Back in 1995, a few months after Michael Jordan announced his triumphant return to the Chicago Bulls after swinging a bat for a short time,Nintendo dropped upon the world The Virtual Boy. It was the first consumer facing nod towards what would become the future of VR. It didn’t take off. It wasn’t because of the all red dot matrix display (really Nintendo?), it was because the technology just wasn’t there to throw us into the midst of a Lawnmower Man type world. It would take a decade for a start up called Oculus to kickstart VR with the promise of bringing the Hollywood dream of a virtual world to life. We’ve been enamored at the breakthroughs. We’ve watched Oculus go from a Kickstarter start up, to a $2 billion Facebook investment.
We’re at the precipice of mainstream VR, and it’s all very exciting. Hollywood is buying in, making 360 films that immerse the viewer in a way IMAX has been trying to do for a while now. Gaming is a big push, creating interactive experiences that place the user in the middle of the battlefield. Samsung Gear, in partnership with Oculus mind you, has put the VR experience in the palm of everybody’s hands who owns a phone. VR is a thing. And it’s only going to get better the more proliferated it becomes. The problem with that proliferation, is marketing VR. It’s an interesting conundrum. How do you sell something that fundamentally needs to be experienced?
A personal device that needs to be worn, needs to be seen in a way that is impossible to experience for yourself serendipitously through a flat 2D screen? It’s a challenge we were geared up and ready to handle when Oculus gave us a call to help shape their campaign. What we focused on wasn’t the technology of the Rift, it was how it feels to step into it. Capture that in a commercial, and we’ll buy in.
THE CLIMB: Crytek’s inaugural VR game was built around the experience of being a free climber hanging off the peak of a wild summit like Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger. Players use the shoulder buttons to control each hand as they look for holds along the cliffside. As soon as our hero gamer (to play the non-convention gamer, a woman…what?!!) powers up her PC, her room begins to change into the side of the cliff she’s about to climb. Light shafts open up above and around her, and desert sparrows flutter from the direction of the rock wall forming over her desk.
EDGE OF NOWHERE: Insomniac’s expedition gone awry where players find themselves in a blizzard running from monsters that are physically the size of the Avenger’s Helicarrier. The developers use VR to heighten the survival horror genre – you hear a roar over head, and turn to see a 3 story building about to step on you. This spot became our “unboxing” moment, where our hero gamer walks in with his Rift, takes a deep breath as his room chills to the blizzard he’s about to step into. We freeze over cameras on a bookshelf, table lamps (of which we created practical lighting effects for), and entire desks before he lifts the Rift off a soft pile of snow.
LUCKY’S TALE: The Rift exclusive Lucky’s Tale is a 3rd person adventure game where the player controls a little fox through a jungle of cute, albeit bad, guys while collecting coins and breaking as much shit as you can with your tail. It brings back memories of Super Mario 64 back in the day. The scale of the game makes it feel like you’re a giant looking down at a diorama laid out slightly below you at your command. As soon as the PC is powered up, similarly scaled elements from the game grow around our gamer, over his keyboard, speakers, console and coffee table. The grass, moss, and platforms from the game feel like a diorama of the game laid out in from of our gamer. Excited to jump in, our gamer dons the headset and has a blast.
Capturing the Magic of VR.
When technology works, it’s transparent to the experience. As soon as you don the Rift, everything works. You are effectively transported to the place you see, all around you. The PC running the Rift is rendering 180 frames a second, split to each eye. It’s enough to fool your brain into thinking you’re there. When you look left, you look left. There is no lag, no hesitation. It’s simply magic.
TRANSFORM YOUR REALITY.
When you’re in The Rift, you buy into that reality. It fundamentally shifts your perspective of the world, not just physically in front of your eyes – but mentally as well. It doesn’t take long for your brain to be tricked into believing what you’re seeing is real. It’s a testament to how the Rift transforms your reality.
To properly show this transformation, we need to see our users expression. We are experiencing The Rift vicariously through them – if we can’t see their reaction, then how are we going to emote the pure joy of the experience. To solve this, we literally transformed the reality around them as the PC running the Rift was powering up, leading to the full immersion as soon as the user stepped into it the headset.
Do Not Apologize for the Technology.
At the same time we wanted to show people wearing the Rift. Show them having fun, putting it on, getting their hands dirty in The Climb. Show them laughing at themselves, or seriously focussed on jumping that snowy chasm in Edge of Nowhere. We went into this not wanting to apologize for the look of the tech. The Rift is a beautifully designed piece of hardware. It’s incredibly well built, incomprehensibly light, and looks and feels great while worn. But as amazing as it is, when it’s being worn, it covers the majority of our users face, leaving us with just a lower jaw to emote with.
The tendency is to over accentuate the expressions, which comes off cheesy. For Oculus, The Rift is a part of your lifestyle. It’s a thing you dive into just as you would if you were catching up on Netflix. It’s more akin to a wearable, a watch for instance, rather than a console gaming experience. When we show the Rift being worn, it should be natural to the users experience. And honestly, it looks pretty awesome and most importantly, fun when you’re watching your friends step into the Rift for the first time. And the 15th time.
FOLDING THE GAME REALITY INTO OUR REALITY.
