Alex Schwartz is the founder and CEO of VR game-development studio Owlchemy Labs. The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Qualcomm.
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
VR promises to transport viewers into worlds they’ve only seen on movie screens — where they can fight alongside superheroes, explore ancient civilizations, and jump into the action of their favorite video games. But sky-high expectations belie the reality of the medium. For instance, you might say you want to be fully immersed in a “Call of Duty” game, without realizing that the sights, sounds, and calamity of a battlefield is way more intense than you bargained for.
Herein lies one of the biggest challenges facing VR: People don’t yet understand it. That’s been true of every new medium, from radio and television to video games, mobile apps, and web video. Though the platforms may seem similar, simply adapting existing content from other media just won’t work.
Think of it this way: There’s a reason you don’t play the 1985 version of “Super Mario Bros.” on your smartphone. The game was designed to be played with a controller. Virtual buttons on mobile-device screens were a lame attempt to bring the old world into a medium where it didn’t belong. Ultimately, mobile developers had to invent a new lexicon — a new toolkit — for what works on a touchscreen. (Don’t forget, we lived with and developed for touchscreens for years before “Tiny Wings” and “Angry Birds.”) Now, pinching, zooming, and dragging are second nature to smartphone users.
Helping people better understand the medium will be true of the VR transition, as well. The level of immersion VR delivers is inconceivable to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, and until high-quality VR is available in every living room (or on every mobile phone, for that matter) we need to figure out how to make it demonstrable — something people can experience from the outside, too. Trouble is, we’re still in the very early stages of VR adoption, so the need for workarounds to promote a more complete understanding of the medium is particularly acute. And doing so takes exposure and time.
So, how can we share VR experiences with a broader audience? What we have right now are only stopgaps. Watching someone else fumble and flail around in an immersive VR experience might be funny (for a moment), but it’s not the answer. Nor is sharing the wearer’s point-of-view to a flat screen — the sudden and sometimes erratic movements of another person’s head can trigger nausea. Instead, we need to figure out how a spectator can see the player and their environment in context all at once.
At Owlchemy, we’re exploring a couple of different avenues to solve this problem. One way is to insert another point-of-view, essentially a virtual camera, into the VR environment. Through that virtual lens, the spectator watching on a laptop or TV screen would see the entire scene, complete with the virtual representation of the player — almost as if she was watching an actor in a movie or a suspect on a security camera. Even though this technique does not immerse the third party, it allows for him to become a true spectator in the virtual environment.
Another promising method is something we’re playing with called “mixed reality.” In this setup, the spectator sees both the real-world human player and the virtual world with which he or she is interacting, merged together into a single image. Of course, this is challenging from both a hardware and software perspective. Software must constantly track the position of both a real-world camera and a virtual-reality player and then composite the scene together in real time for the spectator. This kind of tech needs to be simplified to make it both affordable and approachable for the average gamer or streamer — a problem we are in the midst of tackling.
Of course, there is no replacement for experiencing VR first hand. In these early days of VR, high-quality experiences on tethered VR systems, such as the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, or mobile VR systems, such as the Samsung Gear VR, have been best way to really sell the medium to the uninitiated. The high price tag of tethered VR is still a barrier to entry for mainstream consumers. Mobile VR, on the other hand, is more affordable and offers the advantage of being untethered. In addition, early designs of fully untethered standalone headsets prove that delivering high-quality immersive mobile VR experiences is possible. And year by year, mobile processors will advance, making it easier and more convenient to show off premium VR content on smartphones and standalone VR headsets. It’s all about giving players their first taste of fully immersive VR — something that goes beyond looking around an environment, and allows the player to use his hands, to pick things up, to truly interact with the virtual world.
Only then can we expect to have a collective “ah-hah” moment, where the purpose and promise of VR becomes apparent to anyone and everyone. Until that time, we need to build experiences that give to-be-converted VR fans an idea of the fantastic experience happening in the headset.