HTC and Valve's Vive VR headset lets you physically move around in virtual reality. You can walk, run, jump, flail your arms and all that good stuff. You can also be a shambling disaster zone. During last week's Valve VR demo event, I decided to ask a bunch of developers working on VR games for their sordid tales of injury, woe and — most salacious of all — shenanigans. Here, dear friends and fellow real-reality inhabitants, are their stories. I care deeply about all of you, so I hope you learn from these cautionary tales (and/or greedily slurp up some delicious schadenfreude stew).
First, here's Joel Green, producer of Myst-inspired adventure The Gallery: Call of the Starseed, on the many unseen dangers that lurk in our own homes:
We've been developing on the Vive since Valve first announced it, so we had the first version which was, like, super sketchy with all these circuit boards hanging out of it, and the chaperon system wasn't really developed yet. I've seen people walk full-speed into walls before. It doesn't happen a whole lot anymore, and that's a testament to the chaperon system [which displays transparent walls over game surfaces when you get too close to real walls].
He also related another tale that involved the opposite problem: a surface existing in VR when it was just a big old pocket of thin air in real life:
When someone's PAX demo was over, they tried to put their controllers on a table... that wasn't actually there. So the controllers just fell. They just dropped them, and we were like, 'Ohhhhh don't do that.' But that's something where, after a short amount of time, your brain adapts to being in VR and you get used to it. It's amazing how quickly your brain adapts to inhabiting two different realities at once — being spatially aware of both. It sounds like it would be impossible, but humans are really flexible mentally in that way.
Next, here's one of the developers of Northway Games' cartoony construction game Fantastic Contraption exposing the real greatest threat to VR users: ceilings.
We have a level where the goal is directly above you, and in VR there's a chaperon system that tells you where the walls are, but there's nothing to tell you where the ceiling is. So people will try and grab the victory ball. One person jumped and hit the controller, smashed it on the ceiling. I think it was [designer Colin Northway's] cousin or something. He almost put a hole in the ceiling.
Two designers of Google's ultra-cool art creation space Tilt Brush, Drew Skillman and Patrick Hackett, told me how even moments of perfect creative serenity can lead to bar room (read: office) brawls (read: accidental punching):
Our desks are right up against each other, and I know that we've punched each other in the face before while using Tilt Brush. That's what happens when you have two people with headsets close to each other trying to paint. No injuries, though. Just punching. Artistic punching.
Cloudlands: VR Minigolf's Justin Liebregts hasn't physically cut, maimed or burned himself in VR, but he has found himself wandering strange mental territories (and also 18th floor balconies) after using it for extended periods:
I've seen people get close to a wall and swing and smash into the wall. That's the worst. I also remember we were developing an earlier prototype for our shooter game, and in it you're on a pillar in this large area. You can move around, and you don't fall. You get really used to that. Our office [in real life] was on the 18th floor, and when you go onto the balcony, you have to remind yourself, 'OK, this is real life. I cannot just walk out there and not... die.'
Space Pirate Trainer, a game in which you're constantly leaping and dodging, is... safer than you'd expect. One designer explained:
We had one shoe come off. One guy hit the back of a wall. We haven't had too many injuries yet, though. We've done some barrel flips while trying to shoot as much as possible, but that's just us trying to go nuts.
Job Simulator: The 2050 Archives' designer Alex Schwartz has been working on VR games for ages. He's run into more walls with this face than you ever will with your entire body and your pocket full of spaghetti. He explained:
When we first got our demo Vive, they'd hardcoded the in-game walls to the 15 x 15 space of the GDC demo room. Our space wasn't even close to that, so of course I walked straight into a wall. It told me it was two feet away, but it was actually right there. Once they put in chaperone, I'm so happy I don't have to be fearful all the time that I'm gonna hit something or walk into a wall.
He also does wicked pranks and then feels bad when people nearly have real-world heart attacks:
We do this thing sometimes where one person is in VR, and another person is viewing their experience through the Unity editor. So I can live edit the game while they're in it. I can have a scene view — see what they're seeing — but I can also edit items in the world. We used to have this knife in Job Simulator's kitchen area, and I picked it up using the editor tool to move it up [while a co-worker was using VR to be in the kitchen].
To him, it basically levitated upward. Imagine being there. It was some paranormal activity. Then I started slowly moving it toward him, and he started flipping out. He was really scared, because it was this pointy object coming right toward his face. I was like, 'Oh, I shouldn't have done that.' It was too much. That leads me to believe that scary games in VR might be too much.
Finally, I heard a truly epic tale from Gamasutra editor-in-chief Kris Graft, who was also covering the event. The short version? VR, that grasping digital devil, tried to take his foot.
I was at Job Simulator [designer] Alex Schwartz's house, and I'd taken my shoes off because I was in his home. He was showing me a bunch of Vive demos, one of which was Fireproof Games' The Room. So the Vive's cord is big and heavy, and I could feel it kind of rubbing against my leg. I went to step over it.
In the room I was, like, in the VR room in the game The Room. There was a table there [in the game]. I used the table's surface as a reference point for the Earth's horizon, and it wasn't quite lined up to real life. So when I tried to step over the cord, I just bent my foot backwards, and it went [makes awful crunching sound]. Alex heard it because it was pretty audible. He was like, 'Are you alright?' I was in a decent amount of pain, but I was like, 'Yeah! I'm OK!' I went home, and my foot turned black, and then purple, and then yellow. But I'm OK now. It returned to its original colour after about two weeks.
Gnarly. I asked Graft if he considered seeking medical attention. He replied:
I don't know how I'd explain it to the physician. 'Well, I was looking at a fake table in virtual reality, and then I tried to stand on one foot and it didn't quite work out.'
If you're a doctor, get ready. You've got some fun times ahead.
Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, I was unable to find anybody who could answer the oldest of all VR injury questions: If you die in the game, do you die in real life? And what about its corollary: If you die in real life, do you die in the game? I guess I'll have to test those things out myself.
Image credit: Getty.