Shattering Expectations – A Deep Dive into Current & Future VR Software
I’ve had a couple of weeks to play around with the GearVR virtual reality headset, and it’s been a blast. The hardware has finally matured enough for virtual reality to be quite convincing, and at an affordable price.
Since VR is such a new technology, there is currently a massive call for developers to get software into the hands of consumers. With the ongoing prioritization of app development there is already a surprising amount of software available even though the consumer Gear VR has been out for only one month.
I’ve set out to see what is possible with virtual reality software, by experimenting with many different apps and looking for trends. During my testing I’ve noticed there are several different types of experiences available in virtual reality. VR can provide new experiences in previously unreachable environments in addition to novel consumption of existing media. Let’s dive into the various types of applications starting with my favorite.
I have found social experiences to be the most compelling application of VR. These apps use virtual reality as a tool to bring together various people into the same room. Each person is given an Avatar that moves with their head. This adds an element of realism, and interactions closely simulate the real world. For example, I commonly found that players would make eye contact or facial expressions at each other even though this was completely unnecessary. It just felt right to follow standard social etiquette. In fact, several users on Reddit mentioned that they even felt social anxiety in these applications because they were so realistic.
The first such social experience application for the platform is Oculus Social Alpha. This application gathers up to five people in various virtual environments, including things such as a millionaire’s home theater or even the moon. You can watch Twitch or Vimeo videos, but just like hanging out in real life most didn’t pay much attention to the screen and instead spent most of their time conversing with each other. It’s surprising just how realistic this experience feels – it allows us to connect as humans on a social level that I have never experienced with any other type of technology.
Within the past week there have been two newcomers into this space: CONVRGE and vTime, each adding their own unique spin on the genre. In addition to allowing you to view YouTube videos (a much larger selection than Vimeo and Twitch), CONVRGE allows Gear VR users and Oculus users to hang out in the same rooms together. This expands and diversifies the pool of users you can connect with in their application, bridging the gap across platforms. vTime has it’s own twist: it does away with the video aspect and instead places users in various scenic locations like a river, famous mountain, or a fireplace inside a cave. These two applications are great examples of the innovations that can arise out of bringing third party developers into the mix. I’ll be keeping an eye on these applications to see how else they can continue innovating the experience of social communication in virtual reality.
“The gaming demographic will likely drive plenty of VR’s mainstream adoption”
The key is that instead of using a mouse, trackpad, or joystick to aim, you can simply look directly at your target and fire. There is something so satisfying about this method of aiming and everyone “gets it” almost instantly.
Another advantage of gaming in VR besides more natural interfaces is the immersion you can achieve. Gamers spend lots of money and effort making sure their gaming is as immersive as possible. Nothing is more immersive than virtually being inside of the environment. The enemies are much more real when you look over and see them in stereoscopic 3D. Because of this, the gaming demographic will drive a lot of adoption into the consumerization of VR. The high price that developers can charge for their apps (commonly $9.99 – $14.99) also makes this an appealing category for developers to invest in.
One popular game that does a good job of demonstrating the level of immersion is Dreadhalls. This application is eerily similar to horror games in recent years such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent. You are trapped inside of a large dungeon without anything but a lantern and must find a way to escape. Along the way you run into frightening creatures that are very dangerous. There are people that have tried this game that can’t make it more than 10 minutes before quitting out of fear. It’s that immersive.
For those looking for a less intense experience there are more relaxing games out there. Esper 2 is a great puzzle solving game that is reminiscent of Portal. It’s got sassy voice acting, humorous moments, and puzzles to solve that leverage interesting and novel mechanics. Similar to Smash Hit, Esper takes advantage of the ability to aim and control objects by simply looking at them and tapping. It’s a pleasurable experience and very entertaining, especially for the more casual gamer.
The ability to handcraft these experiences allows creators to make far more immersive content than ever before
The non-gamers out there can still enjoy virtual reality with various virtual experiences available. There are several apps that allow you to virtually visit places either in 360 degrees or in full stereoscopic 3D. These apps allow you to experience things you might not be able to experience normally. For example, the Ocean Rift app allows you to experience various underwater habitats and swim with animals such as dolphins, turtles, and whales. The experience is pretty convincing with the light effects and distortion tricking you into thinking you are actually underwater.
When demoing the GearVR to my friends, another interesting experience I like to show them is the Oculus Video or the Netflix applications. Netflix places you inside of a wood cabin with a gigantic 110 inch TV you can use to view any Netflix content. Oculus Video allows you to consume traditional content in an extremely novel fashion. You are placed into a virtual cinema where you can watch a selection of movies (including any on your device) on the big screen. It’s a perfect recreation of a cinema, even the way the light bounces of the ceiling tiles is convincing. The only thing missing is the popcorn, but that’s what real life is for.
My favorite application in the “experiences” category is called Vrse. There are many different experiences in the Vrse app, but my go-to is called Catatonic. It’s an experience that utilizes the “captive audience” concept that is frequently used for horror experiences in VR. The viewer is strapped to a wheelchair and wheeled around an insane asylum. There are lights flickering, hooded men pushing you, and insane people crawling on the floor all around you. The sense of helplessness the content creators can achieve by forcing you to stay in a fixed location helps them to increase the level unease you feel. The entire experience is crafted to give you the spooks. It feels like you are inside of a horror film. In fact, the ability to handcraft these experiences will allow content creators to make far more immersive content than was ever possible.
The final category of Virtual Reality software I wanted to touch on is education. This is the direct application of the “experiences” concept, with a clear intent focused on educating the audience. The immersiveness of VR lends itself very well to educational experiences. VR is such a powerful education tool because it invites you to learn by actually experiencing the concepts, rather than just hearing about them.
The types of educational experiences that are available remind me of what the children’s television show “The Magic Schoolbus” attempted to do. You can virtually experience many different things. The Body VR allows you to travel through the bloodstream to learn first-hand how the circulatory system works. With the BluVR you can swim in different ecosystems and learn facts about their inhabitants as they swim right past your nose. Titans of Space allows you to zoom through various planets and stars in a tour through our solar system and beyond. At each stop you learn information about the planet or surrounding moons. In all of these applications you are experiencing the concepts being taught. It almost doesn’t feel like learning!
Virtual reality has many strengths, the primary of which are immersion and simulated environments. Content creators and developers are finding many different applications of these concepts to create new ways to socialize, level up, or learn content. Once people get a chance to consume content in virtual reality, it’s hard to go back! One thing is certain – virtual reality is about to make a huge splash, but it will rely heavily on the software that is available for it. We’ve seen a lot of what’s possible, yet we’ve only scratched the surface.