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How Oculus builds its own VR content: Lessons learned

At Oculus Connect, two leads from the company's Seattle-based content team, talked through the development of the company's demo content, sharing important insights into what makes for good VR.

At Oculus Connect, two leads from the company's Seattle-based content team, art director Kenneth Scott and engineering lead Per Vognsen talked through the development of the company's Crescent Bay demo content, sharing important insights into what makes for good VR.

Realism isn't everything

One of the demos, called "Polyforest," is extremely unrealistic. Vognsen described it as "almost like Star Fox SNES-era" 3D. The goal of the demo was "to really explore geometric
form in the absence of shading."

"One huge takeaway from this, and something we wanted to convey, is that presence does not equate to photorealism," Vognsen said. "An experience like this one with its very stylized look is a greater purveyor of presence than some photorealistic experiences that push the limits of the uncanny valley."

That means, he said, "to build high-end VR in a subjective sense does not mean you have to push the boundaries of GPU, shading, and polygon complexity."

Interacting with characters

The "Moon Alien" demo was designed to allow the player to interact with another character and "experience the presence of something else in VR," said Vognsen. An alien was chosen to get "out of the uncanny valley," said Scott. "He's unusual enough that he can survive the user's close scrutiny."

While the original version of the demo was going to be an RTS versus a character, "the first step to its success was nailing its creature performance, and that turned out to be what we cared about the most, so the rest got carved away," Scott said.

An important takeaway for the team was that light head-tracking (of the player, on the part of the creature) was more convincing than none or too much. During some behaviors, like waving, the character's head-tracking drops to just 10-20 percent, which "created this sense of reactivity that was sometimes lacking," said Vognsen.

If "it just played back its canned animation loop it would break its sense of presence and life." And for a believable NPC in VR, the team learned that, though it was okay that the alien mainly played back canned animations, there has to be "enough proceduralism and reaction to make it realistic."

Too much reality

One interesting insight is that the "Mirror Room" demo, which places the player in a Victorian sitting room, taught the team that too much realism can be a problem. The focus of the demo is a mirror in front of the player, with a mask hanging in the air -- the goal was to have the player recognize the mask as a representation of the self in-game. But the complex and detailed environment behind the player sometimes took away the user's attention entirely.

"Sometimes people would get down on their hands and knees and climb under the table," Scott said.

"In these experiences that are focused on one very subjective emotion or VR conceit, building in too much detail can sometimes distract the focus," Vognsen said.

The team also learned that for in-game avatars, if it's "too high fidelity" it feels like someone's else's face. "If you can't nail the detail, you need to go abstract," Vognsen said.

Juices flowing

The demo that most attracted game developers and "really got their juices flowing," said Vognsen, was the "Papertown" demo, which places the user above "a fully functioning tabletop world." The perspective of being above the world instantly calls to mind games like SimCity.

The player can lean down and examine the (paper) people and houses, and even peer into the windows.

It showed the power of "a lot of virtual movement with a small amount of physical movement," said Vognsen. "Amplification of scale is super super powerful for game design." Later, Scott agreed: "A lot of our strongest experiences play with scale."

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