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This year’s VR milestones elevated it from novelty to art form

2016 the year of virtual reality vrgo chair featured
Virtual reality has shaped gaming this year in a number of important ways. It’s pushed GPU hardware to more accessible places, made high refresh rates and OLED panels a priority, and brought about a wealth of new underlying feature improvements that will permeate PC gaming and VR software.

More importantly, it’s brought new value to immersion. Through innovative mechanics, an open-minded approach to user experience, and vivid stories and characters, virtual reality has pushed suspension of disbelief to new heights.

Busting a move

One of the big stumbling blocks for virtual reality is understanding game mechanics, and re-examining how they work in a virtual space. Even the most basic tasks, like moving through a space, or picking up an object, go from trivial to complex in an instant, and one flaw in the process leave gamers with an upset stomach.

When the Oculus Touch controllers came along, they changed the way people interacted with their VR games.

Motion is the most notorious sticking point for VR gaming. On a standard monitor, movement is an established trait, although some people are still prone to motion sickness in that environment. Instead of letting the world whizz by, developers had to find new and interesting ways to calculate what was once a solved equation.

Teleportation, or location hopping, quickly became the de facto method of motion in VR games. Pioneered by titles like Valve’s The Lab VR and Cloudlands: VR Minigolf, you can point at a new spot on the ground and pop up there, avoiding the motion sickness issues users experienced in games like Eve: Valkyrie. But it wasn’t the most natural way to move in a game, and developers were eager to find new ways to explore your environment without turning your stomach.

Lone Echo is a great example of a game that uses innovative motion to solve motion sickness. In it, players are cast in the roll of an astronaut, who must grab handles to pull themselves around a zero-gravity environment. It felt natural when we tried it at Oculus Connect 3, and perfectly suited the game’s theme.

Oculus Touch takes motion control mainstream

Of course, Lost Echo wouldn’t be possible without motion controllers. When the Oculus Touch controllers came along, they changed the way people interacted with their VR games. The Vive’s motion controllers worked like remotes in the world, while the Touch controller’s capacitive touch buttons and intuitive shape make new types of movement and interaction possible.

Crytek’s The Climb took full advantage of the touch controllers, and their newfound sense of hand presence. Reaching out and grabbing the rock adds a layer of complexity to the already stunning visuals and sudden drops, and holding your arms up for long periods of time adds a real sense of fatigue and urgency not found when playing with a controller. After a couple of hours, you’ll feel like you’re hugging the side of the rock, and falling off will make your stomach drop.

We experienced another novel use for the Touch Controllers in a demo of Star Trek: Bridge Crew Simulator. As individual members of the crew on a Starfleet ship, each player turned their hands so they’re palm down on a large tablet, tapping at the control surface of their respective controls. Combined with directional audio from other players and gestures to signal them with, it doesn’t take long to forget you’re sitting in a swivel chair in your living room.

Virtual reality, like reality, shouldn’t have a HUD

As developers started working in VR, it became immediately obvious that traditional HUDs and UI interaction weren’t going to cut it. It wasn’t just about pushing immersion. From a practical standpoint, small text and symbols just don’t show up the way they’re supposed to while you’re wearing a headset.

We’re still playing with the format and finding exciting and intriguing ways to take people into new worlds.

Interestingly enough, this was a move a number of games were in the process of making when VR was still just a glint in Palmer Luckey’s eyes. Space-faring Elite: Dangerous is a notable example, where previously players would press a button to check the different panels in their cockpit. Don a VR headset, and you can simply look over one way to see your map, or the other way to check out your mission objectives. Need to see ship vitals? Simply look down at your ship’s status panel.

Another built-for-VR game, Job Simulator, found a clever way to incorporate tutorials and instructions into floating monitors that talked to you throughout the game. By incorporating the game objectives into the story more clearly, developer Owlchemy Labs lets you totally immerse yourself in that world, a valuable tool that could be applied to games outside of VR as well.

And then there’s Fantastic Contraption, the machine-building puzzler that we raved about when the HTC Vive launched. The creators needed a way to offer the user a palette of tools and objects to build with, so it simply put them all in the back of a small cat that follows you around the room. Not only was it a novel way to cut the UI out of the equation, but it also worked surprisingly well, allowing you call the cat when needed. To move between scenes, you donned a space helmet, which transported you to a virtual space, complete with dioramas that act as level select menus.

Fantastic Contraption - Launch Trailer | PS VR

It isn’t just games. VR app developers have found new ways to insert UI elements and interactive pieces into software. Notably, spray painting simulator Kingspray for the Oculus Touch controllers gave players a virtual smartphone to control the various settings and color palettes accessible to them. This natural motion of pulling out the phone to save, or take a photo of your work, is shockingly immersive, and combined with real radio stations and a movable boombox, allowed us to stay in the headset painting for hours on end.

Bringing characters to life

One surprise that came out of actually playing with virtual reality was the importance of voice acting. Apart from just being difficult to read text in VR, hearing another voice, with real concern, or helpfulness, can drag a player headfirst into a virtual world.

We saw this with Squanchtendo’s Accounting VR. The short game built on a hilariously unscripted set of voice lines from Justin Roiland (Rick and Morty, Adventure Time) and William Pugh (Stanley Parable), built a world around the player that was immediately immersive and convincing.

Fear has an equally significant effect on immersion in virtual reality.

This becomes even more powerful when used alongside intimacy. Half-Life 2 contained an early moment in which the hero Gordon Freeman, is prone. Suddenly the face of Alyx Vance comes into view, and she makes eye contact. The moment instantly made her believable and emphatic. Similar techniques have proved powerful in VR, where the screen is closer than ever, and scale is even more important. Direct eye contact can evoke a huge number of emotions in just a few seconds, which is crucial when trying to grab someone’s attention in a new, and unexplored, format.

Fear has an equally significant effect on immersion in virtual reality. The nature of VR headsets keeps people in the moment, even when they want to look away or try and turn and escape. It’s an element that developers have played with by wrapping the scary elements all the way around the player, as in Brookhaven Experiment, where players have only a flashlight and a gun to defend themselves from waves of increasingly dangerous monsters. Unless you tear the headset off, there’s no leaving the experience before it’s done.

We’re just getting started

In its early stages, virtual reality has been defined by a rejection of the standards and practices that have become so commonplace in the gaming community. Everything from moving around the game world to changing settings has to be taken into account in new ways, and the VR development community has embraced these changes with excitement. We’ve heard more than a few developers note that VR is the biggest change to come gaming since 3D models and textures.

And the best part is, we’re still playing with the format and finding exciting and intriguing ways to take people into new worlds. Mastering immersion and the fundamentals of gameplay in this realm is only the first step towards a world connected by virtual reality and augmented reality. As for what comes next, we’ll just have to wait and see.

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Brad Bourque
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Brad Bourque is a native Portlander, devout nerd, and craft beer enthusiast. He studied creative writing at Willamette…
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