Friday, 28 October 2016

Guest Blog - Notes from a Virtual Island.

The observant amongst you will have noticed that I have spent a fair chunk of my recent independent status travelling. The last 3 months have had at least one long haul trip per month plus a few local ones too. Aside from the jetlag and suitcase living, this has given me the opportunity to look beyond the confines of UK (and even European) dev scene to see the burgeoning industry of VR development. I have been to a number of international events, from EDEF, a new digital festival and part of the Edinburgh fringe to CEDEC, and Japanese game developers conference with a number of western and international speakers. And not forgetting the up and coming Develop VR in our very own London town. I have seen a number of trends over the last few months so I thought I would take this opportunity to relate a few here.

  • There is definitely a UK VR development scene. Two or three years ago, you would find myself, Patrick (nDreams) and a handful of other VR evangelists doing all we could to promote the idea of VR being a new medium. We would be met by enthusiastic amateurs & self-assured skeptics in equal measure. But this has changed. Last week at an in silicon valley I met with a number of global VR developers and there is definitely a UK VR dev scene. More than a handful of eccentric enthusiasts, these are real companies with anything up to 50 employees making significant sized VR games & content. And the skeptics have changed their tune slightly from “if” to “when”. Seeing Mark Zuckerberg handling the recent oculus social demos himself is a clear sign that smart money and smart thinking believe VR not just to be a new entertainment platform, but a new medium for interacting with computers and with other people.

  • As well as the developers mentioned above, I have seen a clear trend of media content companies emerging. These are smart people from established industries from music, TV, movies and education. A week does not go by without someone contacting me to “help” a new company hire a team to build their creative vision. Although this is great for freelance developers, there is a significant risk here: most of these new formed companies have a great understanding of content and audience, but lack the technical chops to pull it off. Believing, as most do outside traditional development, that lots of features they have experienced in demos, come for free. In short, they lack a CTO and a clear technological strategy. While we await the growth of the VR install base, this is a great opportunity for developers to earn some cash.

  • This leads to the big question: when will VR adoption become mainstream and what are the financial rewards. As yet, there are a few indies who have made back their dev costs quickly and are enjoying decent profit. To be honest, these are relatively few. Perhaps by choosing a cheap indie art style and being one of the early few “hits”. This does reinforce my opinion that VR warrants the chance for new IP to take on the big traditional games with experiences designed for VR. The recent release of Playstation VR is the first big test of consumer adoption with the google daydream following close behind.
  • Most recently, I have seen signs of the second wave of content. The first wave is cool, interesting games like unseen diplomacy, job simulator and universe sandbox squared. Although definitely engaging, these are pretty much one mechanic games appealing to the early adopters. I am sure we will see evolutions of these early games, but the second wave have deeper more complex mechanics. Take the recently announced Robo Recall, teleporting is becoming an established and comfortable form of navigation. In Robo Recall, this is designed into the game. You navigate by choosing a different Robot to take over. It’s a compelling game with a number of mechanics working together. Similarly, Lone Echo uses your arms to pull you around in space as a relatively new navigation mechanic.

That is all for now, I think the next big moment to take stock will be after the holiday season. We will be able see just how much demand there is for VR, what games people are really enjoying and how long they wish to play them for. I will keep on the look out and report back. In the meantime, good luck to all those launch titles for PSVR and google daydream.

Dave Ranyard

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Guest Blog: Virtual reality isn’t just for gamers (or porn)

Virtual reality is often portrayed as a reclusive activity — you immerse yourself in an alternative world and shut out the ‘real’ one. But innovative applications of virtual reality are starting to show how effective it can be as a tool to enhance people’s lives rather than just escape from them.

Virtual reality for social good

Doctor Sonya Kim is a virtual reality entrepreneur who is exploring the possibilities of the technology for older people. She hopes that VR may help to relieve problems such as loneliness, chronic pain, and dementia.

“There are over 100 clinical research papers that are already published that show proven positive clinical outcomes using VR in managing chronic pain, anxiety and depression.” Dr Kim explains. However most virtual reality games involve complex puzzles, not to mention a wide range of physical movement. Many of Dr Kim’s clients are in wheelchairs, or are unable to move quickly around a virtual environment. So she came up with Aloha VR — it’s a simple, scenic environment which users can explore, with text prompts that are designed to make them feel welcome and comfortable, as well as offer reminders to do things such as take their medication, or get in touch with family and friends. Dr Kim’s use of virtual reality is less to do with entertainment and more to do with maintaining good mental and physical health, and she’s seeing positive results, as users respond to the prompts and use their virtual experience to help improve their real-world lives.
And it’s not just patients who are benefitting from the virtual reality experience — Embodied Labs has come up with a virtual reality programme called ‘We Are Alfred’, which allows young medical students to experience life as an elderly person with sight and hearing problems. Students play out a range of different scenarios which are ‘seen’ and ‘heard’ through Alfred’s senses — allowing them an insight into how their patients experience the world, and hopefully making it easier to work with them through treatment.

