Vir­tu­ally here

VRUK, the UK’s largest vir­tual re­al­ity con­fer­ence, re­veals the un­prece­dented reach of the tech­nol­ogy

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The UK’s cre­ative in­dus­tries gather for Lon­don’s VRUK con­fer­ence

Videogames are of­ten at the fore­front of tech­no­log­i­cal shifts, as has been the case with 3D vi­su­als, in­no­va­tions in in­ter­faces or sim­ply the drive for raw, con­sumer-ac­ces­si­ble pro­cess­ing power. But the most strik­ing thing about the lineup for the UK’s largest vir­tual re­al­ity con­fer­ence to date, VRUK, tak­ing place at Lon­don’s Ravens­bourne col­lege, is its wide-reach­ing di­ver­sity. Here cin­e­matog­ra­phers, ed­u­ca­tors, ad­ver­tis­ers, vis­ual artists, and rep­re­sen­ta­tives from char­i­ties and min­is­te­rial de­part­ments all rub shoul­ders. There are even a few game-mak­ers in among them.

It’s in­dica­tive of an un­prece­dented rush of sup­port for a tech­nol­ogy that’s yet to prove it­self, but which har­bours a greater po­ten­tial for cul­tural change than any in re­cent mem­ory. It’s a benev­o­lent gold rush in which prospec­tors are happy to share ideas and strate­gies in ser­vice of the greater good, and one that has driven an ac­cel­er­ated hard­ware de­vel­op­ment cy­cle to ri­val smart devices’ an­nual churn.

As if to jus­tify this la­tent po­ten­tial, the first day of the con­fer­ence kicks off with some big num­bers. Dean John­son, head of in­no­va­tion at cre­ative agency Brand­width, fol­lows a wel­com­ing in­tro­duc­tion from Ravens­bourne di­rec­tor Linda Drew with a primer on VR’s cur­rent po­si­tion, cit­ing an in­vest­ment of £500 mil­lion in VR and AR projects dur­ing 2015, topped up with a fur­ther £550 mil­lion fund­ing round for Magic Leap at the start of 2016. By 2020, the mavens say, VR and AR will be worth over £100 bil­lion – and this is in the con­text of the UK cre­ative in­dus­try’s £84.1 bil­lion an­nual worth across all sec­tors.

The broad gath­er­ing of rep­re­sen­ta­tives from var­i­ous in­dus­tries is an en­cour­ag­ing show of force that goes some way to mit­i­gat­ing fears of a re­peat of 3DTV’s Be­ta­max-like tra­jec­tory. Ac­cord­ing to SCEE Im­mer­sive Tech­nol­ogy Group se­nior de­signer Jed Ash­forth – who is tasked with guid­ing the evo­lu­tion of PlayS­ta­tion VR – there’s a straight­for­ward rea­son for this wide­spread con­fi­dence.

“VR is the desti­na­tion that all th­ese tech­nolo­gies have been head­ing to; it’s not an in­ter­me­di­ary step on the way,” he ex­plains af­ter de­liv­er­ing a talk on PlayS­ta­tion VR game de­sign. “3D, mo­tion con­trol, bin­au­ral au­dio – all of th­ese things are nec­es­sary for VR. All of them are tech­nolo­gies that were the ‘hot thing’ for a while, but even­tu­ally cooled off. But they’re all es­sen­tial build­ing blocks for VR, and with­out videogames hav­ing ex­plored those tech­nolo­gies in the past, and fac­ing up to their chal­lenges, we wouldn’t be in such an ad­vanced po­si­tion to make VR to­day.

“I’ve been around VR and this in­dus­try a long time, and this align­ment of so many dif­fer­ent in­dus­tries, and so many par­ties within each in­dus­try, all point­ing in the same di­rec­tion and help­ing each other, shar­ing knowl­edge and ex­per­tise and in­sight – it’s un­prece­dented.”

But with so many in­dus­tries and cre­atives now get­ting in­volved in a tech­nol­ogy for which the play­book and ver­nac­u­lar are yet to be es­tab­lished, there’s greater risk of poor VR ex­pe­ri­ences – a prob­lem more pro­nounced than in any other in­dus­try given the po­ten­tial for mis­steps to cause nau­sea, headaches or in­jured shins. Henry Stu­art, co-founder and CEO of VR spe­cial­ist pro­duc­tion com­pany Visualise, ad­dresses the prob­lem in his talk ‘Re­spect­ing Your Viewer and Other Rules of Great VR’.

In among fa­mil­iar point­ers such as main­tain­ing a sta­ble view­point, and try­ing not to break the user’s sense of pres­ence, he un­der­scores the need to more ag­gres­sively push back against clients – be they ad­ver­tis­ers or game pub­lish­ers – with un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions that might re­sult in an un­com­fort­able VR ex­pe­ri­ence, and by ex­ten­sion de­lay the tar­get con­sumer’s adop­tion of VR.

