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What I Learned about VR at Oculus Connect

Gamification of Training

I talked to a pair of game developers from Bossa Studios, Sylvain Cornillon and Henrique Olifers, about creating games for VR.

Bossa Studios makes the VR game Surgeon Simulator, where the player is tasked with slicing and dicing patients. As with many games, this allows people without a medical license to do thing they’d otherwise never get to experience.

Like many VR games for Oculus, Surgeon Simulator is “tabletop” style, meaning that you play on a virtual surface, looking down at the objects you interact with. This play style is popular since the Rift doesn’t lend itself to moving around very much.

Surgeon Simulator lets you chop up humans and aliens in search of squishy organs.

Both Olifers and Cornillion said that keeping the player in one place, while a limitation on its face, allows for a lot of creativity.

“The level of detail for objects must be high,” Cornillion said. The two men noted that in many FPS games, players often sprint right past small objects like bottles or barrels that an artist had to work on. In VR, the player spends a lot more time looking at those objects, so they have to be higher in detail, and artists can justify putting a lot of sweat equity into creating the objects.

“You can have a lot of fun in one space,” Olifers said.

Getting off the gaming subject, I asked Cornillion and Olifers if they thought Surgeon Simulator could be used in a training environment for EMT, military, or medical students. They said it was entirely possible, though not with the game in its current form.

This isn’t surprising. Pilots have been using simulators and VR to train for decades. It would make sense that as the technology improves, training in VR for surgeons or other people who use their hands could be a cost-effective supplement to”real” hands-on training. After all, electrons are cheaper than cadavers. At least, I hope they are.

What’s in it for us

With all the tools becoming available to developers and content creators, the clear winner is the end user. As it was with graphics technology, gaming will likely drive the bleeding edge of VR development. However, the big money will be in content, and likely the passive type.

What we’re witnessing with VR headsets like the Gear VR, HTC Vive, and Oculus Rift is the creation of a new medium. Oculus, and by extension Facebook, is clamoring to make sure that there will be plenty of content for this its platform as VR is unveiled to the wider public over the next six months. What this means for media consumption is really anyone’s guess, but the new medium has clear advantages and pitfalls.

On the upswing, VR allows us to be more social over distance. Sure, people are “social” via text and photography on Facebook or Twitter, but there’s something more intimate about watching a match on Twitch in a virtual room or working on a virtual sculpture together. Seeing someone’s avatar does fool you into thinking there is someone else physically there. The simple act of waving at the engineer in Medium was enough to convince me that she was actually there, in the room with me.

Even the use of VR video or VR experiences has the potential to entice our sense of empathy. While sitting on the train to catch my flight to Los Angeles, I listened to a TED Radio Hour episode about screens. The podcast mentioned a program where the UN shot a spherical video in a Syrian refugee camp. Watching the video in VR and seeing the children wave at the cameras had some diplomats who watched the video in tears.

Say what you want about the subject matter, but the ability to feel presence in VR creates more empathy for others. The sense of presence is more connective than seeing things through a rectangular portal. As one presenter noted at Connect, in VR, you can’t look away. That itself may have an immense power to connect us as we tell stories, play games, or create. Facebook has good reason to be bullish on its investment in VR; its working hard to be the dominant force in the space with Oculus.

That doesn't mean other VR vendors won't have plenty of room to create that sense of presence and magic. They will face a battle that mirrors that of gaming consoles: As long as the hardware is up to snuff, the array of titles and content available will the primary factor that makes or breaks a particular platform.

On the flip side, VR is very isolating. It’s the most anti-social piece of technology I’ve experienced, if we’re talking about the physical room I’m sitting in.

When our press group headed upstairs for the Gear VR demo, the room was set up to resemble some classy, futuristic lounge. But instead of people crowding around tables having drinks and talking, people lounged in chairs, alone in their VR experience. This seemed like a nightmarish dystopian cyberpunk scene, where people got their doses of digital Soma.

Cyberpunk utopia or digital dystopiannightmare in the making?

I had a mixed feeling of "Wow, this is awesome" and "Holy crap, is this where we're headed?" as I looked around the room. The Gear VR lounge arrangement was wildly different than the sectioned-off rooms that Rift demos usually take place in. The whole experience was slightly unsettling, like watching the Matrix slowly come into reality.

Setting any techno-fear aside, there are some serious drawbacks about some of the experiences themselves. I can’t experience Netflix in VR the same way I can on the couch with my fiancee. I imagine that if I sat through two episodes of Narcos in VR, she’s be pretty unhappy with me. With the Twitch demo, it only really has utility when used socially. Watching Twitch in VR by myself for hours isn't something I think I'd like to do.

Stepping into VR is like stepping out of this reality for a bit. You’re here but there at the same time. This creates an enormous opportunity for immersive experiences unlike any other medium we’ve had in the past.

We know what it’s like to see things on a rectangle. We’ve been doing it for 100 years. Those rectangles have changed the way the world works. Depending on its adoption and how content creators approach it, VR may follow a similar course.

This is the Wild West period for VR. Companies are staking their claims and developers have a brand-new world open to them. In the rush to populate the new medium with content, one has to wonder if the technology will bring us closer together or push us yet further apart.

Alex first built a PC so he could play Quake III Arena as a young lad, and he's been building desktop PCs ever since. A Marine vet with a background in computer science, Alex is into FOSS and Linux, and dabbles in the areas of security and encryption. When he's not looking up console Linux commands or enjoying a dose of Windows 10-induced schadenfreude, he plays with fire in his spare time.