Virtual Reality’s Movement Problem: It Isn’t Nausea

Virtual Reality’s Movement Problem: It Isn’t Nausea
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Warren Spector says virtual reality will be a fad, “at best a minor part of gaming’s future”. Far be it from me to question the director of Deus Ex on, well, anything. But I’m not sure it matters whether VR is a fad. Motion controls were a fad, yet that fad drove the sales of 100 million Wii consoles.

If virtual reality is a fad, it’s still going to be an amazing, wonderful fad. I suspect millions of head-mounted displays will be bought next year by people eager to check out the Oculus Rift, Sony’s Morpheus, HTC’s Vive, and Samsung’s Gear VR. The technology easily passes the low, gee-whiz, early-adopter bar of “I would like to buy this and show it off to my neighbours.” I’ve been trying on these headsets for more than two years, and I’m keen to have one at home.

And, yes, it’s certainly true that you will do more than play games in virtual reality. Games are only a minor part of the time we spend with our televisions, phones, tablets and computers, too! We still play games on them. Every screen in our lives is used to play games, and also to do other stuff. Virtual reality will be no different.

What kind of games will we play? That’s a good question with no good answer. Right now, the most interesting challenge for video game designers in virtual reality is, I think, navigation. (It’s the one that VR designers often either struggle to answer or say/pretend that they have a secret answer they are unwilling to share.)

HTC’s Vive masks VR’s navigation problem by letting you walk around your living room in virtual space. But at the end of nearly every Vive demo, when I tried it at the Game Developers Conference in March, a vista would appear on the horizon, or the walls around me would fall to show me the scale of the virtual universe. Every time, I would think: How am I going to get over there?

I played more than a dozen virtual reality demos and prototypes at E3 last week. In at least one, I was immobile: As a hockey goalie in VR Sports Challenge for Oculus, I clicked the left bumper on a gamepad to attempt to save a shot on my left side; I clicked the right bumper for the opposite. In others, like the promising puzzle game Superhypercube for Morpheus, I was a disembodied presence.

But most of the time, I had a body and it moved. Here are some of the creative ways that designers allowed me to get around in VR:

In the passenger seat of a car. On rails, in the London Heist: The Getaway demo for Sony’s Project Morpheus.

In a mech. In RIGS: Mechanised Combat League for Morpheus.

In a tank. In the reboot of Atari’s Battlezone by the Sniper Elite studio Rebellion.

In a submersible. In Time Machine, a dinosaur exploration mystery from Minority Media.

On a physical bicycle that was a virtual horse. In VirZoom’s demo.

On a flying carpet. In Bazaar, a prototype for the Gear VR. (It was on rails, but you had to move your head to turn.)

In a wheelchair pushed by a computer-controlled character. In Starbreeze’s Walking Dead demo, which used the company’s proprietary headset to give players a wider field of view than is possible with the Rift or Morpheus.

On a rope line. In Back to Dinosaur Island 2, a prototype for Crytek’s Robinson: The Journey, I used the triggers on a gamepad to simulate the clenching of my virtual hands, and the left stick to control the speed of a rope as it ascended the face of a cliff.

On wings. In Ubisoft’s Eagle Flight demo, I controlled a fast-moving raptor — in first person — by moving my head to look in the direction I wanted to fly, and tilting it to one side or the other to make sharp turns.

On a gurney. The Assembly, an adventure game for virtual reality by the British developer nDreams, begins on rails. The player is given the first-person perspective of Madeline Stone, a behavioural psychologist, who is strapped to a gurney and carted into a mysterious compound beneath the Nevada desert. I found the experience entirely comfortable.

On foot. The next two levels of The Assembly, however, allowed me to move either Stone or Hal Pierson, an Assembly scientist in a laboratory, with the left thumbstick. I didn’t feel like I was going to throw up, but moving too fast or turning too quickly made me sweaty and a little queasy. (On one or two occasions I have felt the same way when playing a first-person game on a television or computer screen, most recently during Alien: Isolation.)

