Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Virtual Realty

Yesterday Bernie endorsed Hillary. Kinda.

Trump is getting a bump in the polls ahead of a convention that looks like it could be a photogenic disaster in the making (speaker-list: six days late and counting). What does The Omnivore want to talk about? Virtual Reality.

This is New Retro Arcade:

There isn't that much more too it than what you see: it's a VR experience--in an 80's Arcade. Apparently you can get ROMs of the games--the real arcade games--and load them in so that you can play virtual cabinet arcade games in a virtual space . . . standing up. You can also bowl and shoot hoops (kinda). There are game-boys, a dart board, and so on. The environment is pretty crisp (it uses the Unreal engine).

There may be a multi-player element where other people can share your space. The Omnivore isn't sure--New Retro Arcade isn't exactly what The Omnivore wants to talk about.

The Emergence of A New Thing

The Omnivore noted that, looking back at video game history, about once every 10 years a new genre emerged with a defining title. It seems pretty clear now that Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are going to be the thing. We still haven't seen the defining title, though. Right now everything about VR is in serious start-up mode. The fact that something like New Retro Arcade can exist--maybe even sell--is telling: the experience of place is strong enough to be a draw all by itself. The tools that allow people to create these spaces are already sophisticated enough to be usable by those without deep technical knowledge.

The hardware, the HTC Vive, anyway, is already reasonably polished as an experience. Whatever the limitations (the cabling, for example), the basic functions--the tracking, the resolution, the set-up software--are all ready for prime-time. Now what we are seeing is a great deal of experimentation--a floodgate of it--which results in "games" that are generally unfinished (and may never be "finished") but try out some concept or present some new mechanic in almost complete isolation to anything else.

The Omnivore can't remember any new video game technology that has had this level of variance in its release--that includes mobile apps. Virtual Reality isn't a new display technology: it's a new medium entirely.

Playing Standing

The first thing about VR that's key to understand is Room-Scale: you play with the head-set on, standing up, holding two "motion controllers" with the cable trailing behind you. The game happens in 360-degrees around you and you take action by moving your arms and triggering the controls (which have numerous buttons and thumb pads and such).

This isn't like the Wii, which had you take action with your control and that action appeared, more or less, on the screen. No--this is taking action and seeing yourself perform it--but, like with a sword--or a bow--or whatever. It's more immediate. It's extremely accurate. There isn't a "responsiveness" issue to the motion: you swing the sword and the sword swings.

Virtual Playgrounds

One of the more surprising innovations is the virtual playground. These are not exactly "games" and they are not MMO-chat-rooms. They aren't even exactly puzzles or contests. They are places you can go to just "hang out" with "stuff to do." Here are some examples:

This is VRoom Aerie--a high-end New York apartment. You can walk around and touch things. It's full of magic. A door opens into an underwater room full of sharks. There are various toy vehicles you can get inside and pilot. Touch a chair and it can change color, and so on.

Here's Waltz of the Wizard (free):

In this one, you don't exactly go anywhere--you just stand (more or less) at the table and create spells and cast them--and use various magic items. Some things do take you to other worlds where things happen--but it's not a game. The number of magic items and permutations of playing with them are fairly high. The graphics are engaging. A talking skull gives you advice if you start running out of things to try.

This is The Cubicle. Short, interactive but without much consequence to the narrative, you are in some kind of office in a cubicle (with no exit) filing folders. It's just an experience--but it's an interesting one.

The Cubicle is less of a playground than the other two--there isn't that much "to do" but it's more than just a "vr movie" too. These are games that have existed before, to an extent, in non-VR environments--but here they become a far more gripping experience. Perhaps even, right now, the premier experience. The sword, bow, and gun games are highly engaging--but the gap between how those perform in terms of "regular computer games" vs. how they perform in VR isn't quite as staggering.

VR Shooters & Stabbers

This is Space Pirate Trainer--the game is straight forward: you stand in the room-scale and you shoot at drones. You have some options: the guns have about six different fire modes. You can choose two guns, a gun and a shield, or ... two shields (although that would be pretty hard to win with).

The game is crisp. It's responsive in a way a lot of other shooters are not. It has a good sound-track. It needs more environments, more enemy types, and just all around more depth--but for being a game where you stand in a beautiful VR environment and shoot at things . . . it delivers.

Fruit Ninja VR is, perhaps the most directly comparable game between traditional and VR environments. It's the same idea: you have samurai swords (not ninja swords--but who cares?) and fruit flies up in the air and you cut it. The early release for the Vive has some problems (you can't bang your swords together and get haptic feedback, you don't seem to be able to cut fruit more than once) but it's the VR version. Is it better? Much better. Same game, different experience.

This doesn't get into the 360 archer games (Holopoint) or Zenblade--or Sniper--all of which provide a different world to exist in over just the mechanics of shooting or stabbing.

First Person Shooters

If VR currently falls down anywhere it's FPS games. This is a shame since those are probably my favorite. Firstly, movement tends to be done by teleporting (you can move inside your room-scale area--but to go outside it, you hold a teleport key and direct a beam to where you want to appear). A few titles have come out that show people are clearly still finding their way.

VR zGame is notable for its approach to movement being you select a spot and then drift towards it (faster if you hold a trigger key). Unfortunately the zombie killing action isn't that engaging.

Time will help. Right now we are seeing quickly produced, mostly half-baked things that have issues with optimization as well as best-practices. Once that gets ironed out--as the art form matures--we will see a convergence on the best experiences and methods that should provide a stellar experience.

Parting Thoughts

Right now the VR space is undergoing very, very rapid evolution. It's being driven primarily by games but there are other elements as well (there is a simulation that, for example, shows you "what it is like to be autistic"). Educational uses are beginning to appear as well. The questions are going to be:

  1. What is the rate of advance for software?
  2. What is the release cycle for hardware?
  3. How will the medium handle different, incompatible standards?
We know that (1) is: very rapidly--changes are coming monthly. We expect (2) to be every 2 years or so. For (3) it looks like there will be 3rd party "driver support" for different VR methods with similar capabilities. If this persists, The Omnivore puts VR 2.0 (primarily a software event) at this time next year. That is: within 12 months we will see software titles that are basically unthinkable today (due to optimization, release of the Valve rendering engine, and convergence on best practices of usage and technique--as well as the release of VR-specific hardware and software packages).


  1. Thoughts on whether the Turkey coup could be a Reichstag moment for Turkey, false flag or not?

    1. Don't know nearly enough about yet, to be honest.