Yesterday and the day before my co-founder Patrick and me attended Unite Europe, a yearly conference organized by the creators of the Unity software we use to create some of our content.
It was very clear that VR played a big part, because there was a VR-related talk at almost every time slot in the schedule. We attended them all, and here are a few things we have learned from them.
1. This VR era will be content-driven
Yes, consumer-VR has been tried before in the 90s and it failed miserably. This time around it might succeed, but that has only partially to do with the fact that technologies have advanced in the last two decades. The big difference is that both the hardware and the creation software are accessible and affordable for small content creators like us.
As opposed to the previous VR-era, where development was mainly done in labs or at huge development companies, we’re now in a phase where a lot of small developers have been experimenting with affordable development versions of the Oculus Rift and other hardware that isn’t on the market yet. And all this hardware integrates seamlessly with development software like Unity, which is now free to use up until a certain revenue and can run on practically any modern laptop.
2. The VR development kits are already great
From a technological perspective, there’s still enough room for improvement for VR hardware to deliver immersive experiences, but we have tested almost every available VR device and most them already deliver the comfort and quality you would expect in a consumer device. We can’t wait to experience the final products from Oculus, Samsung, HTC and Sony in 2016.
3. Preventing motion sickness is also a design challenge
Even people that have never tried VR claim that they are afraid of getting nauseated by the experience. We have experienced that this is still true for a lot of people, but that VR is also something you can get used to. And while headset manufacturers are working hard to increase resolution and reduce latency, a lot can – and must – be done on the content creation side.
The challenge is delivering experiences with 60+ frames per second in stereo 3D while preventing them too look like something from the 90s. Photo-realistic VR is obviously too much for now – especially on mobile and console hardware – so it comes down to creative solutions that use low-poly and cell-shading as deliberate style choices.
We were also pleasantly surprised that the latest version of Unity already offers a lot of VR-specific optimization. One example of this is shadows that only have to be rendered once for both eyes.
4. VR is not limited to headsets
The first thing many people think of when they imagine Virtual Reality is people with futuristic HMDs (Head Mounted Displays), but that isn’t necessarily the case. We tried a device called zSpace, which is kind of a Stereo 3D version of a Wacom Cintiq that comes with a position-tracked stylus en feather-light 3D cinema glasses. We found this a very nice way of interacting with 3D elements without being isolated. It’s especially nice that spectators can also watch by using non-tracked 2D cinema glasses.
5. VR is both a new medium and a new genre
We’ve seen some attempts of cinematic VR that treat the technology like film or television and while they do offer a short wow-effect, we think this novelty will wear of really quickly because it doesn’t use VR to it’s full potential. For us it’s all about realtime-rendered, stereo-3D content that is interactive in some way. This might be a game, but could just as well be a more passive experience with small, even unconscious, interactions by the user. But even in those cases some interaction is required to deliver great content. Simply knowing in which direction the user is looking is essential for comfortable, interesting experiences.
All experts on stage at Unite Europe seemed to agree about the fact that new, VR-specific experiences have to be developed to make the technology successful and that new genres of games and experiences will emerge from experimentation when time passes and more feedback comes back from users.
Of course we learned a lot more, but those are some of the take-aways we found particularly interesting for our business, which focusses on creating CG content and VR for business and educational applications instead of gaming.
This was the first time we attended Unite Europe and we will surely be back in 2016. Hopefully the upcoming Augmented Reality headsets will then be as good as the Virtual ones are now!