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VR is better when virtual objects feel real

Survios' "Raw Data" uses visual, audio and haptic feedback to trick you into abiding by the game's virtual physics.

Sean Buckley , @seaniccus
02.11.16 in AV
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For all the amazing experiences virtual reality enables (the illusion of flight, the exhaustion of exercise and even the emotional fatigue of trauma), it still has one major flaw: Virtual objects are intangible and have no physicality. If you want to walk through a wall, the game can't stop you. If you try to lean on a table, you'll probably fall down. It's a limitation of first-generation VR technology I'd grown to accept -- at least until I played Survios' Raw Data, a game that tricked me into pretending its completely virtual objects were real.

In Raw Data, two players use an assortment of weapons to protect a shared VR play space from an oncoming horde of killer robots. At first blush, this feels a lot like any other motion-controlled first-person VR action game: aiming with virtual guns, fanatically shooting in all directions and generally feeling like an action hero while doing it -- but when I swung the game's laser sword at another blade, something weird happened. It stopped. And, despite there being absolutely no physical force present to stop me, my arms stopped too.

Stopping my arms felt natural, but I had no idea why I did it. By all rights, I should have followed through on the swing. I asked James Iliff, Survios' co-founder and chief creative officer, for his thoughts as I pulled off my VR headset. "There's this trigger mechanism in the brain about mimicry," he told me. "Like, as kids we were playing around in the yard with sticks, or doing air guitar. We mimicked those actions. When a game gives you 100 percent feedback visually, auditorily and haptically that you've stopped, a lot of times the user will play along and they won't even realize it." In other words, the game feels more realistic if you pretend it's real. When the swords stopped in game, clanged on impact and sent a sharp vibration to my motion controller, it was using visual, audio and haptic cues to coax me into playing make-believe.

The trick worked on me, but only because I decided to play along. Not everybody will follow the rules, Iliff told me. "We call it contextual physics feedback," he said, explaining the system further. "The system decides, based on context, when not to enable physics feedback." While this system encourages playing by the rules, it seems to favor keeping in-game action consistent with player movement over abiding by VR physics -- if I had followed through on my slice, the swords would have slid past each other. "But if you do stop, it continues to play along with you," Iliff reiterated. "That essentially gives you the sensation of real feedback."

This contextual physics feedback system is one of the "big problems" Survios is trying to solve. Having collision that makes sense is essential to enabling the kind of social multiplayer Raw Data is built around. The team is also working on a contextual gaze system to simulate eye contact with other VR players, and a phonic detection system is poised to animate character mouths in tune with voice chat. To top it all off, Raw Data features a cinematic spectating system that broadcasts VR game play from "dynamically generated camera angles" to services like Twitch.

That, Iliff says, could be the key to helping the masses understand virtual reality. "If we can make this easy in all our apps, for users to broadcast to their friends ... that's the fastest way to get everybody talking about VR."

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