GDC 2016 – Part 2: The State of VR

VR is big and is going to be really big for the game industry, and you could feel it in the air at the GDC 2016. For the first time, GDC added two days of VR development-focused events and sessions, and most of VR sessions were packed – the lines to the VR sessions were long, even 30 minutes before the sessions, and many people could be turned away. The venue for VR sessions had to be changed to double the capacities for day 2.

There was lots of interest and enthusiasm among game designers, developers and business guys, as VR represents a brand new direction, new category, and new genre for games!

It is still at the dawn of VR games, with hardware, software, contents, approaches, etc. starting to come together. Based on what I learned during GDC, I’d like to summarize the state of various aspects of VR development.

1. VR Headset

This is the first thing that comes to our mind when we talk about VR, right? After all, the immersive experience is cast to our minds while covering ourselves with the VR headset. There are a couple VR headsets available on market, and slew of VR headsets to be debuted very soon.

VR Headset

VR Headset

From $10 Google cardboard, to $100 Samsung Gear VR, to >$1000 custom rig, the price of a VR headset is on a wide spectrum, and so are capability and performance. Most people who want to get hold of VR will likely choose one among Samsung Gear VR, PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift, and HTC Vive. Here I will do a brief comparison so you have some ideas of what you can get.

Samsung Gear VR

It uses specific Samsung phones to show VR content, so the performance is low as it is limited by the phone hardware, usually at 60fps. It has a built-in touchpad for input, but you may also use an optional gamepad. It has no wire to connect to PC, so you can spin around on a chair and not worry about tangling yourself. It has no position tracking.

If you own a Samsung S6/S7, or Edge version, why not get the Gear VR to experience the magic? $99 seems to be really inexpensive for any new gadget.  Even if you have non-Samsung phone, you can still slip it into the rig and use Gear VR as a advanced version of Cardboard viewer. Of course, you will not have control pad capability.

PlayStation VR

It uses PS4 to run VR games, so it has real game-grade hardware to run VR content at 120fps, with consistent high performance. For inputs, it has a gamepad and tracked controllers, like holding a beacon with light bulb. It has small position tracking.

The unique part with PSVR is that it is supposed to play with other regular gamers on TV screens, making it a party game in your living room. The person with PSVR will have immersive feeling in the game, while others on TV can fight with or play along with the guy (a game character with VR headset) in a game. If you have a PS4 at home, then shelling out another $399 seems to be reasonable for decent experience of VR games. But you’ll have to wait until October 2016 to buy one, right before the holiday season.

Oculus Rift

This is expected to be a high-end VR headset, with games running on a powerful Oculus-ready computer. It will have very high performance, showing VR content at 120fps or higher. It will have a wire connected to computer, so that would limit you not to spin too much of 360 degree. It has small position tracking too. It does not come cheap at price $599, but well you can get it pretty much now in March.

HTC Vive

It is considered to be even higher spec than Oculus Rift. It will require a muscular PC, with motion sensor and motion controllers attached to it, and it will deliver very high performance for VR games. It has tracked hands for input, and provides room-scale position tracking, which is above everyone else. To designers / developers, this room-scale tracking capability may give another dimension for experiments.

It costs $799, because it is high-end hardware and bundled with a bunch of bells and whistles. And you can expect to get it in April if you pre-order one now.

Others

HoloLens is always another interesting device for VR/AR. Also rumor has it that Google is building a VR headset too – will be much more powerful than its Cardboard version.

2. Game Engine for VR

Recent trend indicates that Game Engine companies are making it easier (or free) for people to access game engine software and develop game on it. There were quite number of sessions covering detail topics on specific game engine, but based on my impression, here is the list to try out.

Unity 5.3  by Unity Technologies – It has a free version (Personal Edition) with full features. I believe it is most popular and widely-used game engine, with cross platform deployment to full range of mobile, VR, desktop, Web, Console and TV. Also many of the  alt.ctrl.GDC exhibits utilized Unity to create game for controllers to interact with.

Unreal Engine 4  by Epic Games – It is a sophisticated game engine used to develop some AAA games. They also showcased two VR games Bullet Train and Showdown. The graphics and visual effect looks astonishing.

Lumberyard game engine by Amazon

Lumberyard game engine by Amazon

Lumberyard by Amazon – It is a new entry to the engine game, but it is free with full source, meaning you can tweak the engine if necessary. It would be a good choice if developing online game, and no need to worry about hosting a robust game. I guess that’s where Amazon wants to get a share of the game. It is not supporting VR yet, but will add such support very soon.

3. Capture Device

For many VR games, designers/developers would just create virtual game world using game engine and other graphical software. But in order to show real world event inside VR world, you will need special video camera, which can take 360 degree, or spherical photos and videos.

Spherical Video Capture Device

Spherical Video Capture Device

Well, most of us may not have seen or used this type of camera, including me, and so I don’t have any opinions on them. I did use native Camera App on Android device to capture spherical photos, but it was difficult to take many shots and stitch them together.

Stereoscopic Video Capture Device

Stereoscopic Video Capture Device

A step further is the stereoscopic video capturing, which takes two photographs of the same object at slightly different angle to produce depth. These are high-end professional rigs, with many custom-built versions. The price range could easily go above $10k.

This area is still quite fluid, and not sure if it would ever go mainstream. Hope some consumer version in reasonable price range will become available, so we can produce some VR videos too.

4. Convention and Best Practice

With real VR game titles under 100 in total, people in the VR field are still trying to figure things out, and no clear convention has yet surfaced for designers, developers and players.

In some sessions, VR game designers and developers did share the lessons they have learned while producing their first several VR games, like interaction patterns, reality trade-off (representational, experiential, and interaction fidelity), and fidelity contract in terms of physics rule, affordance, narrative expectations. Audio (binaural audio) and visual effects will too help realize an immersive experience.

We shall see more and more “best practices” converging together with more research in VR psychology and UX, some conventions will emerge to put designers and players on the same page.

5. Area of Use

By far games is the most natural fit for VR experience, and the entire game industry is driving toward it. Cinematic VR will be another great fit, as ILM X Lab demonstrated in “Star Wars,” viewer may “attach” to different characters to experience various view points in the movie.

People also explored VR as a new way of storytelling in journalism, a new way of exercise for sports (e.g. riding stationary bike in gym feels much like driving Humvee car in war zone), and a new way of education, e.g. going into a machine and looking at the inner mechanism of an engine.

VR brings another aspect of artistic expression as new art media, challenges us to advance technology to a new frontier, and at the same time, provides us with great opportunities.

Things are just getting started!

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