One way to mitigate this unpleasant sensation is to slow the player’s movement with a spacesuit (Adr1ft) or an underwater suit (Narcosis), making the avatar’s motion feel more like that of a vehicle than a body.

Another surprisingly effective option is to abandon the first-person viewpoint. At least two Oculus games — Lucky’s Tale and Edge of Nowhere — use a third-person perspective. The player can still look around to see the scale and depth of the world, but disconnecting your avatar from your eyes somehow makes movement less unsettling. The most comfortable methods I have used to find my own way through VR spaces are in vehicles (whether cars, planes, or mechs), in bodysuits that made my avatars float and drift like vehicles, and in third person.

Removing navigation from VR — as the Walking Dead and London Heist: The Getaway demos did — can make the experience extremely comfortable. Using your gaze to create movement in an otherwise on-rails experience is also very effective, and at its best (in Ubisoft’s Eagle Flight demo), you forget that your forward movement is on autopilot. Eye-tracking technology, of the kind used in Fove’s prototype headset, is almost certain to improve gaze-directed navigation, which already works very well.

Players want to interact with virtual spaces, and they want to explore them — not just look at them or hurtle through them. It’s hard to imagine that players will be satisfied in the long run with VR games that always put them on rails, or in a cockpit (like the fantastic EVE: Valkyrie), or motionless in a chair (like Epic’s Couch Knights demo).

The slow-moving rope lines that the player uses to ascend a cliff in Crytek’s Back to Dinosaur Island 2 may have been the most inventive solution for this dilemma, giving the player a first-person viewpoint and limited control of movement within the space. Still, at the end of the demo, I stood atop a cliff, looking at dinosaurs on a plain in front of me and wondered: What now?


  • Hopefully the fad goes long enough for the tech to mature because for cockpit based sims and gaming where there is no issue of player navigation its potential is amazing. It’s a relatively niche type of gaming that probably can’t drive enough interest in VR tech on it’s own so we’ll see plenty of this gimmicky stuff to sell units and create a bit of a fad. Fad on VR, fad on.

  • To move long distances in VR in first person on foot:

    1. hang one of the oculus touch or HTC vive controllers on your belt, to measure your direction.
    2. Turn your real body to turn your virtual body.
    3. Usethea thumbstick on the other controller to move forwards in the direction your body is facing.
    4. Look around in any direction using your HMD’s positional tracking, even while moving forwards in the direction your body is facing, which may be a different direction.
    5. (optional) walk on the spot if it really bothers you to not move your feet while virtually walking.

    This will eliminate yaw-related motion sickness which is the primary problem, while also allowing you to move across vast virtual distances, all while staying in the one central position in your room.

    Now, just need to manage the cable issues involved with turning around, and sorted.

    • Two joystick wii-motes; one for each hand. You turn, aim, steer, move etc. just like any other game but the viewpoint is from the headset. This seems like the next logical evolution before we reach true VR. This functionality has already been modded into older games like Half-Life 2 and the new games like GTA5 are clearly setting up for that with FP mode.

      It wouldn’t surprise me to see someone like Microsoft release a VR-Pack containing a headset, some virtual living room game and lets say the new xbox elite controller. In fact it wouldn’t surprise me to see Microsoft strike first, they’ve been trying to get widget and app stores working for ages now. Perhaps a Virtual App Store will finally turn some profit?

  • I have waited all my life for a VR space sim. Seriously, as an original Star Wars child the prospect of flying around in space via VR is amazing. Mechs? Good god yes! Racing cars? Yup. With the future of warfare being drone combat I do not see the issue with first person shooters and the like still being played in an arm chair with traditional controllers, or even tweeked to use new motion technology for the hands but the act of running and jumping still being a button mashing affair.

    I don’t actually want to run around my lounge room power sliding under fences and kicking in door my family cannot see.

