Virtual Reality Changes the Game for Developers

New immersive technologies make a whole new world filled with everything from motionless motion to "sim-sickness."

With the first wave of virtual reality games set to hit shelves in 2015, the VR boom is about to permanently change the job market for developers. Along with all the possibilities VR brings—including new levels of immersion, all new game mechanics, and a veritable revolution in digital artwork—also comes development challenges the industry has yet to overcome. If you’re thinking about moving into VR development, now is a great time to get involved say the experts, but know what you’re up against. Here’s where VR is and where it’s headed.

The Next Level in Gaming

Games are an obvious draw for VR developers, but it’s going to be a while before you can step into most of your favorite AAA games. While VR demos of Skyrim and the Battlefield series are currently being shown at game expos and conferences, it’s still difficult to translate an entire mainstream game franchise into a virtual reality experience says Ralph Barbagallo , founder of FLARB, a Los Angeles-based development studio that will release its first VR title next year.

“That doesn’t really work for a number of reasons and one of them is because a lot of things you would do in a regular video game would just make you sick if you did it in VR,” Barbagallo says. “Like forcing the camera to be moved without you moving your head, things like that.”

“Sim sickness”—a frequently puke-tastic condition that happens when movements and visuals in a virtual reality experience don’t align with the body’s natural information processing mechanisms—can turn a VR game from kickass to ass-kicking in a matter of seconds. Small considerations like basic movements, velocity transitions, and simply looking around in a virtual reality game all must be carefully executed to ensure that players don’t get sick. That leads to a broad array of questions and technical challenges developers need to address from early in the design process. Oculus VR coder Tom Forsyth has a list of a few of these challenges here.

“In VR, you have to have an extremely high frame rate. There’s really no tolerance for a frame rate dropping,” Barbagallo adds. “In a regular video game, you might see your game slow down when there’s too many characters on the screen or a big explosion and it’s no big deal, but if a VR game slows down like that, you’re going to get sick and the experience is going to be terrible.”

Both developers and hardware companies have their own remedies for sim sickness. While some games allow players to look around but not physically walk through a virtual reality scape—for example, Barbagallo’s upcoming VR app, Caldera, only requires players to move their heads—others use motion-sensing devices to time avatar movement to player movement. 

“The biggest issue is when you’re sitting down with a headset and you’re walking in these worlds, but you’re physically sitting down,” says Lorenzo Adams, communications and media manager for Virtuix, a company that produces treadmills that allow users to physically move within virtual worlds. “…When you first time walk on the Omni, that’s no longer an issue. It actually feels a lot more natural, especially when you start analog tracking your actual foot speed and it correlates to the avatar in the game.”

Backed by a $1.1 million Kickstarter campaign and $7 million in venture capitalist funding this year, the first batch of pre-ordered Virtuix Omnis will reach consumers in the first quarter of next year Adams says. The system is compatible with Oculus and Samsung Gear VR games. Users will also be able to play several AAA games, including Skyrim and Call of Duty, using the treadmill even though fully native virtual reality versions of those games aren’t on the market.

Motion sickness issues aren’t the only obstacles for VR developers says Denny Unger, creative director and president of Cloudhead Games, a studio that will release its VR title, The Gallery: Six Elements, in 2015. Actually placing players within a virtual world also requires developers to rewrite the rules of game mechanics. Even easy mechanics that players take for granted in traditional games, like picking up objects or climbing ladders, are entirely different beasts when they’re contingent on physical movements players need to make in the real world. Likewise, establishing boundaries in a virtual environment can be tough if players don’t have the same boundaries in meat space.

For instance, “if there’s a virtual wall and you put your virtual hand up to it…what happens if [the player] exceeds that distance to the wall, so he’s effectively pushing his arm through the wall? In VR we have to have a system that accounts for that and pushes the virtual hand back while the player’s real hand is meanwhile exceeding that wall space,” says Unger. “There’s just a lot of really weird visual and perceptual things you have to kind of work around.”

Sound design is another one. In the real world, we constantly use sound cues to help orient ourselves to new places and experiences. In order to make music and sound effects feel like they’re part of a three-dimensional environment, “audio cues must be anchored to a location by slowly raising their volume during an approach to a specific physical location. You then design your music to match the tone of the local soundscape to root the sound spatially, to prevent it from feeling like a soundtrack being played through headphones,” Unger says.

It’s all new territory, for both developers and players, which makes VR a potentially costly risk for teams who dive in.

“Most of these issues are just too risky for AAAs to deal with” as of now says Unger. “…Frankly, I think a lot of them are just kind of sitting back and waiting for everybody else to solve those issues and once they see that those issues are solved and once they see that there’s a significant market for VR, that’s when they’ll jump and start building experiences.”

Beyond Gaming

Games aren’t the only way the industry is expanding. The New Frontiers Installations showcased at the Sundance Film Festival this year will feature several virtual reality experiences ranging from 3-D Kaiju attacks to a simulation of the Syrian conflict. Virtual reality therapy is currently being used by the medical community to treat everything from fear of heights to post-traumatic stress disorder while the hotel industry is experimenting with offering VR vacations. Fields ranging from the creative arts to medicine and education may desperately need VR developers in the near future says DJ Roller, co-founder of NextVR, a company that provides live and on-demand virtual reality experiences. He says that potential applications for VR range from doctors conducting remote surgeries to students taking electronic field trips.

“The amount of excitement that I see across the entire ecosystem, it’s the closest I can imagine to what it might have been like to be around the dawn of the personal computer,” Roller says. “…VR is going to change the world in ways we can’t even imagine right now.”

Roller is part of pushing that change. In 2015, NextVR will release Ghost Stories, a virtual reality version of Coldplay’s live concert tour of the same name. The first song, A Sky Full of Stars, is now available through the NextVR app for the Gear VR, a headset that allows users to view apps on the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 smartphone in virtual reality.

“We can actually put the audience in places that they would really want to be like up on the stage or maybe sitting next to a drummer, places you could never buy a ticket,” says Roller. “It’s really something that can take people beyond the front row and in turn give someone an experience they’ve never had before. It gives the filmmaker a whole host of new creative ways to tell a story, to engage the audience, to entertain.” 

With so many potential applications, there’s no doubt that a VR boom is on the near horizon and that those who are willing to work through the technical problems to create the medium’s new standards of practice will be generously rewarded. Even if you can’t (or won’t) invest in a pricey VR headset, Google Cardboard offers an ultra-cheap (sometimes clunky) way to create virtual reality apps for smartphones. Here are the development kits for Android and Unity 3D. Dev kits are also available for the Samsung Gear VR, though you’ll need a Galaxy Note 4 to really get cooking, and for the Oculus Rift (click here for the latest PC and mobile SDKs).

“Anybody who’s in the space knows that within two, maybe three years or less, that VR is going to be a massive, multi-billion dollar market,” says Denny Unger from Cloudhead Games. “…If you can find what that nugget is, what value your company has to offer the VR space, you’re going to be in a very good position in a year. To me, it’s worth taking those risks if you really want to be involved.”

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