"We're very close to having the first death in VR"

Cloudhead Games' Denny Unger warns devs of the responsibility that comes with VR's immersive power

The emergence of virtual reality is one of the most exciting trends in contemporary game development. The unparalleled sense of immersion it affords points toward a whole new era of interactive entertainment, but that potential carries significant responsibilities.

In a Q&A session following a VR panel at Unite 2014 in Seattle, a member of the audience followed up the discussion around the incredible power of persuasion that VR developers can now harness with a provocative question: What are the "VR evils" that pioneering developers should avoid?

At first, the panel's responses were measured, but Denny Unger, creative director at Cloudhead Games, met the query head on. Unger reminded the audience that VR demands a greater consideration for the well-being of the player.

"I have some pretty strong views on this," he said. "The low hanging fruit of VR, to me, is horror games that purposely do jump scares. We're very close to having the first death in VR - I firmly believe that.

"When the commercial version comes out, somebody is going to scare somebody to death - somebody with a heart condition or something like that. It is going to happen. Absolutely."

While this may seem sensationalist at first glance, Unger was entirely sincere in his intent. If the supreme evocative power of VR is now beyond doubt, it follows that it poses certain risks to users with fragile mental or physical conditions.

"I hope that all developers are taking that seriously," Unger continued. "If you haven't had the dev kit in your hands, you need to get it in your hands to understand the weight of that consequence. You really could kill somebody. You really could. We all have to be mindful of that."

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Latest comments (11)

Ron Dippold Software/Firmware Engineer 7 years ago
As soon as you realize he's talking about over-stimulation and not some Lawnmower Man scenario it's completely reasonable - I've seen hyperventilating people rip Rifts off their heads because they couldn't take it any more.

That said, I'm not sure if it's the devs' responsibility to intentionally degrade the experience for everyone else just because one guy with a weak heart might decide to play the game. You might be better off making the point that cheap scares are an immature approach (VR games with this fidelity and tracking are effectively a new field, so this is to be expected) and they're going to get old real fast. Very few people remember Doom 3's approach fondly.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 7 years ago
Oh, it's going to happen eventually, but perhaps not from a weak heart. Given the penchant for stupid prank videos all over the internet, I can see someone pulling a joke of someone wearing a VR set that makes them jump/fall out of a seat and land on something too hard and in the ensuing chase (cue up "Yalkety Sax" please), someone gets beaten to death with a now busted VR headset. :P

Oh, and Ron.... you KNOW cheap scares will be the first trick out of the box to get overused. Why create immersion this deep if you're NOT going to go for the easy immersion a good jump scare provides? I bet a warning message will need to go on ANY VR experience anyway NOT to wear the damn goggles for longer than a set period of time, as that particular user-created problem can lead to death or serious injury when a too-long play session has someone stumble over something in their own home and crack their head open.

That, or someone will choke to death because they're trying to do a "watch me Rift 'til I puke" video and they're a wee bit too tipsy. I blame stupid people more than the tech for all of these future gene pool clearing incidents, by the way...
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Marty Howe Director, Figurehead Studios7 years ago
this has happened in films, right? With games being more 'immersive' and interactive, maybe Denny is right.
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Show all comments (11)
Dan Wood Visual Effects Artist 7 years ago
I just thought of a potential upside...

Maybe this will be what finally offs PewDiePie.
...y'know, if someone hasn't already assassinated him by then.

At the very least, it may cause him so scream so shrilly that he bursts his own eardrums.

(Apologies for a thoroughly unprofessional comment, but man, that guy annoys me to my core, especially when almost every games-related youtube search brings up a reference to him)
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 7 years ago
After looking at that title I thought this was a story about Project Morpheus because OR has too much money backing it to have died this soon. But now I see that you meant real deaths. While this would be very unfortunate I think we all know that this is most likely to happen somewhere in Asia first. I don't know why gamers over there are so addicted to their gaming sessions that they'd rather play and die instead of taking a bathroon/food/life break but it's happened enough where it's more than a minor occurance.

I'm not sure if there are any real solutions besides for cutting the allowed playing time by atleast half but I know that releasing VR over there might actually magnify the problem exponentially. But that will all come down to how compelling the software/experiences are too.
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Steve Wetz Reviewer/Assistant Editor, Gamer's Glance7 years ago
Having played Dreadhalls on the Rift... YUP. Definitely felt like I was at least close to being scared to death. And that's a super low-rez example, not photorealistic at all.

Part of me thinks it's great - I'm a big fan of horror games, and you can get a little desensitized at times (I yawned while playing the end of P.T.). But the Rift makes this genre come to life. Even games that would barely manage a jump scare on a standard monitor are horrifying, 200 BPM heart bursters on the Rift. That jump scare takes on a whole new meaning when it's two inches away from your face vice your screen.

Fun fact - at E3 I saw people demoing Alien Isolation on the Rift. Largely, people would spend a few minutes in the game, see the first sign of the alien, then quickly say "NOPE!" and take the Rift off. When you consider how long people wait in those lines, that's a pretty powerful indicator of just how scary horror on the Rift can be.
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Andrew Jakobs Lead Programmer 7 years ago
But where is the limit? Some people piss their pants if they see a teletubbie, others don't even flinch when they would see Freddy Kruger.. Just like most games have a warning about epilepsy, I have even seen warnings for people with heart conditions, just add a warning and be off with it.. IMHO if someone scares him/herself to death after playing a horror game, then it's their own fault, not the developer.. If something really scary is in a kidsgame where you don't expect a jumpscare, than it might be something different.. If you know you have a heartcondition or are easily scared (and with that pissing your pants), you shouldn't be playing these type of games..
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David Canela Game & Audio Designer 7 years ago
The thing is, VR will be a new experience for many people, so it's likely many will not be able to tell how they react to a VR horror game until they have played a VR horror game.

maybe it's best if people get used to the medium with other genres first. before they try a horror experience...
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Petter Solberg Freelance Writer & Artist, 7 years ago
Just like 3D movies, I would be very cautious about letting kids try VR until a certain age. 3D cinema forces your eyes to adjust to the tech in such away it might affect a young person's eyesight. And while VR might eliminate this particular problem, I wonder if it's just too immersive for a child to handle - even without the jump scares. In my house at least they'll have to make do with a Viewmaster for the time being.
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Jed Ashforth Senior Game Designer, Immersive Technology Group, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe7 years ago
I think Denny is being a little melodramatic with this, sure, but it's a very real consideration for VR and definitely something developers need to be thinking about.

If anyone's interested, I gave a talk on this very subject at GDC Europe a couple of weeks ago - link

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jed Ashforth on 26th August 2014 1:12pm

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Axel Cushing Freelance Writer 7 years ago
Bearing in mind that some folks might very well be inadvertently be killed from an unexpected shock or scare from VR, it occurs to me that there might be an opportunity to provide an "early warning system" as well as biofeedback for tailoring an experience. Hospitals have a device which clips over the index finger (usually) and monitors the patient's pulse. If you could tie that sort of technology into a VR system, you could keep horror games at the right level of tension for each player. If the system detected a pulse rate outside of what was considered "safe" for the game, the game could adapt to let the player catch his breath, or if it reached a "danger" level it could abort the game with a warning saying, "We're bailing you out for your health. Take a few minutes to unwind." Jump scares could be a problem, but if you prepare the player enough that they're half-expecting something to jump out at them, it could help reduce the risk.
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