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

Blair Hanley Frank | March 16, 2016
Game developers are excited with the new medium, despite potential pitfalls.

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.


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