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Luke Thompson On VR Sickness, Sigtrap Games’ Future Plans & What VR Must Do In 2017

At the end of last year VRFocus was in attendance at the Develop:VR, an event at which we saw some of the most entertaining, thrilling and intriguing uses of virtual reality (VR). From it’s use in video games to film and entertainment to even learning how to test an electrical circuit box safely. We also found some of the ways you shouldn’t implement VR.

Amongst the more interesting talks was that of Sigtrap Games Co-Founder Luke Thompson, who in his discussion “Techniques for Comfortable Movement in VR” described the hows, whys and wherefores of player movement’s potential to cause discomfort in VR. As well as some of the methods developers can implement in order to reduce the possibility of sim-sickness and bolster comfort levels.

Sigtrap Games Luke Thompson

After his session we took Thompson aside to discuss these topics further and also see what he thought 2017 has in store for the VR industry.

VRFocus: You were talking about sickness today- motion-sickness in VR. Are we any closer to getting this problem solved once and for all?

Luke Thompson, Sigtrap Games: [laughs] Ultimately I don’t think so. I mean – until you either have something that gets injected straight into your brain to sort of trick your vestibular system, or you have, you know, home devices where you literally move in one of those Lawnmower Man things – there are always going to be issues with it. It is, like I said, a fundamental mismatch between the different stimuli that your brain’s getting. So unless you can fake one of them sufficiently, even if you can sort of improve things to 99%, there’s always going to be the 1% of people who react badly to any particular technique.

So it’s a difficult one to ever say you’ve fully solved. We can sort of get closer and what really I think we should be aiming towards is a conclusive set of best practices, where we really understand what’s going wrong – not necessarily with a view to saying ‘we can solve all these problems’, but if we can understand them all and know how best to circumvent them, then that’s probably a more realistic goal, at least in the short term.

VRFocus: Okay. In terms of ways of preventing or minimalising the effect, though, I mean, is there one that stands out above all the others at the moment; would you say that?

Thompson: I, well, uh – with the caveat that this is all with given our experience, and-

VRFocus: Yes.

Thompson: -and again, it’s not going to apply to all games all the time, but certainly something, like I said in the talk, the best bang for buck is this sort of tunnelling, vignetting effect – where you restrict peripheral vision, based on the motion that’s happening in the game. Your brain gets a lot of its motion cues from that peripheral vision, and more so than it does from the centre of your vision, so, by restricting the information that it’s getting in that area of the eye, you can really do a lot to minimalise the amount of motion that your brain is trying to interpret. So, in terms of it being simple to implement, widely effective, and computationally extremely cheap, [there really is, like] it should be the first thing on any list of measures to implement.

VRFocus: So, 2016. It’s been quite a year, in many, many ways – but especially for VR. Do you think 2016’s was ‘The Year of VR’ as everyone has been terming it since the beginning of-

Thompson: No.

VRFocus: -you don’t think it has?

Thompson: No, no. Um, because, I think VR is going to, a few years from now, dwarf this year. I think we are, you know, what we’re seeing this year is the beginning of something. There are so many more things that we can do with VR that we haven’t figured out yet. Like, this year may provide the kernel of a lot of that. But this isn’t The Year of VR. This is The Year That VR Began. Right? Five years from now, there’s going to be so much more. We’re going to understand so much more. We’re going to be doing such exciting things with it, that I really think to call THIS The Year of VR would be to undersell the potential of VR.

VRFocus: In terms of what’s been done this year – I mean, you say about, the future will dwarf, I would say that 2016 certainly has dwarfed 2015-

Thompson: Mmhmm.

VRFocus: -as to what we’ve seen – what’s the most creative thing you’ve seen in VR this year?

Thompson: Creative…?

VRFocus: I mean, it could be anything, I know, but-

Thompson: No, that’s – that’s interesting.

VRFocus: But [VR has] been taken in so many different ways already. Is there anything that sort of sticks out in your mind as seeing something and going “wow, I wish I’d thought of that” or…?

Thompson: That’s tricky, actually. I mean, there’s been so much. I mean, one of the things that, again, one of the reasons that I feel like this year hasn’t been The Year of VR is because we haven’t really – you know, one of the things is that we haven’t figured out that killer app yet. We haven’t figured out, what is it that VR does that nothing else does? And we know those answers are there, and we’re starting to find them.

But, to really point out something that says, you know – I would like to be able to point out something where I could say “that has defined VR”, right? And that’s not something we can say here. Because we haven’t found that foothold yet. We know that those answers are there. We know the potential is there. We don’t know what the answers are yet. So, there has been a hell of a lot of awesome stuff this year. But I would say that most of it, for better or worse, has been within the confines of how we already understand games, rather than necessarily taking something to a new medium.

VRFocus: We’ve just translated what we knew from then, to what we have now.

Thompson: Exactly. And we’re starting to branch out from that, which is really exciting. And there are experiments that people have done. Just generally, the sort of things like – okay, here’s an example: Budget Cuts. The idea of using portals to move through the world, is really cool. Those things that you can, because – you’re toying about with, experiencing non-Euclidean geometry in a way that makes sense with your 3D understanding of the world, and that’s something you can’t do any other way. So that’s really cool. You have other things – do you know Unseen Diplomacy?

