VR Check-In: Where do we go?

VR Check-In: Where do we go?
Jem Alexander

By Jem Alexander

April 13th 2017 at 12:00PM

Jem Alexander investigates where VR technology and development goes next.

... And then

As we've established in part one, developers are still excited to develop for VR because of the creative potential available in a fresh new medium.

The downside to virtual reality’s youth is its clunky, inelegant and expensive hardware, but eventually VR tech will be lightweight, easy to use and won’t make you look like a Doctor Who villain.

Unity CEO John Riccitiello sees VR really taking off in a year or two. “It’s going to come together, but probably more 2018, 2019 than anything nearer term than that,” he says. “Because we don’t have the right content, we don’t have the right price point and we don’t have the right hardware. It’s also going to be untethered. It’s either going to be built into your headset, or it’s going to be built into a phone that’s connectedto your headset.”

There’s a roadmap in place that will make VR world changing in a couple of generations

Tim Sweeney, Epic CEO 

Many see price as the biggest blocker when it comes to virtual reality hitting the mainstream. Mobile VR could be the first to hit properly, since the expensive part is your phone, and everyone already owns one of those. Samsung Gear VR is already doing well, with over five million headsets out in the wild.

“I think we’ll see mobile VR steadily improving,” says Chris Payne of Welsh developer Quantum Soup. “There are several untethered dedicated VR systems coming along like PicoVR, which will create a middle ground in the sector, and gradually the cost of the higher quality experience will come down. 360 video seems to be popular, but I think the novelty of that quickly wears off. It's the interactive element that makes good VR good."

For Epic’s CEO Tim Sweeney, it’s the tech industry building bespoke components that will really allow VR to evolve. “New generations of hardware will be released which will greatly improve the quality,” he says. “By quality I mean not only graphics quality, but also tracking quality and input quality and convenience. Weight and form factor. We’re in the very early days of this. Keep in mind not a single component in these headsets was custom built for VR. You have displays and cameras that were completely repurposed from the smartphone industry, but when custom components are built for VR, they’re going to greatly improve the whole product. We’ll get 4K, and then 4K per eye. There’s an industry roadmap in place that will make
this world changing in a couple of generations.” 

Unfortunately, the tech industry can’t invent extra space in your house, but there is a solution for those of us who aren’t willing or able to dedicate a room to virtual reality.

The out-of-home market for VR is still in its infancy, but is growing rapidly, and is a potentially lucrative sector for developers. These bespoke experiences are going to be popping up in cities worldwide, and they’re going to need people to make content for them.

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OptiTrack is a company that’s betting on the out-of-home VR market in a big way. It creates technology to allow fully immersive experiences in spaces up to 30x30 meters, with multiple players playing cooperatively or competitively. An example of this is The Void in New York, which has a co-op Ghostbusters game using OptiTrack’s tech.

Brian Nilles, business development manager at OptiTrack, has seen great growth in the short time the company has been trading. “In 2016 the number of systems that we sold into out-of- home VR was staggering, and it’s happening again in 2017. We now have a system that solves all of the problems for out-of-home viability.” These problems included having to create slightly different props so that they could be tracked as individual entities, but the company’s new tech allows for identical objects to be tracked separately.

“Also the cameras are 40% cheaper, so all of a sudden stage costs are down and it’s got a lot easier to maintain and staff. Based on that I expect to see 2-3 times the sales this year compared to last year for out-of- home VR. There needs to be quality game content behind that.” 

This is a market that’s only a year old and has some incredible potential when it comes to storytelling, team- based co-op and both social play and socialising in general.

“The Void is spectacular,” says Riccitiello. “It’s built in Unity, which we’re very proud of, and I think we’re going to see hundreds of these dedicated locations for entertainment. Imagine a room four times this big. Here is the bar and there are six different experiences that are available around the room. I would definitely go. Imagine, In 1000 square feet you could have have DisneyLand. All of it.”

It’s a compelling concept, especially for those nostalgic for the arcades of the 80s. By offering players something they can’t get at home (expensive tech and the space to enjoy it), you’re expanding the potential market of VR gamers tremendously. But even better, there’s already modern precedence for this being a success. In London we see new escape rooms pop up every month. These are physical, real-world experiences where teams are locked into a themed room and given a set time to solve a series of puzzles, allowing them to escape. 

What VR offers on top of that is not only an improved experience from a production value perspective, but also the potential for different types of gameplay and storytelling.

Rebellion’s lead designer on Battlezone VR is another developer excited by this potential. “Speaking as someone who was raised by an Asteroids machine, I’m all for the resurgence of out of home arcades,” he says. “I think this is where room scale VR and ‘Mixed Reality’ can really deliver. I’d love to design something like that and I think that room escape games are a good indicator of the demand for social gaming experiences beyond paintball and go-karting.

“I reckon the first outfit that delivers a VR/MR MMORPG with character persistence and quality coffee on hand is going to do good business. 

“Room scale multiplayer games with full body avatars should get us close to finally getting a damned holodeck, so I’d be surprised if that isn’t an approach taken by those looking seriously at out-of-home VR.” 

Tom Sandford, a freelance developer, has dreams of these experiences being as ubiquitous as a family night out. “I have a warm vision of a future where a family would go out to the VR Arcade together and spend an evening together doing a virtual dungeon crawl, in the same way as we might go out for an evening of bowling now,” he says.

Meanwhile Linden Lab, famous for Second Life, is working on Sansar, a social platform that allows users to create and share their own VR experiences. The CEO, Ebbe Altberg explains that his time with Second Life has shown him that users take advantage of the service’s customisable virtual space for anything between fantasy role playing to holding business meetings. This has informed the development of Sansar as he sees this extrapolating to VR in a very logical way.

“We see a future where more and more of us are going to want to own our own VR experiences,” Altberg says. “Whether for business use, education, for friends and family. We are trying to democratise the creation of VR content.” 

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Sansar is currently in closed alpha, and Linden Lab is seeing some tremendous creativity already.

“Some are fun little games, some are incredible artistic expression,” Altberg explains. “A huge variety. In Sansar we have beautiful photogrammetry of an Egyptian tomb that doesn’t have public access in the real world and you can meet people inside. And the natural way you can have social interaction in VR makes it a candidate for replacing human interaction. Clubs, pubs, parks, schools can be replicated virtually. You can go anywhere, do anything.”

Between new storytelling media, methods of social interaction, higher fidelity home VR technology and all- new outdoor experiences, VR fans have a lot to look forward to. And VR developers will have plenty to keep them busy in the coming years.