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Three key essentials to advance the future of VR

Limitless CEO Tom Sanocki offers advice for devs hoping to make the most of virtual reality

Virtual Reality content has been in significant development for the last three years. A few pioneers started in 2014 or before, more companies (including our company, Limitless VR) started in 2015, and many more followed in 2016. Investment in VR has been high from numerous companies - VCs have spent many millions of dollars investing in VR companies. HTC has a $100 million fund, and a few weeks ago at OC3 Oculus announced it has invested $250 million in VR content so far, with $250 million more to come.

We are now starting to have a solid foundation for VR - consumer-grade hardware, highly skilled teams, and enough investment to get started. We have more people innovating in VR than in the early days of any other medium (television, computers, theater, novels, etc.). So what's next for VR content? How can we advance the state-of-the-art and perhaps come closer to inventing VR's "killer app" (assuming it exists)?

We need to start by understanding that VR is fundamentally different than other mediums. As others have pointed out before, VR is a superset of all existing media. You can put any existing media inside of VR.

No other new media in history was a superset of an existing media. The novel was inspired by oral stories, but needed the invention of written structure before it could exist. Radio had to invent a new vocabulary from the very beginning, as did theater. Film did not become a significant art form until filmmakers invented the camera cut. Video games were enormously creative and inventive from the very beginning, partially because technical limitations meant their inspirations (tabletop & pen and paper games) needed drastic reimagining to work. This happened at the beginning of computer games, and then again in mobile games.

"We don't have to take bold risks because the safe choices work - they feel natural and familiar. In some ways, we're actually at a disadvantage because we know too much about how to make visual media"

With VR, however, it's easy to express previous media. You can put video games into VR, movies, board games, stage plays, books or any other media we've built. We don't have the barriers of invention as we did with other media. You can make any previous media work.

While this is a big strength of VR and a fast way to create content for consumers, it is also VR's weakness because it encourages us to be safe. We don't have to take bold risks because the safe choices work - they feel natural and familiar. In some ways, we're actually at a disadvantage because we know too much about how to make visual media. It's too easy to slip into what works in the previous medium than to do the hard work of figuring what is fundamentally unique for VR.

Where do we go from here? How do we speed up the process for creating truly compelling VR content that will drive mass market VR adoption?

Break Our Assumptions

To achieve quality VR content, we need to first break our assumptions about how VR works. When you build VR content or apps, don't refer to previous media. Don't think about your content as a "game" or a "film" or a "chat room". Use a different framing device to help describe and understand it.

The framing device our team finds most helpful is the Star Trek Holodeck - the original inspiration for VR. The Holodeck doesn't try to recreate a game or movie or theater play - it recreates real life. So when you build an app or VR content, think about how it would be if it happened to you in real life. What would it be like if you lived through an Indiana Jones movie? Or if a seagull landed on a beach and talked to you? Think through what you would see, hear, and do. Think carefully about how to make the viewer's actions and experience consistent and rich. Once that's clear in your mind, only then bring in techniques from games, film, and so forth to help you with concrete implementation. 

We find real life to be a useful framing device for us for two reasons - VR that feels lifelike needs to behave like real life to maintain the illusion, and VR based on real life feels more natural to a mainstream audience, at least in these early days. This isn't the only framing device you can use, and only time will tell how well it works. Choose a framing device that works for you, but pick one that you feel is core to VR. Focus on how to frame distinctive VR experiences without relying on past approaches, and then share what you've discovered with the rest of the VR community. 

Embrace Interactivity and Agency

Embrace interactivity, and keep the VR viewer's agency in mind. In real life you can interact with people and things, and what you do has an impact on the world. This is essential for great VR, as shown by how the VR experiences that we talk about the most almost always use motion controllers. But interactivity doesn't have to mean gameplay mechanics or turning your experience into a game. Start with your framing device and think deeply about the viewer's role and how they affect the world. Interactivity doesn't have to mean the viewer can do whatever they want, or affect the world in any way they want. That's up to how you design the VR experience and set the viewer's role in it -- maybe the viewer doesn't have the power to change events, but what he or she does influences how they experience them.

"Test early, often, and widely. It is hard enough to do enough testing in traditional game or film development, and it's far more essential in VR"

Once you decide on that core path of agency, support it deeply and fully within your VR experience. Make all the interactions you can do consistent and meaningful. For some experiences that might be something simple, such as pushing buttons or shooting guns. For others it might be complex actions, or a conversation, or something else entirely. But keep it consistent and don't let it conflict with the role of the viewer. Design your whole experience around this agency and the viewer's role in the world, and build interaction into your experience from the very beginning.

Keep VR Costs Low

This is essential. Regardless of your project budget, it is much harder to experiment and try something novel or risky if it costs you a lot of time or money. It's easier and faster to build apps and games than ever before, but the experimentation cost is often still quite high, which limits the number of ideas we can try out in a day or a week. And, the higher the cost, the more we will subconsciously stick to what's safe and known. 

Reduce your costs by prototyping early and often. This is not new advice - it's a standard in game development, but in VR we are prototyping too late and not frequently enough. Our team has decades of combined game and animated film experience, and we still made this mistake on our first VR project. Additionally, don't just prototype for yourself - prototype to show other people. We naturally want things to be "good" or "polished" or "pretty" before we show others, and it is essential for us to break this habit and get other people's input earlier. To paraphrase Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn -- if you're not embarrassed by the first version of a VR product that you show to other people, you're showing too late. 

Build your prototype in VR as much as you can. Repurpose VR tools like Tiltbrush. Use other VR prototyping tools. Build your own and share them with others. Iterate on that key unique-to-VR element in your experience directly in VR (including interactivity and agency) and build everything else around it. 

Test early, often, and widely. It is hard enough to do enough testing in traditional game or film development, and it's far more essential in VR. We all know we need to do lots of VR testing, but we still don't do enough, and we often do it to find bugs instead of testing the core experience. Get trusted friends to look at your prototype (both developers and non-developers), then keep widening the circle as development proceeds. Keep including new people periodically so you keep getting fresh perspectives. Additionally, outsourcing VR testing is not expensive and a great way to complement your local networks.

We Live in an Exciting Time

This is a great time to be in VR. None of us know what we're doing, and except for avoiding motion sickness there are no "right ways" or "wrong ways" to build VR. We have much to discover ahead of us. The faster we prototype, the faster we'll learn - and the more we share with each other, the faster we'll build VR that the entire world can't wait to experience.

Tom Sanocki is the CEO and Founder of Limitless Ltd. He previously spent 11 years as a Character Lead at Pixar; 4 years as a Character/Cinematics Lead at Bungie; filed multiple patents, presented at GDC and SIGGRAPH, and won a VES award for Mater in Cars. Limitless is a platform for interactive characters such as the interactive VR short film Gary the Gull (a collaboration with Motional's Mark Walsh, 18 year Pixar writer-director and animation supervisor). Limitless recently launched the Limitless VR Creative Environment, allowing fast character animation prototyping directly in VR with only minutes of training.

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