The game in­dus­try has done much of the ground­work in this re­spect, but as more sec­tors look to em­ploy and shape VR, how big a part will games play in defin­ing a broad­en­ing rule­set? “The big­gest,” Stu­art as­serts. “I re­ally be­lieve that. I don’t think peo­ple are go­ing to be buy­ing the head­sets to watch films or mu­sic events yet, be­cause there’s not an es­tab­lished amount of con­tent at this point. It’s not nearly as well-es­tab­lished as the gam­ing in­dus­try is. Sony has al­ready got mil­lions of PlayS­ta­tions out there, so in terms of the next step for get­ting into VR, buy­ing a head­set isn’t a big leap. So I think Sony is go­ing to have a huge part to play later in the year when it re­leases PlayS­ta­tion VR. And [VR soft­ware] doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily have to be a game, doc­u­men­tary or film – it can be an ex­pe­ri­ence. Some­thing to­tally dif­fer­ent, where you’re im­mersed some­where and can in­ter­act with things – that’s some­thing that doesn’t even have a name yet.”

The many short-form tech demos that fit into this def­i­ni­tion – stand­ing on the bow of a sunken ship while watch­ing

“So many par­ties in each in­dus­try shar­ing knowl­edge and ex­per­tise and in­sight – it’s un­prece­dented”

whales swim past, for ex­am­ple, or play­ing around with tiny ro­bots in a doll’s house – also rep­re­sent the most likely point of con­flu­ence as the bor­ders that sep­a­rate doc­u­men­taries, film, mu­sic and videogames be­gin to dis­in­te­grate.

“The ma­jor­ity of our work – 60 per cent – is brands and ad­ver­tis­ing,” Stu­art ex­plains. “But it’s hap­pen­ing al­ready with us where we’re hav­ing to fuse videogame en­gines with 360-de­gree video con­tent. I mean, I re­mem­ber the early days when they started putting cin­e­matic con­tent in videogames – first it was cutscenes, and since then it’s grad­u­ally be­come more and more in­te­grated. Vir­tual re­al­ity could be like that, but it can go any­where – it can go crazy from here.”

It’s a line of think­ing that echoes through­out the con­fer­ence. Jaunt VR’s Michael Frack­ers dis­cusses the chal­lenges of cre­at­ing cin­e­matic VR, while Masters Of Pie founder Matt Rat­cliffe charts the evo­lu­tion of sto­ry­telling from campfires to the con­cept of a holodeck. Wil­liam Latham, vis­ual artist and for­mer CEO of The Thing and Evolva stu­dio Com­puter Art­works Ltd, muses on what VR en­vi­ron­ments could do for his Or­ganic Art soft­ware. And as if VR’s broad ap­peal hadn’t been un­der­scored enough, the BBC’s Christo­pher Nundy dis­cusses the process of plac­ing view­ers at the cen­tre of Strictly Come Danc­ing’s dance­floor. In­ter­ac­tiv­ity and pres­ence, it would seem, will soon no longer be the clear-cut dif­fer­en­tia­tors for videogames.

As bor­ders be­tween art forms in­creas­ingly break down, and other me­dia for­mats take on the pro­duc­tion re­quire­ments more com­monly as­so­ci­ated with videogames, there are key lessons that can be learned from game mak­ers’ ex­pe­ri­ence. But among th­ese lessons are new chal­lenges for stu­dios, too, as set out in an en­light­en­ing pre­sen­ta­tion from Re­bel­lion mar­ket­ing and PR man­ager Rob­bie Cooke. While an in­dus­try famed for crunch cy­cles and poor di­ets isn’t known for its con­cern with em­ploy­ees’ health, Cooke re­veals that the Sniper Elite and Bat­tle­zone 98 Re­dux stu­dio has had to draw up guide­lines for de­vel­op­ers work­ing with pre-re­lease code – bugs and fram­er­ate is­sues are more than an ir­ri­ta­tion if you’re strapped into a head­set. To this end, Re­bel­lion lim­its its team to 20-minute test ses­sions, builds in UI warn­ings (a big green tor­toise flashes up on screen when the re­fresh rate is mis­be­hav­ing), and dis­cour­ages com­muters from driv­ing or rid­ing home straight af­ter wear­ing a head­set. But dis­ori­ented em­ploy­ees can also be a boon, he points out, as par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive devs (or, as he calls them, “ca­naries”) will rep­re­sent a large por­tion of your au­di­ence. En­sure that what you’re mak­ing is com­fort­able for them, and you’ll likely be in a good po­si­tion when the game ships.

One de­mo­graphic that shouldn’t have any trou­ble ac­cli­ma­tis­ing is chil­dren. Fourth­wall, which worked on Mat­tel’s VR up­date of the clas­sic View-Mas­ter and is cur­rently de­vel­op­ing a pet-care game called Dream Horse, is one of the few stu­dios fo­cus­ing on the younger mar­ket. Com­pany founder Chris Etches is con­fi­dent that the sec­tor will grow rapidly, and kids will adopt VR tech as quickly as they have touch­screens.

