Virtual reality (VR) is one of only a handful of activities that can draw the human attention away from its immediate reality. The suspension of reality is an inherently delicate state, though, and usually lasts for only a brief amount of time.
The VR industry’s broad goal is to create ever more compelling experiences, that extend this period of acute distraction for as long as possible. But VR faces a significant barrier to progress where this objective is concerned—the movement of the player around the virtual world. This particular head-scratcher is widely known within the industry as the “locomotion problem”.
To allow for physical movement within a virtual environment, all the while maintaining an unbroken suspension of reality, was never going to be a simple problem to solve. Today’s premium systems do a serviceable job of tracking movement within a demarcated play-zone, but fall down on the second criteria.
Anyone who has sampled a premium virtual reality experience will be familiar with the jarring sensation of striking a physical object in the real world, that isn’t present in its virtual counterpart. In some sense, the feeling is of betrayal, similar in kind to a child’s discovery of the techniques behind a magician’s illusion.
Some companies are turning to technological solutions in the form of peripherals, in an attempt to sustain the illusion. Many of these believe the seated experience represents the best solution to the problem of locomotion.
The question of room-scale
The room-scale VR experience is undoubtedly an impressive spectacle, but it has its issues. There are valid question marks over its safety, its value as a form of gameplay and its practicability, given the amount of space it requires.
Some, including Stan Chesnais, CEO at 3dRudder, believe that the arrival of room-scale virtual reality along with the HTC Vive had a lasting negative impact on the industry.
Over Skype, he said he thinks “the launch of the Vive was in some sense damaging for the industry. It introduced the idea that virtual reality should be a standing experience, and this created a lot of confusion. Games like BeatSaber are great played standing, but no movement is required. As soon as the player is asked to move, they feel more secure and comfortable seated.”
Chenais, whose balance-board style product allows players to move and strafe in virtual space with subtle movements of the feet, went on to discuss the issue of space.
“The idea of room-scale was a significant impediment to adoption because very few have the space for it. I live in Paris – not even in the centre, but the suburbs – and I don’t have space for room-scale virtual reality. Unless you’re playing in the desert, you’ll never have enough space, so for the player to move without limitation the industry will need to transition towards the seated experience.”
Of course, the arrival of the HTC Vive has to be said to have had a net positive effect on the VR industry – and Chesnais would surely agree – but his point is worth considering. Perhaps the early popularity of room-scale VR has funnelled the industry down a path it could do without stepping.
When it comes to the locomotion problem, developers are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Room-scale VR is a significant draw because to be able to wander around a virtual environment as you would any environment in the real world is compelling – it’s sexy! At the same time, the emphasis placed on the room-scale experience has alienated a significant sub-set of potential adopters, who lack the necessary 2.5m2 play-zone.
Context is king
Unlike the 3dRudder’s more sedentary play-style, Michael Bieglmayer’s Cybershoes have the player traverse the virtual environment by gliding their feet back and forth along the floor, while seated on a swivel stool.
Again over Skype, Bieglmayer discussed the locomotion problem as he sees it. One thing he’s certain of is that the player has to be able to utilise the body in as natural a way as possible.
“For me, VR should be a holistic experience. The more of the body involved, the better, because it’s a natural user interface. The player shouldn’t feel like a human joystick, and with foot tracking they can perform precise movements in a natural and intuitive way. Using only the upper portion of the body means the lower half is being underutilised.”
For Bieglmayer, context is king when it comes to seated versus room-scale VR. It’s not a case of either-or.
“Room-scale virtual reality is for certain games, not all. It’s powerful when employed effectively, but its also certainly limiting for game developers. Neither room-scale nor the hand controller will die out because they each serve a purpose, but open-world games especially should be experienced seated.”
Part of the beauty of the virtual reality industry is that it’s full of dreamers and creatives – people looking to push the boundaries of experience and technology. However, a hard and unromantic pragmatist might suggest that the greatest value lies in assessing the technological limits of VR systems as they are today and operating exclusively within those boundaries. The seated experience sits comfortably within those boundaries, but in certain scenarios room-scale does not.
It’s likely discussions around the locomotion problem will continue for a few more years yet, but what’s clear today is that a rebalancing of perspective needs to occur.
There prevails a feeling that a VR experience isn’t true or full unless it’s dialled up to the max. People want VR to be as consistent with the experience of living and operating in the real world as possible, immediately. It would be healthier in the long term, though, to concede that trying to go from 0 to 100 straight away is neither sensible nor plausible. The industry is still very much in its nascent stages, after all.
The current prejudice against seated experiences will surely fall away as more high-quality and affordable peripherals enter the market, and demonstrate that you don’t necessarily need 2.5m2 to suspend reality. In fact, you may well be better off without it.