What can virtual reality do for your life?

Virtual reality technology is still in fairly early stages: if you want to experience virtual reality for yourself, decent hardware costs upwards of £1000. But as the technology comes down in price, expect to see more applications of virtual reality outside the gaming space. In the future, VR could help enhance other areas of your life — including your sex life.

When people think of VR and sex, the most obvious go-to answer is porn. And it’s true that many of the mainstream porn studios such as are busy creating plenty of virtual reality content — often films which put you right in the picture, shooting from ‘your’ point of view to try and give a realistic impression that you’re the star of the show. But there are far more potential applications.
CamSoda is a company which has combined virtual reality with teledildonics: intelligent sex toys that connect to each other over long distances. On their platform, users will be able to connect their sex toy to another person’s (with their permission, of course), don a virtual reality headset, and have virtual sex over the internet.

In practice it may look quite strange to start with: a helmet covering their head and a sex toy covering their genitals. But the connection they are having will be a real, intimate exchange between two people. If it takes off, and again if the tech comes down in price, the sight of someone having sex with their partner over a long distance might not seem so strange after all.
Along similar lines, virtual reality could also take some of the risk out of anonymous encounters. Some people have speculated that VR could be used in future to ‘augment’ crowds — meaning those who can’t attend an event could instead be there virtually. This technique could be applied to dating too — to enable people to have realistic virtual ‘dates’ before they choose to meet in person, or even to facilitate anonymous virtual sex — without the associated dangers of meeting in real life.

Can sex help to drive innovation in VR?

There is a surprising amount of crossover between technology as it’s used in caring professions and sex: in both areas advances in technology can help put people in others’ shoes, and give them experiences that they may not be able to have in the ‘real’ world. ‘We Are Alfred’ gave medical students the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of their patients, and virtual reality could allow us to explore sex through different bodies — experiencing how other people have sex, and potentially giving us a valuable insight into other genders’ experiences.
As well as technology teaching us more about our sexuality, there are plenty of instances where sex drives tech innovation too. Sadly the often-told story about porn killing the beta-max tape is a myth, but as Eric Buchman points out in Digital Trends, porn has had a huge impact on other technological changes. For example developments in e-commerce, because people needed to pay for porn safely, as well as uptake of broadband and improvements in download speed.
So what can virtual reality bring to our lives? Well, alongside simple entertainment in the form of games and movies (both X-rated and family friendly), virtual reality can also bring us closer together. Whether that’s facilitating sexual encounters over a long distance, helping us to keep in contact with loved ones, or giving us the chance to walk in someone else’s shoes. And the great news is that the cost of virtual reality is coming down rapidly, meaning we’ll see more experiments and innovative uses of this tech in the next few years.
Are you ready to make the most of it?

Stephanie Alys
Co-Founder and Chief Pleasure Officer (CPO)MysteryVibe

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Guest Blog: Hosting a VR Gamejam

Earlier this month, we hosted a 24hr Oculus Touch VR Hackathon at The Old Market Theatre in Hove, UK as part of their #TOMTech series of events that run over the course of the month-long September “Brighton Digital Festival”.

The lucky winners clutching their prizes, with judges from Unity & VR Focus

The purpose of holding the event was to allow access to unreleased technology that many indie developers interested in Virtual Reality hadn’t been able to get their hands on, as well as expanding knowledge and understanding of VR development as a whole, whilst promoting community and building relationships within the local area.

The overall winners

Attendees came from nearby or far away, with one flying over from Prague specifically for the event as Oculus Rift is not available there yet, let alone the Oculus Touch motion-tracked controllers. Over the course of a day, night and a bit of the following morning, two working minigames were created as a result and the winners judged by representatives of Unity and VR Focus.

We decided to include the two working mini-games into the vrLAB showcase (something we were also co-hosting at the theatre over the following few days) as a reward to the developers.

Runners-up with special recognition for fun factor

In a short period of time, we were able to reach out and gain support direct from Oculus through our existing relationship manager, via the provision of Oculus Rift VR headsets and Oculus Touch controllers for the teams to use. Sponsorship came in the form of last minute saviours AMD providing x5 VR-Ready PCs so that each team had a VR-capable machine to develop / test on.

Food and drink was provided by our other main sponsor Unity, who have a local office in Brighton and love to support the community. Promotion sponsorship was assisted by local organisations Wired Sussex and Brighton Digital Catapult Centre who are co-sponsors of the overall TOMTech events.

