Virtual Reality – the magic of feeling, not watching

Virtual Reality is an idea that has been around for decades. It’s the dream of putting on a headset and finding yourself instantly teleported to another world, utterly convinced that you are there as you look around, listen to the sounds and move through the environment. Visions of a virtual-reality powered future have featured in many books and films, with powerful stories like Snow Crash, Neuromancer and Ready Player One helping people imagine just how transformative VR could be.

Until a few years ago, virtual reality remained a dream. The technology simply wasn’t available that could deliver a comfortable, high resolution, low latency (no lag when you turn your head) experience.

But that changed. A very smart young guy called Palmer Luckey realized that the combination of new mobile phone screen technology and relatively inexpensive rotation-tracking electronics meant that consumer VR was finally possible. Palmer’s story deserves to be made into a film – suffice to say that he went from hacking together VR prototypes at home to a $2.4 million Kickstarter, $91 million of VC investment and a sale to Facebook for $2 billion in under 24 months!

The Crescent Bay – the latest prototype headset from Palmer Luckey’s company, Oculus

Fast forward to today. There are now several major players in the VR headset market, including Sony, Samsung, Facebook/Oculus, HTC, Razer and Valve. Both Oculus and Samsung have released initial VR headsets primarily aimed at developers, but full consumer launches of all the major VR headsets are likely to happen between October 2015 and May 2016.

Analysts are forecasting huge numbers and rapid growth for the VR software and hardware markets, predicting that VR will deliver annual revenues of between $5bn and $30bn within the next five years. More and more people are talking about VR as a platform that will revolutionize many sectors and industries, not just the obvious starting point of gaming. Imagine a £200 headset that allows students to walk through World War 1 trenches, really believing that they are there. Imagine training staff using VR or watching live football matches whilst sat in the director’s box, able to look all around you. Check out a potential holiday hotel by walking around it in VR. Or hang out with your friends and share your latest stories, photos and videos in a VR virtual world. The possibilities are staggering, and we’re at the very early stages. Hardware is only going to get smaller, lighter and cheaper. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that Mercia is interested in supporting VR development.

And VR headsets don’t have to be attached to PCs or consoles. The Samsung Gear VR is the first mobile headset – no wires, you simply plug in your Samsung smart phone (which becomes the screen) and you have a great, low cost VR headset which delivers a smooth, immersive experience. Mobile VR is likely to become a large part of the VR market, so expect other mobile manufacturers to come on board soon.

But what is it that makes VR so special?

Unfortunately, it’s something that you really need to try to understand it. Test out one of the latest high-quality VR headsets (ideally the Oculus Crescent Bay, the Sony Morpheus or the HTC Vive) and you’ll ‘get it’. Word-of-mouth from journalists and early adopters is working incredibly well – in a recent pan-European survey (which had over 180 million responses), one third of people aged 11-64 said they were interested in buying VR hardware. Prior to marketing campaigns or launch PR, it seems that the appeal of VR, at least at an affordable price, is a very broad one.

The HTC Vive, developed with Valve and their Steam VR system

It’s all about one word – presence. Presence is the feeling that you’re actually somewhere else. It makes you believe that what you’re seeing and hearing is real. With presence, emotions become much more powerful – fear is so much more intense when you believe you’re there, and emotional attachments to characters are much more powerful.

Let me give you a couple of examples:

Valve (who own Steam, the leading digital distribution platform for PC games) showed off a great VR demo where you find yourself standing on a rickety wooden plank above a huge, bottomless chasm. You feel pretty nervous. Then the demonstrator tells you to step off the plank. He reminds you that you’re in a room, and that there is carpet all around you. But despite knowing this, hardly anyone can bring themselves to step off – your eyes and ears are creating such a believable experience that your primordial instincts kick in.

A shot from the nDreams Samsung Gear VR experience. “Perfect Beach”

Recent demos of Sony’s Morpheus demo, “The Heist” saw players ducking down behind a virtual desk whilst trying to steal a diamond and fight off some criminals. Players hold physical controllers in their hand which track their hand movements, and stand in empty space in the real world. At the end of the demo, many players dropped the physical controllers onto the virtual desk in front of them (meaning that they crashed to the floor in reality). They really believed that the desk was there.

One important aspect of VR is how players control their experience. For decades, input has been primarily based around keyboard/mouse and game controllers. However, in VR, the most natural, intuitive control system is by moving your hands around in space. When you first put a headset on someone, they instinctively reach out to try and touch the objects that they see. Technically, hand control can either be done by tracking your hand movements directly using a camera, or by holding controllers in each hand which are tracked in some way. When done well (the HTC Vive and Sony Move controllers are great examples), this creates a powerful and natural way of interacting with a game or experience in VR.

VR transforms the way that people interact with entertainment. Current TV, film and gaming are all about watching – you look at the world through a window. Great films and games allow you to empathize with the characters. But you’re not there.

With VR, everything is different. You’re not watching the TV show, game or film – you’re in it. You’re participating. You’re feeling. In a nutshell, that is why I believe VR has so much potential.

I remember clearly the moment that I first tried the Oculus DK1 and Sony Morpheus back in 2013 and took the decision to pivot nDreams to focus exclusively on VR software. We have used that time to experiment, prototype, and build relationships with the major VR hardware manufacturers. We have launched window games for all the main headsets, and we’re growing quickly. It’s an incredibly exciting time to grow a business, and we’re aiming to be the largest specialist VR software developer/publisher.

It has been a very exciting ride so far, and it’s going to get even better. Consumer launches are on the way. Our games are coming together really well. We’re growing the team and learning all the time.

Finally, VR is coming. It’s inevitable. And it’s going to change everything.

A member of the nDreams art team trying out “The Assembly”, a rich VR adventure game