The spots had to accomplish a few different things in order to successfully frame the feeling of VR. One of the main ways is through the expression and reactions of our gamer. Hard to do that authentically, since their face is covered by the Rift. Early on we made the conscious decision that we did not want that to feel foreign, like a holographic overlay straight out of Iron Man, or forced like dissolving the Rift to see our gamer playing inside the game world.
There is a sense of wonder the first time you bring the Rift over your eyes. As soon as the screens behind the lenses power on, you’re in awe. To get at that sense of awe and wonder we mixed the game world into our gamers real world, giving them something to react to while not face deep in a headset. The spark became the powering on of the PC.
We pulled environmental elements from the gameplay and used them to transform the players reality as the PC came to life. Rock and sun bleached light from The Climb, frost and snow from Edge of Nowhere. Every game transforms the world in unique ways. Every spot required a unique set of dynamic effects for us to solve.
How exactly does rock grow? For The Climb, a big part of our gamer’s reality becomes a canyon wall. For that, we had to devise a way in which rock would layer on top of itself, as if it’s building up and out of the wall in front of her. We knew this shouldn’t be a smooth animation, but rather it should look like the rock is in time-lapse, building up quickly in beats, and slowly in others. As it pushes out, we added layers of debris falling from each protrusion onto the table in front of her.
How exactly does a room freeze over? For Insomniac’s Edge of Nowhere, the entire room freezes around our gamer. We accomplished this by mixing CG tracked piles of snow with a textural frost that’s a combination of dynamics and matte painted textures animated in 2D, and placed in 3D. The frost had to catch the glint of the light in order to feel tangible, so even though a lot of the final effect is driven by matte paintings, it’s all rendered together in 3D space to catch the correct highlights.
How exactly does a miniature forest grow from a coffee table? Lucky’s Tale is the most family friendly title in the group. Its world is defined by a vista of green hills, palm trees, and a cartoon cliffside hut where the main character lives. That foliage became the device we used to transform the space around our gamer, and we kept it true to the scale of the game. It felt like a miniature set sprouted up in his living room.
Rendering 180 frames a second is no easy task. It is one of the widely discussed, and misunderstood, costs of entry into VR. You need a high end PC to run the Rift, otherwise all you get through the lenses is black. Compromises need to be made in game development to make that happen, and the consequences are gameplay that is lower fidelity than today’s “Triple A” games. Does Edge of Nowhere come close to what Naught Dog has done with Uncharted 4? No, there’s no chance. But is Uncharted 4 rendering 180 frames a second? No, they have the luxury of being locked at 30. Big, big difference. To be honest, when you’re in the Rift, something magical happens. You believe. You project reality onto the poly’s of the game.
You buy into the reality being rendered, despite the fact that the lighting isn’t casting perfectly rendered caustics. You mentally elevate the game to what you know reality is. We’re not bullshitting you – this happens. When you look at a cliffside in The Climb, you know the movements of the leaves are being rendered on a plane in 3D space. It looks it. But at the same time, your brain fills in the blanks, and it feels like a real leaf you can reach out and touch. We chose to elevate the gameplay to those standards. Not fundamentally changing the design and character of the game, just elevating the lighting, resolution, and render quality of the games.
Yes, it warranted us to say “Not Actual Gameplay” – And we certainly got some flak for that in those positive message boards the internet raves about. But it allowed us to get truer to the feeling of playing the game. Truer to what it feels like to be in the Rift. You cannot judge VR on a static image in a magazine, or a frame grab from gameplay. It feels better, so much better.
We worked directly with the game developers to craft the cinematic user experiences. We pulled in the sets from the game, the character models and animations. We brought them into Maya, and did our thing. Elevating the resolution of the models, and the accompanying textures. We rebuilt lighting rigs, and in most cases re-matte painted the backgrounds. We elevated the game to feel like what we felt when we played it. These worlds come to life before your eyes, whether or not the clouds move in game, they move in your head. We needed to capture that. Atmosphere is the biggest way in which we elevated these games. The one thing that doesn’t come across in any still frame you will ever see of VR is depth. EVERYTHING has depth. And you see it in tiny floating particles in the shafts of light. These particles are always there, heavier in some games, but there. It helps you find your bearing in 3D space.
THE VR REVOLUTION WILL BE TELEVISED.
VR is not going away – there are too many companies pouring too much time, effort and money for it to fail. We’re on the precipice of the technology serving the vision of VR, and it’s exciting times. As we continue our relationship with the fine folks at Oculus, the more we see of just how magic VR will become. We recently took a headset home with us over the Memorial Day weekend to show our family what the buzz was all about. We brought Lucky’s Tale with us, the most family friendly of the games launched with the Rift. EVERYONE who jumped in was enamored. There truly is something special about it. We put the headset around our 96 year old grandmother, and even she started looking around in amazement.
Despite how hard we work to convey the FEELING of VR, this simple fact remains: you need to see it to believe it. Our hope is to get people excited at the possibilities that are out there enough to try one on at their local Best Buy, Gamestop or friend’s house. With every purchase, the hype builds. The people who are lucky enough to have a Rift, share it with their friends, who talk about it with the ir’s. VR will get out there, and we’ll be there with it, playing experiences, and building our own.