Whilst this was our first hackathon / gamejam that we had organised and it was successful overall, there were some key lessons we learned that will share with you now, ready for next time or if you want to host your own. We had reached out to a couple of seasoned gamejam and VR hackathon event organisers in the US, namely Eva Hoerth (@downtohoerth) who provided some excellent advice, which will be included below.

Lessons Learned

  1. Hold it on day/s / night/s that are easy for people to attend - due to scheduling of other events around the day we had available, our hackathon had to be held on a Thursday leading into Friday and only ran for 24hrs. Allow more time for more development, more sleep and hold it over a weekend when people are able to not have to juggle work commitments and attend.
  2. Charge a nominal fee - whilst free is always best and most attractive, charging a small fee for events organised on Eventbrite helps guarantee signed-up attendee actually appear on the day. Donate the money to a worthy related charity or towards the food / drinks if you do not want to appear to be profiteering.
  3. Make sure teams have appropriate hardware to develop on - whilst it is typical that gamejams require devs to bring their own dev hardware i.e. laptops usually, the nature of VR means that a minimum spec VR-Ready PC is needed for efficient development, prototyping and importantly, testing on. Whilst we initially planned on having one or two available for all teams to hop onto, AMD providing a PC for each team was a life-saver.
  4. Make sure there is adequate internet access, wired and wifi, so that teams are able to access asset stores, tutorials, necessary software patches and installers that they may not have setup prior to the event (NB. We provided a long list of required tools for the development environment with Unity, Oculus SDKs and links to tutorials etc in the event listing but still, prepare for the unprepared.)
  5. Run workshops prior to the main development event itself with experienced developers in the area/s related to the gamejam presenting talks and tutorials - developers of all ranges and abilities will be interested in attending and whilst you can pair novice with expert level devs, it’s best to provide a grounding in the design processes, methodologies and technical aspects of VR development so that everyone can start feeling confident and focused on the long hours ahead. We unfortunately could not arrange this in time but will do for the next one.
  6. Ensure that there is enough breakout space for teams to spread out and setup their own design and development area as they wish - we were lucky in that we had the whole main hall of a theatre to use so space wasn’t an issue for us with the number of attendees we had.
  7. Ensure that there is enough quiet space for developers to sleep and/or take a break - whilst our hackathon was only 24hrs, devs took off approx’ 5 hrs each on average away from coding to sleep with short breaks between to eat, drink, walk about and stretch their legs. With a longer event with higher number of attendees, this would have to be factored in but from experience, a sleeping bag under a desk or on a sofa is good enough for many. We were fortunate in that the theatre had a host of interconnected rooms for a variety of purposes, from the green room with long sofas and lazy boys, to dressing rooms, bar area, back stage and more. Sleeping in a dressing room made up to reflect The Guardian’s “6x9” 360ยบ film solitary confinement experience was a little un-nerving however.
  8. In relation to point 7., as organisers be prepared to have a shift team rotating presence throughout the event or as with ours being 24hrs, be prepared to sleep at the venue too - this ensures that you see what’s going on, can monitor any issues that arise, troubleshoot technically and maintain a sense of connection to the developers working away.
  9. Ensure that your event is open to all, inclusive, encourages diversity and everyone of any ability - developers want to create experiences, no matter their background or interests, in a safe, unthreatening environment. Whilst personally haven’t witnessed any issues in this country, advice from abroad was to ensure all genders are made to feel welcome and valued, especially in an industry that typically tends to be male-dominated. Have clear guidelines as to outcomes of unacceptable behaviour.
  10. Have fun! Don’t forget the purpose is to create games or interactive experiences that whilst under pressure from the clock, stress around development and organisation can and should be reduced so that everyone has a good

Uniquely mostly for the event we ran in relation to the subsequent VR showcase, remember also that things created quickly aren’t going to be the most stable or bug-free finished products, nor are they necessarily going to be designed for repeated use by the general public at that state of development.

Whilst putting the resulting two finished mini-games into the vrLAB showcase was received very well by all who tried them, bugs and real-world usage resulted in more time than expected having to be spent running the installations and even a couple of Oculus Rifts getting broken. But they had fun, we had fun and we would totally do it all again (in fact we will be in December, watch this

By Sam Watts

Sam Watts has been involved in interactive, immersive content production for over 15 years, from learning development and simulation to AAA and casual games. Currently employed as Operations Lead for Make REAL and Game Producer for Tammeka, he keeps busy by evangelising the possibilities and real world benefits of immersive technologies like VR and AR to anyone who will listen. Tammeka’s first VR game ‘Radial-G : Racing Revolved’ launched alongside Oculus Rift in March and HTC Vive in April 2016. Make REAL are currently powering the McDonald’s “Follow Our Foodsteps” VR farming experiences at numerous agricultural and countryside shows around the