructive feedback.]
The notable exceptions are the ones where you are in a vehicle: Titans of Space, the UDK Roller Coaster, etc. The reason they work well is because there are no interactions: you are seated in the simulation as you are seated in real life, and the interaction is limited to (automatic) navigation. It is easier to deliver what your brain expects. Hawken and EVE: Valkyrie will probably also work because you are in vehicles, whether it is a robot or a spaceship.
There are very few experiences where you are interacting naturally with your environment. The Gallery: Six Elements / exploration school preview is a very encouraging and ambitious experiment: I felt present at several points, but unfortunately not for the whole experience. The Gallery was successfully funded by Kickstarter. "Influenced by the Myst series, The Gallery: Six Elements is a transcendental adventure with a heavy emphasis on environmental immersion, exploration & path-finding, physical challenges, puzzle solving, and emotional depth. (...) [it] is being designed from the ground up to immerse players as deeply into the experience as possible. No cut scenes, no 3rd person, no unnatural interruptions to the game experience."
I would like to take some time to discuss some interactions in the game, because it is exactly the kind of game I want to see in VR. There are a lot of things to learn from it already. You can purchase the pre-order directly here (which gives you access to Alpha, Beta and Release content). I also encourage you to greenlight the project on Steam here.
I have been lucky to talk to Denny Unger about some of the points I want to highlight. Denny is the president and creative director from Cloudhead Games, editors of The Gallery. I have included some of his answers.
This is still the most promising experience I’ve seen so far, and a several of those points can be easily addressed. A big thanks to Denny for taking the time to answer!
Adding interactions in VR is hard because it is very easy to do something "wrong", resulting in breaks in presence. Creating a realistic environment is even harder because your brain knows exactly how physics, sounds, shadows, interactions etc. are supposed to behave. If they don't behave in a coherent way, you will be reminded that this is "just" a simulation, and not a possible reality.
As we are still in the prehistory of VR, I would advise starting with simpler environments. Recreating a whole new reality is a long task, and presence is in the details. If you create a complex and rich environment, you will have more chances of introducing inconsistencies.
Finally keep in mind that the simulation does not have to be realistic as long as it is consistent. A cartoon has its own unnatural rules, but you still accept them because they are consistent.
It is probably time to watch "Who framed Roger Rabbit" again!