Eight Things We Learned About VR at GDC 2016

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5. VR is Still Not Social Enough…

Right now, the social experience of VR means waiting in a line, watching others move around unbeknownst to your watching them, until finally you encase your own head in plastic and glass and become blind to your own onlookers.

For my money, playing against someone in person still trumps the isolating environment of a solitary helmet. One of my more memorable moments came when I walked up to a kiosk at the ID@Xbox station, picked up a controller, and played a simple arena battler game against another human being who happened to be standing next to me. Streams of attendees passed us by, show noise drowned out the on-screen effects, and neither of us knew what we were doing. This was an un-immersive, bare-bones, inelegant interaction. Yet the presence of another person obliterated these failures and elevated the game into something better than most of the glitzy VR demos on the floor.

6. …But Doubters will be Converted Sooner Than They Think.

VR proponents use that word a lot: “presence.” But that very thing is a major obstacle to virtual reality becoming the truly revolutionary product its acolytes foresee.

The baby-face of VR, Oculus CEO and Time Magazine cover boy Palmer Luckey, had a few words for doubters at the end of his talk during “Flashing Backward,” an event celebrating GDC’s 30th anniversary and commemorating the last three decades of game creation. “I think you’re going to be proven wrong,” the 23-year-old said, saying those in the audience skeptical of VR will soon “eat [their] words.”

Last year, VR was a fledgling unknown, not yet ready for primetime. This year, VR is everywhere on the showfloor and consumer-grade products are on store shelves. Crow will be eaten, somewhere, by someone. Only time will tell whether such a meal occurs in virtual reality or our mundane normal one.

7. VR Makes Old Things New

rez_infinite.jpg

“We’re kind of obsessed with god rays and lens flares,” Heather Kelley, co-founder of Kokoromi game collective, tells me after I step out of Super Hypercube. The game—a simple variation on pushing shapes through gaps in walls, seen in everything from WiiWare’s ThruSpace to Fox’s Hole in the Wall—actually began its life at the Gamma art/game show in Montreal from 2008. It was a 3D game back then, using those red/cyan glasses from the ‘50s. Once VR rose again, Kelley saw it as the game’s ideal platform.

Slip the PS VR headset on, and you understand why. What is a neat elementary challenge on a traditional monitor becomes an intuitive flight through some VCR cosmos. The trick here is you need to duck and look around the shape floating in front of you in order to see the incoming hole. Kelley and the team took inspiration from “space artists” like James Turrell and 1980s technology. Light shines through ever-present smoke, like skeins left by bullets shot through water. The game itself is eight years old, but Sony’s PlayStation VR makes it feel like the future.

Other games are being reborn in VR. The cult classic wire-frame shooter Rez, first seen on Dreamcast in 2001, will soon become Rez ?, or Rez Infinite. Creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi has sought to give players the feeling of synesthesia, one sense giving rise to another through stimulation, in Rez and each of his subsequent projects, Lumines and Child of Eden. But the limitations of traditional console platforms hindered his team’s pursuit.

During the Rez postmortem, Mizuguchi said “it was so frustrating” designing for a square monitor when they envisioned Rez to exist in 360 degrees. Mizuguchi wanted to recreate more than just a shinier version of a fifteen-year old thing. The re-emergence of VR allows him to finally create the ultimate ideal of his original vision. Lucky visitors to the Media Ambition Tokyo exhibit in Japan can experience Rez Infinite while wearing the one-of-a-kind Synesthesia Suit, outfitted with 26 vibrating sensors and glowing LEDs. The event takes place through March 21st on the 52nd floor of the Mori Tower. Too bad the view of the Tokyo skyline will be obscured by all of those virtual invaders.

8. The Battle Begins This Fall

This past week, Sony announced their VR headset will launch in October for $399. While still pricy (with the necessary PlayStation 4 console and PS Camera, the overall cost still escalates beyond $700), this will be the most consumer-friendly buy-in of a major VR platform. But what they gain in accessibility, they lose in timing; Oculus Rift launches later this month and Valve’s HTC Vive will release in April, while Samsung’s Gear VR has been out since before the last holiday. But both Oculus and Vive require a powerful PC and will demand the player wrangle a potentially complicated landscape of options; Sony’s is the one closest to a console’s “plug-and-play” mentality.

Whether players gravitate to one platform over the other often depends on these two factors—price and accessibility—but also the presence of compelling, exclusive experiences. With so much uncertainty, most developers seem to be building VR games for all platforms, hedging their bets. Sony’s been here before—their Blu-Ray won, their Betamax lost (don’t even mention the sad story of the Minidisc)—but Oculus has Facebook in their corner and Steam is PC’s default gaming store. The real test for all parties involved will be if long-term engagement survives the initial whiz-bang novelty.

The only prediction I feel safe making: We’ll be seeing even more virtual reality at GDC 2017.




Since 2003, Jon Irwin has been paid to write about film, techno, ice cream, wine, golf, drag-racing, French children and videogames. His first book, Super Mario Bros. 2, was published last year by Boss Fight Books. Follow along: @WinWinIrwin.

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