Over the last days of May and into early June, over 50 people from in and around the Boston game community gathered together for a VR game jam. The event was organized by Alex Schwartz and Devin Reimer of Owlchemy Labs in conjunction with devs who saw VR demos back at Steam Dev Days and wanted to do a VR Jam. So Valve and Unity went out to help. The purpose of the jam was to expose developers to positional tracking and low persistence.
To enable this, Valve brought along some prototype headsets with positional tracking using desktop IR cameras. A couple of us from Unity went along to provide support and witness the creativity of the community first hand. The event gave us all a chance to test the excellent new SteamVR Unity plugin being developed at Valve.
The participants split up into teams, some with just a couple of folks, others with full teams comprising programmers, artists and designers. There was only one rule - teams had to hit 95 frames per second (the refresh rate of the Valve prototype hardware), or their demos wouldn’t be shown at the showcase.
Getting 95 frames a second in 2 days was a huge challenge, and I can honestly say I wasn’t the only person to be surprised at the number of teams that succeeded, as Chet Faliszek from Valve put it: “All of the devs using Unity hit the frame rate. It really is a testament to Unity that people could deliver that high perf requirement in that short a time frame.”
One team built a simulator where the player was a giraffe, reaching its head through windows in a home searching for tasty treats to eat. Another team developed a playfield full of block buildings populated with small screaming humans and giant kaiju punching bags to give the player a sense of what it is like to be a giant robot with telescoping arms.
A further project involved using the rotation of the player’s head to cause a sea snake to swim underwater, a potentially nauseating experience, but with the positional headsets this sort of head movement seemed robust and the devs could keep the headset on for a long time without any ill effect. Additionally, one of the most simple, yet fun, games at the jam was made by a single person to simulate heading a goal in soccer - a game that yielded many calls to “beat my high score” during testing.
There were many times we were asked what a particular group should do, and the response was always the same: “I don't know, and in fact no one knows yet what works in VR. So make something crazy and weird and lets find out how it feels in that world.” In so many ways, we are still in the very early days of VR, and we just don't yet know enough or have enough experience to know what works and what doesn't.
From my point of view, we are looking at a new era, similar to the push for 3D gaming in the 90s. Those early games are very primitive by today’s standards, and yet those early lessons are still with us and continue to inform game design. I believe the new wave of positional VR hardware is another huge step forward, and it will take years before we know collectively how to use it in the best way.
I was happy to see so many newbies to Unity pick it up and be able to produce content right away. Additionally, it was great to see seasoned professionals be forced to think through their design in a new way, knowing that they did not have a clear picture of exactly what it would look like during game play.
Earlier this year, at the Steam Dev Days, Alex and Devin from Owlchemy Labs gave a talk on authoring for VR, called Wild West of VR - Discovering the Rules of Oculus Rift Development. Go give it a watch to get a jump start on issues related to authoring.
Also, for an understanding of what the current challenges are, and where the current state of the tech is at, I recommend also watching Michael Abrash from Valve’s presentation: What VR Could, Should, and Almost Certainly Will Be within Two Years.
And for what will hopefully be a continuing and engaging discussion on VR authoring, join us in Seattle this August for our Unite Conference, where I will head a panel discussion titled The Reality of Authoring on the Virtual Frontier. In my imagination, the Future of VR is amazing, so let’s all work together to make it reality!