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VR vs. Superheroes

Every superhero videogame wants to make its players feel like they really pulling on a mask themselves. In concept, it has the makings of the perfect virtual experience. In practise, few developers truly manage to balance the empowering gameplay with a finely-tuned control scheme and stunning presentation. For every one of Rocksteady Games’ stellar Batman: Arkham titles, there’s another mediocre Spider-Man effort or rushed summer blockbuster tie-in.

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But soon these developers will have a new tool in their arsenal that will bring us even closer to our super-powered fantasies. Virtual reality (VR) headsets have the potential to make a huge impact on a lot of genres, but the superhero genre is arguably one of the most exciting genre’s. Imagine flying across Metropolis as Superman with skyscrapers stretching down below, or using the Oculus Rift headset’s head-tracking technology to fire beams from your eyes as the X-Men’s Cyclops. Just take a look at this concept video of Superman flying with a GoPro camera and try not to get excited about the potential for VR and superheroes.  The possibilities are endless, but not without overcoming some daunting design issues at first.

There are a range of conventional superhero powers that we’d love to try in VR. Some seem to come naturally; using Virtuix’s Omni motion controller platform would be an easy fit for super-speed abilities, although we’re sure the developers would have a hard time not making us want to throw up. Invisibility wouldn’t need any kind of VR-specific calibration, but could still make for an enticing, immersive stealth experience.

Other powers don’t come as naturally. Human flight, for example, is one of the most endlessly dreamed of abilities. But for such a power to have the full effect in VR, we’d somehow need to be released from our grounded real-world seats. These days we have plenty of options to replicate human movements in-game from motion controllers and full-body suits to full-on platforms that we can stand and run on, but we don’t have much that can go beyond that and cater towards the super natural.

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Granted, this is limiting a peripheral’s use to an audience narrowed down even further than the VR-enthusiast crowd, but some possible options do exist. 3D technology company Inition last year used the Oculus Rift with a unique platform to simulate sky diving as part of an advertising campaign for Nissan. Users lay flat on a platform with jets of air shooting up at them. They can then steer themselves in the experience by simply looking at where they want to go. It seems elaborate, but could such technology be adapted to use in a possible Superman VR videogame? Perhaps not as a full consumer product, but something creators DC might think about using for their own promotional event.

Super-strength is another classic ability that would need some work to be done justice. Picking up a truck and tossing it down a street should feel like a triumphant effort, but if it’s done with the simple press of a button as you look on, there’s going to be a serious disconnect between player and experience. The best available solution right now is of course motion controllers. We can replicate the movements, though perhaps not other sensations such as weight that also play an important part in the experience. That said, controllers such as the Tactical Haptics device are starting to address these kinds of questions.

Of course, taken on their own, these issues can seemingly be worked out, but when you combine them then more issues arise. Yes, we want to fly like Superman, but to be able to run like Superman and fight like Superman we also need the previously-mentioned Omni and motion controllers. That isn’t really feasible with currently-existing technology. A  flawless superhero experience may well be out of our reach at this moment in time.

That said these are just the convention uses. We might not be able to step into the boots of DC’s flagship hero just yet, but we can think of a lot of other heroes such as Batman, Daredevil or Wolverine that would be less demanding of the technology. The superhero genre is easily one of the most exiting prospects for VR to tackle going forward, but we might have to wait some time before it can truly save the genre.

‘VR vs’ is VRFocus’ weekly feature that takes an issue currently challenging the VR industry and discusses how to fix it. Looking at everything from the videogames in development to the strength of the technology, we highlight the problems and try to come up with the best solutions.