06-26-14 - VR Impressions

NOTE : changed post title to break the link.

Yesterday I finally went to Valve and saw "The Room". This is a rather rambly post about my thoughts after experiencing it.

For those who have been under a rock (like me), Valve has got this amazing VR demo. It uses unique prototype hardware that provides very good positional head tracking and very low latency graphics. It's in a calibrated room with registration spots all over the walls. It's way way better than any other VR, it's the real thing.

There is this magic thing that happens, it does tickle your brain intuitively. Part of you thinks that you're there. I had the same experiences that I've heard other people recount - your body starts reacting; like when a sphere moves towards you, you flinch and try to dodge it without thinking.

Part of the magic is that it's good enough that you *want* to believe it. It's not actually good enough that it seems real. Even in the carefully calibrated Valve room, it's glitchy and things pop a bit, and you always know you're in a simulation. But you choose to ignore the problems. It felt like when you're watching a good movie, and if you were being rational you would say that this is all illogical and the green screening looks fucking terrible and that is physically impossible what he just did, but if it's good you just choose to ignore all that and go along for the ride. VR felt like that to me.

One of the cool things about VR is that there is an absolute sense of scale, because you are always the size of you. This gives you scale reference in a way that you never have in games. Which is also a problem. It's wonderful if you're making games where you play as a human, but you can't play as a giant (if you just scale down everything else, it feels like you're you in a world where everything else is tiny, not that you're bigger; scale is no longer relative, you are always you). You can't make the characters run at 60 mph the way we usually do in games.

As cool as it is, I don't see how you actually make games with it.

For one thing there are massive short term technical problems. The headset is heavy and uncomfortable. The lenses have to be perfectly aligned to your eyes or you get sick. The registration is very easy to mess up. I'm sure these will be resolved over time. The headset has a cable which is always in danger of tripping or strangling you, which is a major problem and technically hard to get rid of, but perhaps possible some day.

But there are more fundamental inherent problems. When I stepped off the ledge, I wanted to fall. But of course I never actually can. You make my character fall, but not my body? That's weird. Heck if my character steps up on something, I want to step up myself. You can only make games where you basically stand still. In the room with the pipes, I want to climb on the pipes. Nope, you can't - and probably never can. Why would I want to be in a virtual world if I can't do anything there? I don't know how you even walk around a world without it feeling bizarre. All the Valve demos are basically you stuck in a tiny box, which is going to get old.

How do you ever make a game where the player character is moved without their own volition? If an NPC bumps me and pushes my avatar, what happens? You can't push my real human body, so it breaks the illusion. It seems to me that as soon as your viewpoint has a physical reaction with the virtual world and isn't just a viewer with no collision detection, it just doesn't work.

There's this fundamental problem that the software cannot move the player's viewpoint. The player must always get to move their own viewpoint with their head, or the illusion is broken (or worse, you get sick). This is just such a huge problem for games, it means the player can only be a ghost, or an omniscient observer in an RTS game, or other such things. Sure you can make games where you stand over an RTS world map and poke at it. Yay, it's a board game with fancy graphics. I see how it could be great as a sculpting or design tool. I see how it would be great for The Witness and similar games.

For me personally, it's so disappointing that you can't actually physically be in these worlds. The most exciting moments for me were some of the outdoor scenes, or the pipe room, where I just felt viscerally - "I want to run around in this world". What would be amazing for me would be to go in the VR world to alien planets with crazy strange plants and geology, and be able to run around it and climb on it. And I just don't see how that ever works. You can't walk around your living room, you'll trip on things or run into the wall. You can't ever step up or down anything, you have to be on perfectly flat ground all the time. You can't ever touch anything. (It's like a strip club; hey this is so exciting! can I interact with it? No? I have to just sit here and not move or touch anything? How fucking boring and frustrating. I'm leaving.)

At the very minimum you need gloves with amazing force feedback to give you some kind of tactile experience of the VR world, but even then it's just good for VR surgery and VR board games and things where you stand still and touch things. (and we all know the real app is VR fondling).

You could definitely make a killer car racing game. Put me in a seat with force feedback, and that solves all the physical interaction problems. (or, similarly, I'm driving a mech or a space ship or whatever; basically lock the player in a seat so you don't have to address the hard problems for now).

There are also huge huge software problems. Collision detection has to be polygon-perfect ; coarse collision proxies are no longer acceptable. Physics and animation have to be way better. Texture mapping and normal mapping just don't work. Billboard cards just don't work. We basically can't have trees or smoke or anything soft or complex for a long time, it's going to be a lot of super simple rigid objects. Skinned characters and painted on clothing (and just using textures to paint on geometry), none of it works. Flat shaded simple stuff is totally fine, but all the hacks we've used for so long are out the window.

I certainly see the appeal (for a software engineer) of starting from scratch on so many issues and working on the hard problems. Fun.

Socially I find VR rather scary.

One issue is the addictive nature of living in a VR world. Yes yes people are already addicted to their phones and facebook and WoW and whatever, but this is a whole new level. Plus it's even more disengaged from reality; it's one thing for everyone in a coffee shop these days to be staring at their laptops (god I hate you) but when they're all in headsets then interaction in the real world is completely over. I have no doubt that there will be a large class of people that live in the VR world and never leave their living room; Facebook will provide a "deliver pizza" button so that you don't even have to exit the simulation. It will be bad.

