While the term “virtual reality” was first coined in the late 1980s, the idea of immersing an individual into a setting can perhaps be traced all the way back to panoramic paintings and cycloramas from the 19th century. Such paintings revealed a wide view of a particular setting or event, and were designed to be displayed on the inside of a cylindrical platform, providing a viewer standing in the middle a 360 degree view of the historical event. Just like modern VR technology, such sights were undoubtedly met with great awe and excitement among viewers.
The recent resurgence in virtual reality is unsurprising considering its development in recent years. The first public demonstrations of the earliest Oculus Rift development kit occurred all the way back in 2012 at various gaming conventions such as E3 and Gamescom. Initial reactions to the relatively simple demo made it clear that the Rift was leaps and bounds ahead of any sort of VR technology the public had ever seen.
Fast forward 4 years later, and consumer VR technology has continued to grow and improve, with a wide variety of VR headsets available for purchase. There are (broadly) three types of VR headsets available to consumers.
1. Low-end smartphone VR headsets
Google Cardboard and other cheap plastic headsets that are designed to house a smartphone that is to be used as the screen for displaying stereoscopic images. These headsets are fairly simple tech-wise, with head tracking but no motion tracking nor controllers. These headsets are a great introduction to VR due to their low price point coupled with the prevalence of smartphones among consumers. While they convey the “wow” factor of VR pretty well, they aren’t really suitable for more in-depth experiences due to their low quality.
2. Premium smartphone VR headsets
Gear VR and other premium third-party headsets. These headsets are similar in that they require a smartphone to be the main processing unit, however they include some extra features that the lower-end models lack (e.g. a non-tracked Bluetooth controller, better head tracking, etc.) In general, they’re built to a much higher quality which makes them more suitable for prolonged and more in-depth VR experiences. Google is slated to ship its own premium smartphone VR headset, the Daydream, this November with a motion-tracked (but not position-tracked) controller which will be interesting to keep our eyes on.
3. Dedicated VR headsets
Thus far, three majors dedicated VR headsets have been released – the HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift and Playstation VR (PSVR). These headsets only contain screens and other sensors, but need to be hooked up to a separate desktop (or Playstation in the case of the PSVR) in order to function. Due to the much beefier processing units, these high-end headsets are able to present much sharper and more detailed visuals, vastly increasing immersion in VR space. Furthermore, postionally tracked controllers allow players to reach into their virtual environment to interact with objects, something not possible with smartphone-powered VR experiences.
The best of the best
At Actually Sane Studios, our focus lies primarily on developing games and experiences for dedicated VR headsets, in particular the HTC Vive. While these units are the priciest of the bunch, they offer unparalleled VR experiences and offer developers exciting opportunities to experiment and innovate with a whole new medium of games. There are three key factors to why we decided to head down this road of developing for higher-end headsets.
1. High fidelity graphics
As the HTC Vive is powered by a desktop graphics card, it’s capable of displaying detailed graphics that add immensely to the sense of immersion in a virtual environment. While innovative game
concepts can undoubtedly be developed for smartphone-based VR, the vastly enhanced visuals in high-end headsets are much more appealing and convincing.
2. Room-scale and motion-tracked controllers.
While the original demo of the Oculus Rift back in 2012 was extremely impressive for its time, it lacked the ability to track users in real-space. With the advent of consumer versions of these high-end headsets, they now allow users to move about in real space and interact with virtual objects with motion-tracked controllers. The significance of room-scale cannot be overstated in terms of its ability to completely trick users into believing that what they’re seeing is real. While developing games for the HTC Vive, I’ve had a similar experience where I dropped a controller on to the floor because I was trying to place it down on a virtual table. Despite having quite a bit of experience with the Vive, there are still times when you genuinely believe that the pixels in front of your eyes are actually tangible objects.
3. It’s just… exciting
Honestly, after playing games for most of my life, playing games on the Vive has gotten me more excited than I’ve been for video games in a long time. It’s the most breathtaking fun I’ve had in a long time, and the possibilities for designing games for virtual reality are just endless. Many of the rules regarding game design might as well be thrown out the window when it comes to virtual reality, which is what makes it so exciting to be a VR indie game developer as we get to innovate on even the most basic systems in VR games. We hope to be able to continually experiment and explore new ways we can craft interesting experiences and games.
To that end, we are currently finishing up development on our first title, Danger Room, which will be coming to Steam in the near future. Stay tuned to this dev blog for further updates!
Designer/Developer at Actually Sane Studios