Pushing the Boundaries of Immersive Content at GDC 2017

Article by Alexis Macklin, an Analyst with Greenlight Insights

GDC featured big announcements from several large companies –  including a price drop for Oculus, incoming VR headsets from LG and Microsoft, and the formation of open standards for VR and AR through OpenXR from the Khronos Group.

Not featured in the news were what transpired in panel conversations and among the hundreds of vendors on the expo floor. A major theme discussed in multiple panels was the experimentation of complicated and complex storytelling in VR experiences through different tools only available in VR.

Complex Storytelling
VR presents the unique opportunity of users feeling a sense of presence that isn’t capable in regular video or gaming entertainment. Creators at Oculus Studios discussed how VR influenced the creation of Dear Angelica, which was created in Oculus Quill. The creators combined toolsets from Houdini Engine and UnReal Engine to create the animated experience. This process combined cinema – the Houdini Engine – and gaming – UnReal Engine – solutions with the traditional art of painting.

This image released by the Oculus Story Studio shows a scene from the virtual reality film, “Dear Angelica.” The film is the first animated film experience created entirely in VR. (Image by Oculus Studios)

This combining of efforts and skill sets is also used by the Steel Wool Studios team when creating Bounce. Bounce adds gaming mechanics to the creators’ emotional storytelling expertise from Pixar to add a level of emotional storytelling within a VR game. The biggest techniques for emotional storytelling go beyond words. With the sense of presence VR brings to an experience, character’s body language and eye movement speak just as much as tone of voice or words. Both Steel Wool Studios and Baobab Studios discussed this importance.

These experiences build off of two schools of thoughts and experimentation to succeed in creating a more compelling experience.

Locomotion
Another theme discussed was how to create a better VR experience for the user through locomotion.

As 2016 came to a close, many GDC speakers looked back at completed VR projects to discuss how to solve one of VR’s top complaints: motion sickness. A common way to solve this is teleportation or a very slow float. VR is still creating standards of what best techniques in VR are, while the gaming industry had 10-20 years to experiment and develop to arrive upon agreed game mechanics.

These techniques are not the complete answer and will be continued to be developed. What was agreed upon by panelists as a common issues was movement in the user’s peripheral. For now, stationary, teleportation and slow flotation seem to be the current solution.

New questions surrounding accessibility were also lightly discussed throughout the conference as the industry explores how to bring VR to those who cannot use VR now. These are areas that will continue to be developed this year and we expect to see VR experiences try out new techniques for locomotion.

Social
After the first step of developing content, developers will need to incorporate multiplayer capability. Many sessions explored how to add social experiences and multiplayer capabilities to VR games and entertainment.

The Social VR demo on PlayStation VR in March 2016. (Image by Sony)

Sony dedicated two sessions to discuss what the company has learned about social VR. Sony speakers discussed social interaction in VR games and social rooms where users can interact with each other. What they found was eye and mouth movement on the user’s avatar created the highest feeling of connection during a social interaction.

A precaution that was brought up was creating avatars that were too life-like, entering the uncanny valley. Currently, content developers will have a difficult time animating user movement for untracked body parts, like elbows, knees, torso and feet. This movement is assumed and can create unhuman-like movement, which doesn’t resonate well with users. Sony has opted for cartoon like gloves for hands and geometric bodies. Although abstract, the eye and mouth movement are what resonate with users during social interaction as they can interpret emotions based on those two features alone.