Using Valve and HTC’s Vive headset was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had with entertainment in any form, but that’s not to say that it’s perfect. There are obvious limitations in the hardware, obvious ways in which it will inevitably be improved in the years to come, and plenty of potential not yet realised in any of the prototypes I’ve played.
So I’ve been thinking. Here’s five (wholly serious) things I’d like to see Valve, HTC, Oculus or really anyone do with virtual reality.
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Combine it with procedural generation
One of the first things you’ll do when setting up your Vive is give it the parameters of the space you’re using it within. This is so that you can see a virtual border while playing games – what Valve calls “the chaperone” – to stop you from bumping into walls or furniture.
What I’d like to see is for games to take this information into account and re-structure the virtual spaces players inhabit to fit the actual spaces they’re playing within.
For example, one of the demos I played was for a game called Job Simulator, which re-creates present day jobs through the prism of poor research carried out by robots in the year of 2050. It’s funny and colourful, and it’s a game about the physical objects that make up our daily lives. That includes desks and tables.
So if Valve let me define an area of my room where my desk is, then let games position their in-world tables in the same position. This would allow games to make maximum use of the limited spaces players have in their homes, but also means you’d be able to reach out and feel the virtual walls and floor that surround you.
Clubs and clubbing for outdoor VR
While the minimum space Vive’s laser tracking boxes can be meaningfully used within is apparently six foot by four foot, Valve suggested that there was no upper limit on the space that could be tracked. You could rent a warehouse, chain the boxes together, and run freely through the entire space.
Better still, the tech can also track multiple devices moving through the space at the same time. While none of the demos I played at GDC were multiplayer, Valve said that they were working on prototypes and hoped to have more to show later in the year.
This holds all kinds of potential for dragging VR out of people’s living rooms and into parks, fields and clubs. Imagine frolicking through virtual worlds with a group of friends. Imagine inhabiting a different virtual spaces with a group of friends, but in such a way that you’re all still visible to one another.
Laser tag is about to get pretty hot. LARPing – if you could still call it that – is about to go mainstream. A bunch of people are about to get twisted ankles.
Port the real world into virtual reality
Kinect comes up a lot in conversations about the Vive, because they’re both devices that require a lot of space from your house in order to be used effectively. There are key differences, in that the Vive can be used while sitting down in a box room and so is more flexible, and also is already home to more compelling experiences than the Kinect.
However, the Kinect seems like a decent companion to Valve’s kit. One of the current problems with VR is that, while you feel embodied in the game world like never before, you can’t actually see any part of yourself. If you stretch your arms out in front of yourself you’ll see the floating spectres of your controllers, in whatever form the game has rendered them, but not your hands or arms or sleeves. The Kinect may be able to do something about that, and even if only in crude ways – only in mirrors, say – maybe be able to port some part of you or your room into the virtual world.
Whatever the limitations, I want people to experiment with this stuff, and anything else that can get real world data inside game worlds in real-time. The more reality and virtual reality merge, the greater the potential.
VR headsets in schools
Valve and HTC were shtum about the price of the Vive, but estimates for the Oculus Rift suggested it might be around the $300 mark. That’s relatively inexpensive for a new piece of consumer tech (just look at the Apple Watch), but may be too much for organisations, such as schools, that would need to buy a large number of them.
Yet I desperately want the Vive to be available in as many schools as possible, as soon as possible. The power it has to let people experience otherwise unreachable things, and to teach through doing so, is immense.
I first experienced with Titans of Space, an Oculus Rift demo that takes you through a seat tour of the solar system and beyond. What it’s good at communicating, in a way I’ve never seen, is the scale of different celestial objects. From the earth, to the moon, to Jupiter, to the sun, and to nearby stars, it carries you along an interstellar journey that makes you feel the size differences between objects which – even after books and documentaries and films – had still felt abstract to me.
I experienced it again with the Vive. After being given a demo by Valve, I returned to their booth at GDC to see Job Simulator and asked cheekily if afterwards they would let me see another demo I’d heard about when, the day prior, a game designer told me he started to cry while using it.
This demo streams in live data from Google Earth, which combines satellite imagery with community-provided models in order to render cities and landscapes in 3D. I’ve spent hours poking around the desktop software, visiting places I’ve lived and visited and dreamed of visiting.
It can’t compare to suddenly standing above a city, its skyscrapers reaching your waist, the scene stretching off towards the horizon. I crouched to look between the buildings, and leaned over to peer at street level. And then the world faded to black and back again, and I was surrounded by mountains, peering at tiny fuzzy model trees, the sun setting over the horizon. And then I was in another landscape. And then I was in outerspace, peering at planet earth as a tiny globe, being lit according to the actual factual present position of the sun.
The game designer told me he cried because he imagined using this to show his kids the world. All kids ought to have the same opportunity.
There’s an obvious limitation in the Vive in that its natural movement system – walking in the real world – is tied to the physical space you’re using it within. It’s not clear how this will function for games whose borders aren’t so close, like traditional open world games. I’m told there are prototypes in the works for ways to do that – and at the very least, you could just push a forward button on the controller while standing still – and I’m not generally too worried about it. Games will be built that are designed to suit the strengths and weakness of the Vive, and compared to the Rift, which feels like a cockpit simulator, it feels like those limits are already expanding outwards.
This leads me in one obvious direction. One of the best games to play on the Rift was Euro Truck Simulator 2, because it’s a good game generally, because it’s set in a cockpit, because it’s a pleasant form of tourism. Now that virtual reality can reach beyond the limits of a cockpit and into 15′ x 15′ rooms, it seems time to make Euro Truck Simulator 3: Challenge Anneka, in which you not only drive your truck across Europe, but have a living room in the back of it.
I don’t know what freight you’d carry, but perhaps ill-understood feelings of romance towards tummies of young boys watching at home.
A VR headset that fits on dogs
Because I’m curious.
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