The Aussie developers working with NASA on the future of VR gaming
PRETTY soon VR gaming will bring us an entire new world and these Aussie developers work with the likes of NASA to create that future.
Virtual Reality (VR) is the current frontier in gaming, offering immersion and totally different experiences to what gamers have been used to.
Technically speaking it’s not new tech — there have been recognisable VR gaming efforts since the 1990s — but we’re now at a point where it’s clear VR gaming is a viable medium and is here to stay.
What’s more, Australians are at the forefront of bringing the tech to life.
Emre Deniz is the CEO of Opaque Space, a Melbourne-based developer that specialises in building simulation and training technologies in collaboration with various public and private industries including NASA and Boeing.
The company recently developed the award-winning Earthlight Spacewalk VR game for the HTC Vive, which was about giving players the chance to experience life on the International Space Station.
They didn’t start off in orbit, however.
“Opaque Media Group is part of a larger organisation and were the first developers in Australia to receive the HTC developer kits,” Mr Deniz said.
“We were building empathic training programs for nurses and that was received really well, built in partnership with Alzheimers Australia.
Mr Deniz said they moved onto an International Space Station spacewalk, and as a result were invited to tour NASA in the US, sit in mission control, view the space-station mock-up, and even interview astronauts.
While VR from an enterprise or technical standpoint continues to advance, Mr Deniz said there was still some work to do in increasing adoption of the platform for home entertainment.
“I think one of the biggest challenges for VR is to grow with the market viability for independent developers and small developers to commercialise the platform in a sustainable way,” he said.
Mr Deniz said one of the biggest issues the medium faced was user expectations, particularly around price-to-gameplay length.
“A lot of players and a lot of gamers around the world are transplanting their expectations of VR from PC and gaming consoles; they’re expecting AAA graphics and 300 hours of content for $40,” he said.
“The reality is it’s very expensive to develop VR games because we have to have developer content that’s performing for VR hardware, and the hardware is lagging behind by a generation compared to the graphics ability (of PC or consoles).”
It could take people time to readjust to the different interaction and control schemes, Mr Deniz said, and addressed the other major issue with VR: simulation sickness, whereby some users experience dizziness, nausea and headaches as a result of using VR headsets.
“There’s still a significant percentage of population vulnerable to simulation sickness. That’s on a spectrum, some people can take off headset after spinning around for an hour and be fine, other people can have nausea and headaches for quite some time afterwards,” he said.
The cost to get into VR for the average consumer has traditionally been rather high as well, with the upfront cost being about $2500 for a powerful PC and VR headset, Mr Deniz said.
He pointed to Sony’s PSVR platform as the most prolific platform currently, adding its comparatively low price point and ease of adoption were helping significantly.
“All companies are working to ensure it (VR) sticks around and Sony are doing that expertly; they’ve sold two million headsets,” he said.
Mr Deniz said while VR was here to stay, it was facing challenges from a development standpoint in Australia.
“The biggest barrier in VR development in Australia is we are facing very stiff competition from overseas developers with environments backed by government and favourable environments for game production,” he said.
“That’s not us having a whinge, it’s reality. We’re probably the only western country that doesn’t have any dedicated support networks for game development at a federal level or private investment or equity groups.
“VR in Australia is going to be in the hands of very boutique companies, servicing enterprise clients.
“From a gaming perspective, it’s only going to make headway with international partner support such as Oculus, HTC and Sony as well as publishers.”
The lack of support in Australia for game development meant most of the talented people headed overseas, but Mr Deniz said it was not doom and gloom all around, with some significant success stories coming out of the local VR industry too.
“Companies like Zero Latency have been quite successful in location-based entertainment, Opaque as an organisation has become a world leader with a branch in LA and working with Boeing and Smobile have just announced VR civil planning and architectural toolsets used by VicRoads,” he said.
Advances are being made in the field all the time to improve the user experience and the technology level of the platform, and Mr Deniz said VR had a bright future.
“I think VR is, without doubt, going to be a critical part of how we experience media moving to the future,” Mr Deniz said.
“There are a dozen headsets coming to the market next year — everyone wants a piece of pie.
“We’re going to see price point of first generation headsets fall further, and also higher-end units with OLED displays for higher resolutions.”
As the technology evolves, so will the storytelling abilities of VR — so it will certainly be interesting to see what gaming experiences look like in the 2020s and beyond and how they’ve evolved from what we’re used to now.