“The first ver­sion of Dream Horse had a di­nosaur be­cause I hap­pened to have a di­nosaur model ly­ing around,” he tells us af­ter host­ing a kids’ VR game de­sign work­shop. “My daugh­ter’s only three, but she loved it. At this age they just think, ‘Of course Daddy’s got magic gog­gles where I can go see my pet di­nosaur.’ Very quickly, boys and girls who’ve played Ta­m­agotchi or any pet-care games are go­ing to get this.”

But de­sign­ing VR games for chil­dren comes with an ad­di­tional set of prob­lems – not least the per­ceived health risks. “The View-Mas­ter is a smart move by Mat­tel,” Etches con­tin­ues. “There’s no head strap, and no drilled hole for head­phone jacks, be­cause you’re not sup­posed to wear head­phones, you’re not sup­posed to keep it on your head. This is for hold­ing

“At this age they just think, ‘Of course Daddy’s got magic gog­gles where I can see my pet di­nosaur’”

to your face for a cou­ple of min­utes, and then putting down. Loads of th­ese have sold – it’s a valid plat­form on its own.”

While purists might dis­miss the VR cre­den­tials of devices such as View-Mas­ter and Google’s Card­board, they rep­re­sent the most af­ford­able and ac­ces­si­ble way to get VR into peo­ple’s hands, and by virtue of lim­it­ing im­mer­sion are in­trin­si­cally so­cial. Kids and adults can pass them around eas­ily – one of the first things

Dream Horse play­ers want to do, Etches re­veals, is show other chil­dren their steed.

“You go to VR fo­rums and there are end­less bor­ing con­ver­sa­tions go­ing, ‘Oh, it’s not VR un­less it’s 90Hz, 1080p each eye, etc,” Etches says. “But I don’t care about that – if you’ve got some­thing that can be played by kids, then it’s bla­tantly go­ing to be playable by a causal au­di­ence as well. I know this sounds trite, but I gen­uinely want to make the

Far­mVille of VR. I don’t mean in the sense of nickel-and-dim­ing our cus­tomers for ev­ery cent, or what Zynga be­came in the end. But we all laughed when Far­mVille ap­peared; we said, ‘Oh my god, I could make that in an af­ter­noon. It looks so crappy.’ We didn’t get it – they knew ex­actly what they were do­ing. And all those peo­ple who didn’t get games got that. That’s who it was tar­geted at. And in the end you have to hold your hand up and say, well, good on ’em.”

Who­ever a game is tar­geted at, the need to en­able users to share an ex­pe­ri­ence that re­quires them to be iso­lated re­mains a key prob­lem.

“With PlayS­ta­tion VR we’ve re­ally fo­cused on this as­pect,” Ash­forth says. “We’ve re­ally tried to in­clude so­cial fea­tures, like our Screen Mir­ror Mode and Sep­a­rate Screen Mode, that are go­ing to help peo­ple get in­volved and play to­gether with their friends.”

It’s more than just a ser­vice to fam­ily mem­bers and friends on the out­side of an HMD, it’s a con­certed at­tempt to kick­start the buzz that VR will need to take root, and to ad­dress the very real im­age prob­lem – ex­em­pli­fied by that Palmer Luckey Time cover – that VR has to sur­mount. But those are com­mer­cial prob­lems for the im­me­di­ate fu­ture, and while many in­dus­try voices con­tinue to loudly pro­claim 2016 as the “year of VR”, the truth is that it will likely take a lit­tle longer to re­ally gain pur­chase. Tem­pered ex­pec­ta­tions aside, VRUK demon­strates the tech­nol­ogy’s un­wa­ver­ing, uni­form back­ing from ev­ery con­ceiv­ably in­ter­ested party, and that alone should be enough to sus­tain it while it shifts from cu­ri­ous gim­mick to must-have tech­nol­ogy in the eyes of the rest of the world. But it’s also un­de­ni­able that try­ing it leaves a last­ing im­pres­sion that’s un­like that of any other me­dia.

“I think, as al­ways with a brand-new user ex­pe­ri­ence, there’s go­ing to be a snow­ball ef­fect,” Ash­forth rea­sons. “One of the big­gest chal­lenges with VR is that, like the Matrix, you can’t be told what it is; you re­ally do have to ex­pe­ri­ence it for your­self. I’ve run hun­dreds and hun­dreds of demos of VR for peo­ple over the past few years and there’s al­ways this great ex­cite­ment when peo­ple come out of play­ing it. You can see peo­ple, in the space of a few mo­ments, they get it. The grin spreads across their face, and it just blows their world wide open. It does a fan­tas­tic job of sell­ing it­self.”

CLOCK­WISE FROM LEFT Us­ing full-fat VR is clunky, and that’s be­fore you fac­tor in some­thing such as Vir­tuix’s Omni; Sam­sung’s GearVR is cur­rently the best com­mer­cially avail­able VR head­set; as well as key talks, VRUK pro­vides nu­mer­ous work­shops

VRUK’s Im­mer­sion Zone, split across two floors and fea­tur­ing a wide se­lec­tion of VR game and tech demos

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