VRFocus: Yes, and funnily enough, I asked this question of somebody earlier and they said, “Unseen Diplomacy.”

Thompson: Yeah. Unseen Diplomacy is a really cool thing, and we’re actually working on something ourselves. So, we were working on something – and we’re still working on it – when we hadn’t actually heard of Unseen Diplomacy; and we were interested in a lot of the same things they were, and they were like “oh, [they’ve] already made this” – so it’s interesting seeing what sort of similarities. I can’t say too much about it, but we’re really excited about it. But one of the core things there is that social aspect of VR, and the fact that VR by its nature is very isolating; but thinking of cool ways around that and ways to even leverage that, to say, “I’m going to control what this other person can see in an interesting way”, and change how people communicate, with a local multiplayer setting; there’s some really cool opportunities there. And Unseen Diplomacy does that well! So. I suppose, if you wanted a concrete answer, those are maybe the ones to go for.

VRFocus: So. 2017. You mentioned this ‘other’ project, but what else is happening with Sigtrap Games? We’ve obviously got Sublevel Zero

Thompson: Yep. So, Sublevel Zero – I can’t put a date on it yet, but it will be coming out early next year, and we’ll be targeting [Oculus] Rift and [HTC] Vive for that. We’re really excited to get that out.

Sublevel Zero

We’ve already got a beta version of that on Steam and on GOG – for people who already own the game on there, they can opt into a beta and sort of see what we’re doing. A lot of the stuff we’re doing just right at the moment, because we are such a small team, we’re concentrating on the 2D console versions of the game, which are going to come out very early next year. And a lot of the stuff we’re doing on there, the optimisations in particular, really play back into the VR stuff. But it has taken a little bit of our time away from that, unfortunately. But we’ve got a lot of great ideas on what we’re going to be doing with that for release next year. We’re also, like I say, we’re working on that project that I’ve hinted at. We’re working on something else as well which we’re extremely excited about, and again-

VRFocus: Is that VR or non-VR?

Thompson: They’re both VR. So we’re not – we don’t see ourselves as an exclusively VR studio but, at the moment, the gameplay ideas that we want to explore are in VR; and ultimately, the reason for that is, what I was saying about not knowing what it is yet that VR can do that other mediums can’t. And that’s what we want to do! We want to do things in VR that you can’t do otherwise, really use-

VRFocus: So it’s not having those rules, and the freedom of creativity is opening the doors for other things.

Thompson: Exactly.

VRFocus: Again – if we discussed about what the future will bring, what’s the one thing that VR needs to do, above all else, in 2017?

Thompson: Well the obvious answer is wireless. That’s kind of the clear and present thing, getting rid of those wires and untethering you from this big brick of computational power. That’s very tricky to get right, but, you know, next year we might see things that do that well.

VRFocus: Have you tried the Santa Cruz, or any of the HTC adapters?

Thompson: I haven’t tried the wireless ones, unfortunately. I think it’s more likely that it’s going to go the way of Santa Cruz rather than the wireless add-ons for HTC Vive and things like that. The main reason there is, my primary concern is latency – if they can solve the latency problem with wireless, then that’s great – again, I haven’t tried it, so I don’t know how far along they are.

VRFocus: With the Vive, there’s also multiple separate entities as well. It’s not HTC themselves.

Thompson: Exactly. So you’re talking about things where all the different hardware can kinda get in each other’s way and you’ve gotta really optimise those things for it to be a good experience. So I suspect you’re going to see more things like Santa Cruz that sort of do the inside-out tracking and have the computational power actually attached to your head to begin with. Obviously, that’s not necessarily the way to go in the medium term – if you can get rid of the wireless latency problem, then you can pump a lot more data out of a computer than you can out of essentially two mobile phones strapped to your head. But I think in the short term it’s gonna happen. So, I think in terms of making VR get out to a wider audience, in terms of hardware, wireless is that thing that it really needs.

Standalone VR Oculus - 2 (Santa Cruz)

But the more subtle answer, I think, is a killer app. We need something that shows what VR can do that nothing else can do. That’s what gonna drive people to get involved with VR and buy it and try it out, and evangelise their friends. At the moment, it’s a cool piece of tech. But that’s for geeks like us, right? We’re like, “AWW, that’s cool, that’s cool! I’ll try that and I’ll spend two hours setting this thing up!” Like, it’s really nice that PSVR has given slightly more mainstream players a chance-

VRFocus: Ready access.

Thompson: -exactly, a chance to- and because they don’t care about the numbers, you know? They don’t care that the resolution’s slightly lower. They care about actually being able to do this without having to turn out their entire living room. So, the way that you actually make that apply to the mainstream is, do something spectacular in VR that can’t be done any other way and make people want to experience that. So ultimately, what we’re waiting on more than tech is content, and the design strategies and the design language that we’re lacking currently, that we’re just inheriting from regular video games.