    “Mummy, Daddy has lost it. Again”

    Then again, sitting in a chair turning my head around and whooping like a lunatic is probably just as bad 🙂

    I am jumping on this FAD. Jumping hard.

    Imagine a FPS where one player is running around normally while another uses VR to control a drone. Asymmetrical warfare is GO!

    • More like “Mummy, Daddy kicked me in the face again”

      We will be doing the trench run in 2016 guaranteed! Cover me Porkins! Pooorkiiiins!!!

      FAD ON!

  • This is just early days, get the head tracking spot on and try to move to a wireless system first, then move on to the harder stuff. This is not a FAD, it won’t become a mainstream way to game in it’s current format, but in 3-6 years time I think it will be huge.

  • Give me a real Battletech Mechwarrior game set during the clan invasions with VR support and fad or not. I will live out the rest of my days with a smile on my face.

    The game VOX Machinae proves it can be done well. Even though the demo is only 1 mission. I have played it on my dk2 so many times now that I believe my purchase of the dk2 was worth it. lol

  • I haven’t had much time with these devices, but I was given a strong impression that moving in these VR games wouldn’t be much of an issue. I mean, is it really that hard to just play like we’re used to with KB+M or controllers? All these other motion solutions sound really cool and help create even more immersive experiences but I don’t think they’re a requirement to make VR fun.

    • I dunno, apparently if your hindbrain believes that your body is meant to be moving under its own power when it’s not, it creates all kinds of dissonance. People doing the roller-coaster thing have reported feeling the sensation of movement, just as if they were on the roller-coaster. The brain doesn’t always need a lot of convincing (like that weird experiment where you can obscure peoples’ hands and mimic sensations on a visible, nearby dummy hand, then mutilate the dummy to generate real pain sensations). Moving around in a vehicle is fine, but when it gets tooooo personal, too close but still too far – like we think our legs are moving when they’re not – then the brain starts to say, “Hang on, wtf?” and that conflict is unsettling. It’s like the uncanny valley of motion.

      • Yeah I respect that and many of the accounts of using the Oculus et. al. mention that feeling. I dunno, I just think we’d all get ‘used’ to it after a while. Especially enthusiast gamers like us, I mean you know how we’re can like jump in straight away with a KB+M or controller and play? Yet when you hand it over to a non-gamer they struggle for a while?
        I reckon that’s what it’ll be like; especially since almost all the software library for VR in the first year or so will be regular screen games patched/modded to run on it.

        • It’s a good point. I’ve tried to get my Mum playing Portal, just working on really, really, really basic testing chambers and it was a surprise to me that the greatest difficulty she’s had isn’t at all with the puzzles and the portal gun, but with the very CONCEPT of pretending to navigate a 3D space from a 2D screen. Back, forward, up, down, they mean nothing.

          But that hurdle only took I dunno… a couple hours to overcome. This VR stuff seems to tap into something much more primal.

          Personally, I’m pretty sure I was bred to be the perfect mech pilot and will adapt to VR perfectly – just as I had better be able to synch with my thought-controlled mech when the Japanese government/resistance asks me to. But realistically… I dunno.

  • The Pope said gays where just a faze for the human race and look how wrong he his. As in just because some one says I won’t be big after a while relax, it could be the next big thing for years to come. It’s more of a matter of lets find out then speculation. Look into the future but if you look to far you won’t see a point.

  • I think most of us know what we’re signing up for.
    We’ll be sitting on the couch in the real world, so games where you’re seated will feel the most natural.
    Unfortunately FPS shooters will have it tough for a while.

    Driving, flying & Lakituing.
    Wheel, flight stick & gamepad.

    My game room is ready.

    • There is a VR locomotion platform that has had 15000+ people try it out; walking, running, spinning around, with no sim sickness and six platforms are presently on tour in the USA gaining more users very month. So it can be done, but great care has been taken to make use of the platform intuitive and autonomous. Autonomous means you do not need to think about walking or running. This platform works with any FP WSAD game.

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