When I was on a field trip to London back in high school, I played my first virtual reality (VR) game: Zone Hunter. I was immediately hooked and I knew I wanted to work in VR! I started my VR career more than 12 years ago working on industrial VR training applications and VR software tools.
I am now the founder and president of a company called "i'm in VR". We offer tools to simplify the creation of VR applications such as MiddleVR, a VR middleware that enables 3D applications (like Unity) to run on any VR system (HMD, caves etc.). I've been blogging about VR long before it was cool, and you can also find me on twitter (@Cb_VRGeek)
Now, you may think creating VR applications is easy: simply add camera rotations using the Oculus Rift tracker and you're done. This can work for some applications, but it will fail for the vast majority of them.
VR is all about presence in a virtual world. If you can't keep your player immersed into it, you're not doing it right. You can trick your brain into thinking it is in another reality, but this is more difficult than it sounds. This feeling of presence is very fragile.
Articles dealing with VR often adopt a too technical approach. I think VR is first about what's happening in the user's mind. In this article I am going to focus on some fundamental points about this presence in another world and why it is important to design your application for this goal.
VR in 2013
Virtual reality allows you to immerse people in a 3D environment, with head-mounted displays (HMDs or VR goggles), or other immersive systems. That's why we often call it immersive VR (iVR) -- to differentiate it from virtual worlds like Second Life or World of Warcraft. VR was hyped in the early '90s, but failed to deliver the experience the public expected.
However, it continued to evolve on the serious games side, to a point where it is now an essential tool for several markets:
- Training in VR can be much more efficient than in real life: you can control the training environment very precisely, view replays, and actually safely practice real gestures in many different, potentially dangerous, scenarios. This is used for training surgeons, soldiers, policemen, firefighters, dentists and even workers applying coatings on houses! This allows companies to save expensive materials while delivering better feedback about gestures.
- All major car manufacturers have their VR systems where they can test designs and ergonomics of products that don't yet exist, and iterate very quickly compared to a physical mock-up. This is now also applied for planes, boats, tractors, production lines, factories, and even kitchens! See the VR applications and systems from Peugeot or Ford.
- Communicating around a digital mock-up is very natural: you can get immersed in your future building, or live urban planning years before modifications. See this Enodo demo reel.
- It is also a great tool for market research for the retail industry: you get a real feeling of your shop before it is built or rearranged. You can track all the customer's movements and record where they look. This is useful to test the layout of furniture or make sure that the design of your product is visible among other products.
- Treating phobias in VR is an efficient method: if you're subject to a fear of heights, we can create a virtual cliff and you will actually experience your phobia. Then a real therapist can help you dealing with it more efficiently than going to a real cliff. The same applies for fear of taking the plane, fear of spiders, dogs, and speaking in public for example. See the Cyberpsychology lab from Stéphane Bouchard.
And, of course, VR can be used for games! But since the mid-'90s, very few games have been created with this technology; most were developed at research labs or by enthusiasts. Doing so required the skills and hardware to assemble a VR system and program the game themselves. To my knowledge, no commercial VR game has been created in the past 10 years.
Here's an on-going list of pre-Oculus VR games. But now, thanks to the arrival of the Oculus Rift, everyday is Christmas! We're just starting to see new VR games and experiences (like the virtual guillotine).