2018 VR student projects

NB this is part of a series of posts about VR & AR at Goldsmiths, particular for people interested in our Masters in Virtual and Augmented Reality (but of course everyone is welcome to read).

The autumn term has just ended at Goldsmiths, University of London. It’s been a very busy time for all of us, but particularly for our students who have been working on the assessments and projects for their courses.

This term I’ve been teaching the VR course for our undergraduate (BSc) students with the help of our newly refurbished VR lab and our two fantastic teaching assistants Tara Collingwoode-Williams (until she left for an internship at Facebook VR) and Rob Homewood (in between his freelance VR work for high profile studios like Marshmallow Laser Feast). I really have to thank both of them for the great teaching and pro insights they provided to the students.

But in this post I want to focus on the students and their projects. I think this year the projects have been the best ever. They got good support but the quality of their projects is really down to their creative ideas and a lot of hard work.

The students on the course came from several degree programmes ranging from computer science to digital arts computing and games programming to music computing. This shows in some of the diversity of the projects (though the students didn’t let themselves be stereotyped by their degree).

They were doing group projects in groups of 3–5 and this last week they were doing their final demoes. The projects had an open brief, in which they had to show technical development skills and an understanding of VR as a medium (which they did pretty well!)

The projects were really diverse, but I’ll try to show some main themes.

Games and Play

It shouldn’t be surprising that a lot of the projects were games or at least playful.

A Group of BSc Games Programming students came up with a a fun basketball/fairground hybrid. You use a gravity gun to suck up balls and fire them at nets or hoops, while trying to avoid moles that jump out of the ground and eat the balls. Its a bit hard to explain by pretty fun.

Another group also had a mechanic of throwing balls through hoops, but this time in a more educational context: because the hoops give the answers to maths problems.

VR Samurai involved defending yourself from missiles by cutting them with a samurai sword. They also had a mechanic, similar to SuperHot, where you used your other hand to slow down the movement of the missiles.

Another interesting type of game is a VR escape room, where you have to solve puzzles in a room to move onto the next one. Our group’s escape room involved a number of physics interactions including picking up and breaking vases, or popping balloons.

The games mostly involved some sort of physics interaction with direct movement mapping. One of the key benefits of VR is the ability to directly use the player’s movements as an interaction, and physics simulations complement this perfectly. There is a lot of fun in just picking up and throwing things in VR, which our projects exploited.

Simulations

This type of interaction is shown particularly well in simulation games. We had a couple of games, inspired by games like job simulator, in which you have to do various job-like tasks.

One group created a bar tender simulator, where you have to make drinks to order for robotic customers.

Another created a space kitchen, where you have to cook meals in a space ship galley.

Part of the fun in these games it trying to do your task, but there is also the opportunity for mayhem when things go wrong, either because of something that happens in the game or because you deliberately break the rules. In the bar game you can mix drinks but you can also throw bottles around, including at the jukebox to make it shut up if you don’t like the music. The space kitchen also has things that can go wrong, like gravity turning off, which make all of your cooking float around all over the place.

Meditation and…

Other projects were more about serious purpose than play and several addressed mental health or therapy.

This project aimed at creating a calm and meditative environment. You can wonder freely in a forest environment. It uses place illusion, the ability of VR to transport you to a different world, and thereby put you in a different mood.

Another project used a different forest in a similar way. They were looking at a particular application area: the stress and pain involved in medical interventions. VR has been shown to be an excellent method of pain relief, starting with ground breaking studies on burns victims. Though we don’t fully understand the reasons, it is likely to be a combination of distraction and the ability of VR to take us out of our current painful and stressful situation. The group aimed to create a VR experience for a specific, often stressful situation: medical injections. I, for one, am pretty phobic of needles, so I think this would be useful for me. Because an injection involves sitting still, the interaction needs to have limited body movements. They achieved this through a gaze based interaction: looking at particularly trees played various musical notes, and by doing several you can create a simple tune.

Both these examples create calm environments to help you relax and overcome negative emotions. The next project also deals with negative emotions, but in a different way…

Breakroom is a virtual environment where you can let out anger by smashing things. You are in a room with a lot of objects and can use several weapons (hammers, crowbars, pickaxes) to smash them. There are two environments, one is a basic room with a bunch of objects like pottery and stress balls. The other simulates a slick Apple Store with expensive high tech equipment to destroy.

I don’t really know about the therapeutic effectiveness, but it is definitely fun. Interestingly I noticed that it became a lot more satisfying the minute the team added sound to the smashing, that kind of experience is definitely multi-sensory.

Phobia

One area in which VR therapy has been very successful has been phobia. VR allow patients to gradually face their fears in a safe environment.

One of the most successful forms of VR phobia treatment has been fear of heights, because VR is excellent at creating a sense of height. One of our groups created a simulation of a high-rise city scene that lets you experience different height levels from the top of different buildings. It was a great looking experience, but I think that the real value of the graphics is augmenting the sense of height. There is a lot of visual detail to see down at street level, which helps you feel how far you are from it.

A screenshot can’t represent the fear this wall can create

Another project looked at another phobia: claustrophobia, the fear of confined spaces. The simulation of claustrophobia in VR is not as well known as fear of heights, but it can be very effective, because VR is good as simulating space. The experience involved an initially large space that gradually closed in on you with slowly moving walls. It is remarkably effective (as usual in VR screenshots and video can’t really represent it). As the room gets smaller the experience gets very stressful. The use of textured walls adds to the sense of enclosure.

None of the above

As ever, a few projects didn’t really fit any of my categories.

One group gave themselves the highly ambitious task of creating a social VR environment around music. The prototype integrated networking and audio into VR to create an environment that several people could share at the same time.

The last project has an original mechanic: taking photographs. You are exploring a beautiful, if slightly scary, magical forest. In front of you at all times is a camera-like target view. You can take photos of what you are looking at by pressing a trigger.

What is particularly interesting is that doing this in VR highlights the embodied way we take photos. You can crouch down or twist your body to get the shot form the perfect angle, just as you would with a physical camera.

Summing Up

So we have a very impressive set of projects. This is particularly true given that they were all done in such a short time (bit over a month). A lot of creativity and hard work has gone into the course.

I’ve tried to illustrate the work, but often static images, or even video can’t really show what it is like in VR. Given the short timeframe the projects often have fairly simple graphics, but as I’ve learned over the years, that is no obstacle to a compelling VR experience.

In some ways this work was made possible by great tools like unity which support creativity, but the students’ experience has also shown that VR development is still quite hard. There were lots of challenges getting code to work in a VR set up, not least of which was a lot of slow copying of large projects. Transferring projects from desktop to VR was never really smooth and the various platforms had their quirks. My general sense is that the Oculus Rift was relatively easy to develop for, with HTC VIVE being a bit more unreliable and the Oculus GO being a pain (though this assessment could be because I have more experience with the Rift as it is the platform I mostly develop on).

But, our students overcame these challenges and created great work. They’ve set a high standard for the future . I’m looking forward to see what happens next term in our Masters module (for student on our various Games and Computational Arts masters programmes) and then next year when we launch our masters in Virtual and Augmented Reality.