Room-scale VR: the play space, headsets and content

When assisting a friend in putting on a Samsung Gear VR headset, quite often the same questions are asked: ‘What should I do, stand straight? Sit down? Can I move around?’. When I reply that it does not really matter as no real body movement is registered, VR virgins seem to start their very first immersive experience or ‘VR kiss’ with a disappointment.

It’s like buying a smartphone that only seems to go online when connected to the Wifi at home. The sexy 3G-like feature that is missing in VR is called room-scale, which was definitely one of biggest buzzwords at the latest VRLA conference.

What is Room-Scale VR?

All you need is a rectangular space of at least 2 by 1,5 meter (3 squared meters or 16 square feet) — aka the ‘play space’ that allows a player or user to move freely while experiencing VR. The movement in this physical space is tracked and mapped into the virtual space, which tricks the brain to believe what it’s experiencing is real on a conscious but also unconscious level. You can move around into a virtual space by moving around in the physical space — ideally unwired or untethered, instead of pressing forward on an analog stick or directional pad. The play space is a place free of collision so a user feels free to move without fearing to bump into something.

Consumer headsets and room-scale
The term room-scale did not exist until the HTC Vive was first presented at the Mobile World Congress in March 2015. The HTC Vive is a high-end virtual reality headset developed by HTC and Valve Corporation. The Vive headset is designed to operate on room-scale technology to turn a room into 3D space via sensors that come with the device. The sensors are called ‘Lighthouse base stations’ that track the user’s movement with sub-millimeter precision. This setup allows a user to step away from the standing position and walk around, but he/she is still wired to a PC. From day one, the HTC Vive came with motion tracked handheld controllers to ‘vividly manipulate objects, interact with precision, communicate and experience immersive environments.’ At the beginning of July 2016, 100,000 units of the Vive were sold (since launch) according to an estimate based on customer usage.

The Oculus Rift is another high-end headset that was released a couple of days before the HTC Vive. It is developed by Oculus and this company was acquired by Facebook in 2013. The Rift originally offered content to be experienced while ‘seated’ and the headset did not come with proprietary motion tracking controllers. With HTC’s room-scale selling proposition being widely praised, Oculus went from questioning the need — do gamers have enough space in their homes — to featuring room-scale as one of the new features of the highly anticipated Oculus Touch, expected to hit the US market in Q4 this year.

Both Intel (Project Alloy) as well as Sony Playstation (Playstation VR) focused on room-scale when announcing their proprietary headsets.

The two headsets not focusing on room-scale — at the moment — are Samsung’s Gear VR and Google’s upcoming Daydream HMD. Both devices are untethered. Then again, as for the Gear VR, startups as Interactive Lab or IndoTraq identified the gap and are providing a tool so you can physically walk around a virtual environment, mapped into a Samsung Gear VR headset.

Room-scale content
Hence, the HTC Vive is currently the only headset available to consumers supporting room-scale. Other headsets are clearly moving towards it. But what about the content? Building a game or designing a story featuring room-scale VR is different from one where the user is expected to be seated or stand still.

Here is a personal selection of unique experiences, in cinematic VR or gaming, that have built in room-scale in a remarkable way:

Cinematic VR

La Peri is one of the most powerful stories I experienced at the HTC Vive booth at VRLA. A user’s interaction with the Vive hand controllers is a key element of the story. You are transported into another world where you must try to capture the pieces of the Prince’s heart to ensure your own immortality. Your guide throughout the experience is a mocap (motion capture) animated dancer, levering the story of La Peri with utmost elegance and sensuality. La Peri is produced by a French VR studio InnerspaceVR, directed by Balthazar Auxietre. The classical music and ballet is composed by Paul Dukas (also composed music for Disney’s Fantasia), the voiceover is done by John-Rhys Davies (actor in The Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones).

Gaming

Space Pirate Trainer was one of the 12 games that hugely profited in awareness by being available in the SteamVR store with the launch of HTC Vive back in April. The 12 games were first presented at the SteamVR Developer Showcase in Seattle, at the end of January this year. Space Pirate Trainer is produced by Belgian based studio i-illusions. The game will show you how good you are at being a Space Pirate and/or train you in becoming a better one. It is basically a shooting game where you shoot and avoid being shot at by dodging slow timed bullets. The game makes full use of room-scale VR and tracked controllers. According to Steamspy.com, Space Pirate Trainer has been downloaded 72,812 times at a 15 dollar price tag. (With 100,000 devices in the market, this number equals a huge 72% market penetration).

Another game worth mentioning is by Sweden based Neat Corporation: Budget Cuts, available for the HTC Vive. It uses a portal-like teleporting mechanic to move you through its virtual rooms.

I stopped at VRStudios’ booth at VRLA as I was watching unwired gamers enjoy Player Zero in full motion. People were queuing up to have a go as well.

Untethered gamers in full motion at VRLA Summer Expo 2016

VRStudios is a company offering a wireless-streamed system and a collection of capabilities that includes full motion and simultaneous multiple users in the same physical and virtual space. Player Zero is currently only available via VRCADE, VRStudios’ location-based VR unit.

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