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