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Kris Graft is editor-in-chief, Gamasutra
Let's talk a bit more about virtual reality here, namely that SteamVR demo that seems to have blown everyone's mind last week.
At GDC, I was among the first people to check out the new HTC Vive, which is the first SteamVR-powered device (commercial launch will be by holiday this year). My firsthand experience with VR systems is limited -- I’ve used the Oculus Rift a fair amount of times, at various stages in its development, most recently the Crystal Cove iteration, which had added positional tracking to the headset among other enhancements. Last week, I also finally used Samsung's Gear VR, in a bar, which is cool...because I used VR in a bar.
Basically, VR has always been something that I’ve followed intently (kind of part of my job) and whose potential I’ve recognized, but I hadn’t had the luxury of experiencing any major breakthroughs first-hand.
…until I used the Vive/SteamVR system last week.
That sounds like pure hype, especially with the way I gave that partial sentence its own paragraph. And after using the Vive last week, I was a little self-conscious about blurting out how incredible my experience was, because I’d never used any full-room, Holodeck-style VR experiences (yes, they are out there). Maybe I was just really impressed because I have a relatively limited experience with VR in general...?
But as the week went on, and more people went in and tried it out, I got similar feedback – the promise of VR is finally beginning to be fulfilled in a meaningful way. And after reading other reports and hands-ons from journalists at GDC 2015, I knew I wasn't alone.
SteamVR / Vive prototype
A few things were different from past VR experiences I’ve had. First, SteamVR was the most complete VR system I’ve ever used. You have two positional trackers, the headset, the PC, and two controllers, one for each hand, with wires everywhere (again, this was all prototype), and a room to move in. And while the hardware is as substantial as it is impressive, when you’re “in it,” you quickly forget about the technology and are drawn into the experience.
I already talked a bit about the controllers last week, but I should stress again that Valve is on the right path here. As far as hardware that basically lets you manipulate 3D virtual environments Lawnmower Man-style are concerned, the controllers are relatively simple – a few buttons, and a prominent track pad on each, presumably lifted from the Steam Controller. The controllers can afford to be simple (and are purposely simple), because VR opens up new opportunity for incredible virtual user interfaces. To put it more frankly, VR experiences will live or die by the effectiveness, intuitiveness, and polish of their UI.
"It finally feels like VR is reaching a place in which the focus can start moving away from VR technology, and more towards the way we interact within VR as human beings."
While this will be obvious to any VR designer (hopefully it is, anyway), it’s something that you don’t see the games press talk much about, as far as I can tell. The focus for many who are interested in VR remains primarily on the technology itself and what it is capable of, rather than the experience and accessibility offered to players and users. This is what set apart the Vive demos from other ones I’ve experienced – the intuitiveness factor was miles beyond everything else. The SteamVR experience felt designed and natural, taking advantage of what we as humans (and especially as people who play video games) already understand and are able to comprehend. It finally feels like VR is reaching a place in which the focus can start moving away from VR technology, and more towards the way we interact within VR as human beings. That's not to understate the importance of the tech, but the end-game here is to provide experiences that make a difference in peoples' lives.
On a similar note, now seems like the time to really double down on UI / UX design expertise. Nothing in a VR game matters if the interaction within the virtual world is flawed or tacked on, which I expect might be an issue with games that are ported over to VR from flat monitors. One demo that really made me appreciate great UI was Skillman and Hackett’s TiltBrush art program, in which I pressed a trigger button on my left controller, which brought up a cylindrical menu right above my controller in VR. I’d twist my wrist to view other options on the futuristic palette, then select a new tool or new color with my right hand. We take the mouse's point-and-clicks and drag-and-drops for granted in a 2D plane, but, you know, a long time ago someone had to come up with that. When similar tasks are done well in a 3D space, it feels new and impressive. These are UI innovations that will continue to crop up in VR.
It was interesting talking to people who experienced the Vive demo at GDC, versus people who had VR experiences before, but didn’t get to use the SteamVR system. It showed me there’s still a lot of doubt surrounding VR; some claim it’s the next 3D TVs (i.e. a gimmick that will lose traction and fade away), or that it’s just too impractical. Some people still equate VR with sitting in a chair while wearing a mask while holding an Xbox 360 controller in your hand (“You don’t have ‘hands’ in VR!” someone argued with me. “Yes you do!” I reply). As far as 3D TVs go, despite what marketers tried to tell us, they didn't really offer much in the way of a new experience.
Totally not SteamVR / Vive prototype (it's Google Cardboard)
It’s still difficult to blame people for doubting about VR today, and even though the Vive made me a believer (not that I was really a hardcore doubter), I understand the reservations. There’s still the issue of cost for such a system, as well as the fact you need some open space to move around (if you buy the system, find a good place to stow your coffee table). In prototype form, this is still not practical, and early commercial versions still won’t be practical, and will be the fanciful toys of early adopters. The idea of having a mask on for a few hours while playing a game is also hard to imagine – I used the Vive for about 30 minutes, but I'm not sure I'd want to go on an hours-long video game marathon. But hardware is advancing at a rapid rate, and what we can expect is that systems will come down in price, the wires will gradually disappear, and systems overall will become smaller and less unwieldy (just look at the mobile-based Samsung Gear VR or the super low-budget Google Cardboard).
But even with these reservations, Valve’s VR demo is promising because its applications make you forget about the all-important framerates, resolutions, accelerometers and lasers. This time around, I got small but concentrated doses of VR’s ability to convey art and entertainment, and even though I'm using the Vive system as a reference point here, these experiences will cross-pollinate to other systems. I laughed in VR, was in mouth-agape awe within VR, and I imagine the right kind of game could make me think, love, or cry in VR (the last of those might be an issue when wearing a headset). It helped me appreciate creators' visions in a new way, and that’s the whole purpose -- the promise -- of this big experiment, isn’t it?
Me, living the promise of VR