When I first got my HTC Vive I made it my mission to expose my friends and community to the world of virtual reality. Their feedback and my own experiences have given me some insight into the problems as well as the potential that comes along with such a powerful medium like VR. As an early adopter and mobile developer, I have quite a few thoughts on how mobile applications can augment desktop VR and solve some of its shortcomings.
While VR is excellent at creating a shared social presence between users in virtual environments, it does a poor job at connecting users in the headset with those outside of the virtual setting. When users are in the virtual space, they become socially isolated from others who may be in the same room. This pitfall has been commented on in several articles regarding the VR ecosystem. From the user’s perspective, friends in a shared space become disembodied voices with zero representation in the virtual environment. Another downfall VR presents is that headsets are expensive and the computers necessary to run them are even more so. The high price prevents many would-be enthusiasts from diving into VR. By joining virtual spaces with mobile applications we can increase the number of people in the environment and gain more value from the system.
Since VR is a complex and novel medium, first-time users can easily become confused and require help from external operators. The isolation creates a paradigm where operators are essentially providing remote assistance or telephony support despite being in the same room as the user. This type of disconnection results from the lack of a shared visual experience. Cross-platform applications, mediated by mobile devices, have a high potential to help cross the barrier that a VR headset creates. Companion applications have been used previously to expand access for games and software to additional devices. VR experiences that offer a companion application allow people outside of simulation to tap into the user’s environment, thus generating a shared experience that partially eliminates the issue of isolation and disembodiment. There lies a great potential to break VR out of solitary experiences and introduce group play that would be popular at parties, family gatherings, conventions, and within VR arcade environments.
Since May I’ve been experimenting with a proof of concept that draws upon these ideas via Unreal Engine 4, a powerful industry standard video game engine. My experiments were primarily centered around a shared soccer experience. A user participating in the VR soccer game defends goals from balls that are “kicked” by a second user who is tied into the experience via an Android application. This has already been accomplished by the mobile app Final Kick and its VR counterpart Final Goalie. Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is another great example of having a low barrier to entry for outside players, they only need to visit the Bomb Manual website in order to join the game. Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes capitalizes on the headset’s isolation, exploiting the separate experiences to make the game challenging. By centering the difficulty curve around the entire group, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes creates a shared learning experience so nobody will feel discouraged when joining. The game mixes simple puzzles with complex ones so even new players joining an experienced group will be able to have puzzles delegated to them.
VR in the Workplace
While consumer demand for VR will most likely be centered around entertainment, specifically video games, VR has extreme potential to reshape industries that utilize 3D data such as engineering and design. Allowing specialists to interact with data natively, free from the scourge of perspective projection and unintuitive UI, would allow them to use the native tools of their art with the power of computer assistance. A wide array of specialty software packages currently exist to fill this void, however, they rely on decades’ worth of bad design via layered menu systems that fail to match the richness of 3D tools.
Although current design and engineering software tools have become quite powerful, they are unintuitive and require a significant amount of effort to achieve mastery, establishing workflows that are completely divorced from their real life equivalents. This steep learning curve can create a massive skill gap between artisans and technical designers. Via mixed reality, users can employ real tools such as brushes, chisels, and lathes inside of virtual environments. Users then have the ability to create 3D designs and products that are firmly based in human experience and draw from real-life expertise of materials and tools. The upcoming generation of computer aided design users will think about 3D in a completely different way than how existing users look at it. Future product design will undoubtedly reflect this difference in approach.
Putting the Hand to the Face
VR programs that feature a mobile companion application will become increasingly important and will aid adaptation in both entertainment and businesses environments. Mobile companion apps can use the ubiquity of smartphones to help bridge the social gap and increase the number of users for each headset. As this area of VR is still underexplored and ripe for capitalization, there is a high potential for a new generation of collaboration among co-workers. Cross-platform development environments such as Unreal Engine are poised to become the backbone of both the immersive entertainment and business productivity sectors. Successful VR developers will require a hybridization of skills in addition to mobile. Investing in this development mindset now will help maximize the usage of next-generation hardware platforms in the future.