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Chickens, Waffles, and Baby Hands

Red Thomas Posted:
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“Funny thing about getting into a car in VR… it breaks your emersion.”  With that simple observation, Finn Staber completely changed the way I’ve been thinking about how VR is being used in games.  He goes on to talk about some of the VR applications they’ve developed for companies like Tesla, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz.

Finn broke down some of the thought that goes into how they develop virtual reality applications and then used the work the team has done for some of the luxury auto companies as an example.  You might expect that developing a VR app for a company like that is simple.  You model the car, apply the relevant textures (which the company has probably already created), bake in some lighting, and bam.  All done.

It’s a lot more complicated than that, as Finn explained.   Getting in the car shouldn’t break your emersion, but it does.  The avatar doesn’t move as naturally as you.  The body doesn’t look like yours, if it’s even there at all.  You can’t feel the seat when you sit down in the car.  All of that and more means you don’t get that true sensation of sitting in the car.  It’s close, but off just enough to stray into the personal experience version of the uncanny valley.

Virtual showrooms for cars wasn’t nearly as simple of an idea as I’d expected. Adding in an order form was a nice touch… No one tell Chris Roberts about that, though.

That’s what impressed me about Chicken Waffle founder, Finn Staber.  I showed up to talk about games, but the more we talked about the challenges unique to developing in VR, the more I realized this article wasn’t going to be about any single virtual experience.  In the 2D world of most video games, there’s enough mental separation between the character and the player that the suspension of belief is effective.

That line is so close in VR that suspension of believe becomes oddly more difficult.  You can read up on the uncanny valley for a better understanding of the concept, but the gist is that there’s a strange dip in the chart if you graphed emersion against realism.  For the most part, it refers to the reality of virtual characters, but it’s the same general concept in VR.  You get more emersion the more realistic the assets get, right up to this point just before total realism.  At that point, it’s real enough that the not real bits come off as… well, creepy.

Developers like Finn and his team at Chicken Waffle have to find new ways of stretching emersion in virtual reality while still understanding those subtle details that break that emersion.  It’s required a whole new approach to development.  The VR experience with a car, for example, is less about putting you in the car and more about the application being a tool that helps you to explore the car.

Not sure who thought letting a baby have a screwdriver was a good idea, but we’ll let it slide this time.

A game that throws the player in the roll of a baby is strangely perfect.  Lack of coordination is expected.  Blocky and oversized toys and whimsical décor is not only easier to render, it subtly makes up for the lack of fidelity in VR controllers and lower-resolution rendering.  It’s also obviously not trying to be realistic, and that allows you to accept the make believe more easily.   It promotes that suspension of believe that’s needed for every play, book, movie, and game in existence.

What Baby Hands sort of underscored for me and that I hadn’t really thought about to that point, was how far where we think are with virtual reality is from where we are in actuality.  There are few rules written for the medium yet because we just don’t know what we can and can’t do.  Graphics are getting better every day, but still haven’t gotten to the point where we can reliably create photorealistic environments on a computer, much less a VR headset.

With the added problem of dealing with a player’s corporeal form in a game, we have whole new issues for developers to wrap their heads around.  Luckily studios like Chicken Waffle are working on the problem, and they’re working with heavy names like Google, Microsoft, and IBM to push the bounds on this new story-telling medium.

Games like TheWaveVR, from another Austin studio, are ground-breaking in their use of the virtual environment for things like concerts.

Whether it’s designing virtual showrooms for automobile manufacturers, virtual tours of Amazon’s Echo, or virtual scuba expeditions for travel companies, virtual and augmented reality applications aren’t going away.  Since many of these applications need to solve the same problems video games do in order to be successful, we could be on the cusp of another burst of industry development.

Home gaming systems took off through the 80’s with the birth of consoles, personal computers launched a spurt of game development through the 90’s, and then the internet pushed another burst in the late-90’s and into the new millennium.  Before my visit to Austin, I didn’t think VR was posed to do similar, but I’m not so sure now.

The challenges are there, but where video games and commerce intersect, you can often find a lot of momentum to solve those problems.  As users become trained on how to interact with the new medium, systems become cheaper, and developers learn where the boundaries of that new version of the uncanny valley are situated, we could really see a cool new push in game development.

Since I’m a fan of flight sims and games like the Mechwarrior franchise, this could spell an impending era for games that are right up my alley.  Those games lend themselves particularly well to VR.  What other games or applications have you seen use VR or AR well?  Have you seen any that completely missed their mark?   Let me know down below!


Red Thomas

A veteran of the US Army, raging geek, and avid gamer, Red Thomas is that cool uncle all the kids in the family like to spend their summers with. Red lives in San Antonio with his wife where he runs his company and works with the city government to promote geek culture.