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Escaping the VR Elevator?

This post captures some early thoughts about the issues of locomotion in VR. Because of physical and perception limitations, we are constrained in a small space. Is there a way to escape it? Or do we need to escape it at all?

Chicago's Sears Tower 103rd floor (Photo by AP images)

VR comes with the implicit promise of allowing you to enter new and exciting worlds. To create this illusion, you as the user are given the control of your virtual self, with a camera placed where your eyes are, and – in the case of the Vive – two controllers which you can use as hands. Both the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive do a good job in creating the proper illusion. Comfort, resolution, tracking precision and latency are good enough for you to forget this is all a trick. There are indeed some wow moments when you first try these devices, and it seems that if we capitalize on those and solve some of the core issues, VR could really be a cool thing.

After playing with the Rift and Vive for some time, and discussing ideas with colleagues, I started forming an opinion about the kind of games I would try and create for these platforms.

First Person View and the Problem of Locomotion

To dive straight in to a big problem of VR, let’s consider this: the first person games we know, the ones made before VR came along, all include *a lot* of movement. Think of any shooter, or horror survival game; players run around large levels, explore, fight, flee, and take vehicles to move even faster.

A map from 2016's Doom (id Software and Bethesda)

Being locked inside an elevator is not fun, even if past the glass you can see a fantastic world. Situations like these are usually limited to storytelling gates or loadings, and players accept them as long as they are few and far between. A break from the action can sometimes help pacing, and build anticipation. But these moments exist as a function of what's waiting outside, which is the real experience.

As you know, going 'outside' is not that simple in VR. The Oculus has a few feet range of motion tracking, and the vive has about a room; compared to the distances you are used to travel in first person games, that’s a very small range.

Early attempts to map movement to a controller - hello Team Fortress 2 - caused nausea to a portion of the audience. These issues were studied and understood to some degrees. Oculus has some interesting documentation about simulation sickness that details various sources of distress. When it comes to acceleration, two viable options arise: either you hide it (make it so you cannot visually perceive it) or avoid it. While some players may still be fine, violating this might make your application unusable to many. 

A F1 simulator on a robotic arm (Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, Germany)

Developers have come up with very clever ideas on how to achieve locomotion without accelerations, from using personal teleporters, to scale the world down to a mini-map and allow to re-position yourself before scaling things back up. These solutions do work, but - personally - I can’t help but think that they feel a bit artificial and cumbersome. If we forget the technical reasons for a second, all I want is to just walk there, so why can’t I?

Designing around the problem

I really hope some people can find brilliant ways to get you out of the elevator in an efficient way. When fantasizing about this, I imagine a slight vibration near your ear that tricks the vestibular system in perceiving some motion that is not there, coupled with the actual motion displayed in VR. I don't know if or when a good and affordable solution will be found.

For now, I'm fond of trying to remove the problem at the source, i.e. create applications where you don’t want to go outside in the first place; something that matches the available space. There are a few options.

Philippe Faraut Sculpture Seminars (PCF Studios)

The first one is to look at activities from the real world, where people are happy to stay inside, possibly sitting, and spend some time doing some sedentary tasks. Painting, sculpting, making music, are among the first things to come to mind. And why not, the elephant in the room of excellence when it comes to VR; virtual porn. Each of these activities poses a control problem, especially considering you don’t have hands with the oculus, but they are free from the locomotion one. In this case VR can still shine, both in terms of adding a special twist to the activity itself – I’ve played plenty of Lego in my life, but never at zero G - or by changing the environment in a way that matches what you do.

A screenshot from Guitar Hero Live (FreeStyleGames and Activision)

A second option is to miniaturize worlds. Of all demos I tried on the Oculus, I found Lucky’s Tale to be the most interesting, inspiring and well executed one. Because the scale of the world is relatively small, and there’s plenty of time for the camera to slowly catch back with the player, you barely feel any motion. And while it might sound odd to use VR for something that it’s not first person, the actual result is surprisingly good. This game shows how VR can add to the gameplay by having secrets and invisible items that you can spot by observing the world (both looking around and moving sideways). And the small scale creatures and plants that are floating just in front of you are a beauty to observe. Those who like god or strategy games should really look out for VR, because while it’s true that VR won’t completely change them and you can play them without VR, the experience becomes much more personal when you do. Populous, Black and White, Total War, I’m looking at you.

A screenshot from Populous II (Bullfrog Entertainment)

A third option where I have mixed feelings is vehicle games. VR is very cool when you can look around the interior of the vehicle. There's something magical in watching things go by through the side window. Even with just the head position, much can be inferred about the posture of your virtual body. At the same time, hiding acceleration while showing exciting graphics may be a trade-off tricky to balance. Playing Eve: Valkyrie for a while, I realized how the large space station, ship wrecks and asteroids are actually working against a smooth experience. As soon as you get close enough for them to cover your peripheral vision, you're in for some simulator sickness build-up. Making space less crowded would definitely help. Driving games might also work, if tracks were free on the sides, but it's hard to say without trying it for real. The full spectrum from F1 to street racing shows very different environments. Thinking how to slow things down, I got excited at the idea of a new Mechwarrior.

A screenshot from Mechwarrior Online (Piranha Games and Infinite Games Publishing)

Conclusions

Content has been flagged as what’s really missing with the current VR solutions. Looking at what’s available right now, I’ve seen some well-crafted examples that stand out of a crowd of somewhat not-really-there applications. I believe that games or apps that make certain players sick are not doing a great service to VR as a whole, mostly because the medium is new and customers are not necessarily accustomed to the comfort labelling (what does 'intense' really mean for a given person?). Wouldn't you feel betrayed if you just purchased a game - for which no demo was available - which ends up making them sick? If we stick to sickness-free design, I think developers should make efforts in making their players be happy with the space they have at their disposal, and not stress the issue of the glass elevator, which quickly becomes beautiful looking a cage.

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