With three major virtual reality headsets — the HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift, and the PlayStation VR — due out within the next six months, VR is the de rigueur topic of conversation at this year’s Game Developers Conference. In fact, GDC organizers hosted a special “Virtual Reality Developers Conference” on Monday and Tuesday within the larger conference to consolidate sessions on the subject.
I attended as many of these talks as possible – spanning VR game making, VR filmmaking, VR journalism, VR in public spaces, and more. Here’s what I learned.
Everybody Wants to Be a Part of VR
I’ve attended GDC for six years now, and I’ve never seen lines like the ones for VR sessions this week. The demand was so high that GDC moved all of the talks to a larger convention space for Tuesday. Clearly, there is overwhelming developer interest in creating VR experiences.
Nobody Knows What to Do With It Yet
In talk after talk, speakers shrugged their shoulders when trying to predict future VR experiences. Maxwell Planck, Technology Director at Oculus Story Group, likened the current VR landscape to the nickelodeon days of film when audiences paid a nickel just to watch a two-minute movie of a train pulling into a station.
In short: It’s a novelty, and not yet a true storytelling medium.
Presence Changes Everything
“Presence” was the word most uttered during VRDC talks. It refers the ideal VR experience, in which the user believes themselves to be corporeal in the virtual world. It’s this perception shift from passive viewer to active participant that’s driving the enthusiasm of both attendees and speakers.
But maintaining presence isn’t easy: It essentially necessitates an entirely new storytelling language.
Our Current Filmmaking Language Doesn’t Translate to VR
The basic building block of film is the shot. As viewers, we’ve been trained to accept a series of framed shots as a coherent narrative, and the ability of a filmmaker is largely judged on how well they frame and stitch together those shots.
But in VR, shots don’t exist, and scarier still for creators, it’s the viewer who determines the framing. That means that VR filmmakers will need to come up with an entirely new storytelling structure to deliver quality experiences. Jesse Schell, in his talk “40 Predictions for VR/AR Through 2025,” cited the film Russian Ark, which was shot in one continuous take and featured a “guide” for much of the film, as one possible option. But what a “VR movie” will actually mean in 10 or even 5 years is still a complete mystery.
Video Game Logic Also Breaks Down in VR
Just like we’ve been trained to view a series of filmed shots as a single movie, so too have gamers been trained to accept certain “game logic” as truth. But when a player in VR achieves full presence, that game logic is overridden by real-world logic.
The developers of I Expect You to Die gave a great example of this occurring. In their game, one puzzle tasks players with trying to get a car started. Items in the car include a screwdriver and a pocket knife. In “game logic,” you would assume that the screwdriver must screw or unscrew something while the knife must cut something. But in VR, the developers found that players would try to improvise, just as they would in real life: They’d use the knife to try to unscrew a panel, and became frustrated when the game prevented them from doing that. So the developers reworked the puzzle to allow for both solutions.
VR Is More Social Than You Think
One of my personal points of skepticism with VR coming into this week is how inherently isolating the experience seems. When you put on a headset, you’re literally closing yourself off from the outside world. I shuddered to imagine a future where each family member donned a headset and disappeared into their own personal world every night.
While that could very well be a vision of the VR future, a number of the speakers this week took pains to call out ways in which VR can be a social experience. Some of the examples they discussed: asymmetrical play, like the PlayStation VR allows for, where one person wears the headset and others play on TV; VR experiences in public spaces, where people watching can interact with the person playing; and shared VR environments, where multiple people wearing headsets can view the same thing — or even each other — in the virtual environment.
VR Could Become a Groundbreaking Empathy Machine
Think of the saddest scene in the saddest movie you’ve seen. Now imagine feeling like you were actually a participant in that scene.
When full VR presence is achieved, the line separating virtual from reality dissolves, and you feel the experience on a primal emotional level. That gives VR content producers the opportunity to generate empathy in an astonishingly new way. Tony Christopher, CEO of Landmark Entertainment Group, called this version of VR the “empathy machine.”
It’s a utopian vision, to be sure, but after listening to story after story of VR eliciting visceral emotional responses, and after learning of “immersive journalism” pioneers like Nonny de la Peña, who is using VR to recreate a border patrol beating or Trayvon Martin’s last moments alive, I believe it’s one that is possible. When anyone can virtually walk in another person’s shoes, will we finally break free of the hateful ignorance that too often dominates contemporary life?
I hope so. But we’ll probably just create new ways to virtually shoot each other.
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