Opinion: Looking to VR's past for Tiny Trax's future

Opinion: Looking to VR's past for Tiny Trax's future

By Kirsty Rigden

July 19th 2017 at 3:15PM

FuturLab sets out to develop a virtual reality game that its motion-sensitive staff can actually play. Development director Kirsty Rigden talks about the problem of sickness and explains how they beat it

everyone knows that the inner ear is home to the smallest bone in the human body, right? You might even
have scored points in a pub quiz by naming it as the stapes/stirrup.


But did you know that the inner ear also contains the smallest muscle too? Put those two pieces together with the hammer, anvil and the vestibule and throw in about 15,000 hair cells and you have an extremely complex and sensitive organ. As well as five points in the quiz.


Sometimes the ear can be a little over-sensitive, approximately 1/3 of the population are highly susceptible to motion sickness. This can occur when the images that your eyes are seeing don’t match the motion that your inner ears are experiencing.

Some enterprising developer will create the bucking bronco of VR games

Kirsty Ridgen, FuturLab


Within the FuturLab team, we have a higher percentage of those who suffer from motion sickness than those who don’t. While I have a stomach made of rock, after an incident on the spinning teacups at Legoland, it’s fair to say that several team members most definitely don’t!


So naturally we decided to make a VR game. Thankfully it turned out we couldn’t have been better equipped for the job, as those ears forced us to move in an unexpected direction.


It’s worth pausing to consider just how cutting edge the VR games development environment is in 2017. There are hundreds of studios out there, large and small, who are only just discovering the possibilities of VR, pushing its limits and producing some quite amazing work.


All of which is incredible considering that VR games first took a public bow in seaside arcades way back in the 1990s. I remember strapping myself into one of the first incarnations at London’s ExCel centre. It was incredibly heavy on my 12 year old head (pictured at the top of the article), I can remember trying to duck behind large pixellated blocks to avoid objects hurtling towards me.


And then, after a moment in the spotlight, it was almost as if VR completely disappeared for the best part of two decades. During that time we’ve seen whole entertainment formats come and go.
We’re at the point now where technology has caught up with what was always a compelling concept – being able to lose yourself for fun in an immersive virtual world.


The great thing about being in the early stages of new a video game platform (albeit second time around) is the blank canvas it offers in terms of gameplay experience.


However, there are some unique considerations when it comes to VR in terms of ensuring player comfort – something our in-house sensitivities too VR in terms of ensuring player comfort – something our in-house sensitivities to motion made us only too conscious of.


In fact, the game we’re about to release, Tiny Trax, is very different from what we set out to make.
The project was originally going to be a drone racer, but once we began researching the other racing VR games out there we quickly came to the realisation that it was probably a little too vertigo-inducing. Personally I loved the feeling of my stomach rising and falling as if I were on a rollercoaster. I do believe that some enterprising developer will create the bucking bronco of VR games, where the objective is to last as long as possible without being ill. They will be incredibly commercially successful and then lose everything overnight in the subsequent lawsuit...


Luckily, our game designer, Dave Gabriel, had a moment of clarity one day in the office kitchen – what if we turned the VR concept on its head by keeping the player static in a virtual world, while they control the action going on around them?


And so, Tiny Trax was born. The player looks on, Godlike, on a fantastical world, controlling a miniature car in races that snake around their body, jump overhead and drift around bends on a virtual track.
Creatively, putting aside the complex physics that a drone racer would have entailed allowed us to focus on track design, beautiful world design and gameplay. We also really wanted to create a VR game that could be played competitively.


I think this kind of ‘alternative’ approach to VR games is something we’ll see a lot more of as the genre matures towards the mass market, where the need for players to be able to ‘pick and up and play’ is important. We can’t wait