Perhaps more disturbing to me is how real and scary it can be. Just having a cube move into me was a kind of real physical fright that I haven't felt in a game. I think that being in a realistic VR world with people shooting each other would be absolutely terrifying and disgusting and really would do bad things to the brains of the players.

And if we wind up with evil overlords like Facebook or Apple or whoever controlling our VR world, that is downright dystopian. We all had our chance to say "no" to the rise of closed platforms when the Apple shit started to take off, and we all fucking dropped the ball (well, you did). Hell we did the same thing with the PATRIOT act. We're all just lying down and getting raped and not doing a damn thing about it and the future of freedom is very bleak indeed. (wow that rant went off the rails)

Anyway, I look forward to trying it again and seeing what people come up with. It's been a long time since I saw anything in games that made me say "yes! I want to play that!" so in that sense VR is a huge win.

Saved comments :

Tom Forsyth said... Playing as a giant is OK - grow the player's height, but don't move their eyes further apart. So the scale is unchanged, but the eyes are higher off the ground. July 3, 2014 at 7:45 PM

brucedawson said... Isn't a giant just somebody who is way taller than everybody else? So yeah, maybe if you 'just' scale down everyone else then you'll still feel normal size. But you'll also feel like you can crush the tiny creatures like bugs! Which is really the essence of being a giant. And yes, I have done the demo. July 3, 2014 at 8:56 PM

Grzegorz Adam Hankiewicz said... I don't understand how you say a steering wheel with force feedback solves any VR problem when the main reason I know I'm driving fast is how forces are being applied to my whole body, not that I'm holding something round instead of a gamepad. You mention it being jarring not being able to climb, wouldn't it be jarring to jump on a terrain bump inside your car and not feel gravity changes? Maybe the point of VR is not replicating dull life but simulating what real life can't possibly give us ever? July 4, 2014 at 3:08 AM

cbloom said... @GAH - not a wheel with force feedback (they all suck right now), but a *seat* like the F1 simulators use. They're quite good at faking short-term forces (terrain bumps and such are easy). I certainly don't mean that that should be the goal of VR. In fact it's quite disappointing that that is the only thing we have any hope of doing a good job of in the short term. July 4, 2014 at 7:33 AM

Stu said... I think you're being a bit defeatist about it, and unimaginative about how it can be used today. Despite being around 30 years old, the tech has only just caught up to the point whereby it can begin to travel down the path towards full immersion, Matrix style brain plugs, holodeck etc. This shit's gotta start somewhere, and can still produce amazing gaming - an obvious killer gaming genre is in any vehicular activity, incl. racing, normal driving, flying, space piloting, etc. Let the other stuff slowly evolve towards your eventual goal - we're in the 'space invaders' and 'pacman' era for VR now, and it works as is for a lot of gaming. July 4, 2014 at 9:11 AM

cbloom said... I'd love to hear any ideas for how game play with physical interaction will ever work. Haven't heard any yet. Obviously the goal should be physical interaction that actually *feels* like physical interaction so that it doesn't break the illusion of being there. That's unattainable for a long time. But even more modest is just how do you do something like walking around a space that has solid objects in it, or there are NPC's walking around. How do you make that work without being super artificial and weird and breaking the magic? In the short term we're going to see games that are basically board games, god games, fucking "experiences" where flower petals fall on you and garbage like that. We're going to see games that are just traditional shitty computer games, where you slide around a fucking lozenge collision proxy using a gamepad, and the VR is just a viewer in that game. That is fucking lame. What I would really hate to see is for the current trend in games to continue into VR - just more of the same shit all the time with better graphics. If people just punt on actually solving VR interaction and just use it as a way to make amazing graphics for fucking Call of Doody or Retro Fucking Mario Indie Bullshit Clone then I will be sad. When the top game is fucking VR Candy Soul-Crush then I will be sad. What is super magical and amazing is the feeling that you actually are somewhere else, and your body gets involved in a way it never has before, you feel like you can actually move around in this VR world. And until games are actually working in that magic it's just bullshit. July 4, 2014 at 9:36 AM

cbloom said... If you like, this is an exhortation to not cop the fuck out on VR the way we have in games for the last 20 years. The hard problems we should be solving in games are AI, animation/motion, physics. But we don't. We just make the same shit and put better graphics on it. Because that sells, and it's easy. Don't do that to VR. Actually work on how people interact with the simulation, and how the simulation responds to them. July 4, 2014 at 10:03 AM

Dillon Robinson said... Son, Bloom, kiddo, you've talking out of your ass again. Think before you speak.

.. and then it really went downhill.

1 comment:

AndroidBlogger said...

I recently saw a video on this subject :

We certainly are not there yet, but I do understand your concerns.
On the other hand, VR ( from what I've heard, because I didn't experiment it ) has such a immersive power, that it's like a new tech area to discover, and I'm sure there are many great things that can be done from it.

old rants