VR may be with us for good, but lots of uncharted territory for developers

Game developers are excited with the new medium, despite potential pitfalls

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Kimberly Voll speaks about the psychology of virtual reality at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco on March 15, 2016.

Credit: Blair Hanley Frank

At the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, virtual reality is all the rage. After attendees overflowed, the discussions on VR were actually moved to larger conference rooms in an effort to help everyone see the talks they wanted to — and even then they filled up to capacity. 

The reason was clear: everyone expects great things out of VR in the coming years, as headsets that allow everyday consumers to transport themselves to other places become more available.

“This will forever be the GDC before VR dropped,” Kimberly Voll, a game developer and cognitive scientist, said in her presentation.

Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games and author of “The Art of Game Design,” said that he expects companies to sell 8 million high-performance headsets designed for use by gamers, like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Playstation VR,  by the end of 2017. On top of that, he said that mobile VR headsets like Google Cardboard and the Samsung Gear VR will outnumber gamer-focused devices four to one. 

People buying VR headsets now will be jumping on a hype train that’s quickly speeding up, even though game developers and filmmakers haven’t completely figured out how to take the best advantage of the burgeoning medium. 

For all of the talk about upcoming headsets, and enthusiasm for the VR market a few years from now, speakers at the conference expressed a lot of uncertainty about the finer points of virtual reality, and how it’s going to work in the future.

Voll, who was part of the team that built "Fantastic Contraption" for the HTC Vive, said that right now VR benefits from astonishing and delighting users when they first put on a headset, even if the experience they’re stepping into isn’t all that special. Over time, though, she expects that wow factor to wear off, and developers will need more than just the ability to show someone someplace new.

It’s something that was echoed by Terrence Fung, the chief strategy officer for mobile game developer Storm8. Right now, VR experiences are short, and often don’t lead to don’t lead to customers coming back again and again for "multiple playthroughs." Fung said he hasn't seen any VR experiences that lead to multiple playthroughs and consistently occupy players’ attention.

What’s more, if developers mess up, it could lead to trouble with the whole VR medium. Headset makers are working hard to try and keep users from getting motion sickness while playing VR games, but experience designers will also need to reduce or eliminate parts of their games that would cause people to throw up. 

Voll said that while developers don’t need to turn away entirely from content that will turn viewers’ stomachs, they should let users know what to expect.

“Don’t ever say to someone that ‘oh, this definitely won’t make you sick,’” she said. “That invalidates their experience. It’s better to talk instead of a level of comfort."

Another key issue is getting people to pay for all of these new VR experiences. Many popular games monetize through in-game microtransactions, which typically block the player from continuing in a game unless they wait or pay money for the privilege of progressing. Schell argued that won’t work in VR, since the goal of the medium is to immerse the player in an environment. 

Right now, one of the best possibilities for VR in the near term that Fung sees is the potential for mall operators to have a whole bunch of VR headsets on hand for bringing to people experiences built by brands for advertising their products. It’s a sentiment that was echoed by Schell, who expects that every U.S. state fair will feature a VR attraction in 2017. 

With all of the uncertainty around key details of VR, it’s easy to think that the headsets will be a passing fad. But the speakers appeared confident of one thing: despite the failures of the past, VR will be here to stay this time. What remains to be seen is how long it will take to get to mass market adoption.

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