The first time I tried the Oculus Rift it was in a small room in the middle of the show floor at E3, the annual gaming expo. It was 2012 and I was sat with John Carmack, a game programming icon and early virtual reality engineer. After being hit with some very technical chat about how this headset that looked like it had been put together in a garage was going to be one of the biggest things to happen to gaming, I spent a couple of minutes playing Doom 3 in VR.
It blew me away. I was convinced even in that short space of time that this was the future. I felt the immersion Carmack said the prototype Rift headset would deliver. But I also felt that had the world itself felt a little more realistic it would've done an even better job of fooling the senses.
Fast forward to 2016, the Rift is no longer a prototype and has been joined by our VR Headset of the Year the HTC Vive and its highly commended runner up, the PlayStation VR. I've spent a decent amount of time with all three of these high end headsets now dipping in and out of games, experiences, animated shorts and it's still mindblowing to think that because these headsets are on sale more people can experience just how special it is. It's also hard not to focus on anything that breaks the VR illusion, particularly the virtual environments that cannot be made without a lot of time, resources and money. In short, it still seemed to me that building convincing worlds was crucial to my enjoyment of VR.
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That perception changed when I, along with several members of the Wareable team discovered a little PlayStation VR game by the name of Headmaster. The indie title is as basic as a game you can find on VR right now but it is the absolute king of repeat plays in the office.
You've probably got something similar tucked away in an app folder on your smartphone or bookmarked on your computer. The premise is simple; head footballs (or a soccer ball for our US friends) towards a series of targets to score points across a host of different environments. Think Flick Kick football but for your head and you get the idea.
There's certainly no jaw dropping visuals to draw you away from your challenge. It's a limited world with decent if not spellbinding graphics but that becomes insignificant as we all quickly found out. I've stayed late in the office many a times to put in game time on Headmaster. Many a lunch time has been lost to it. So, what is the root to our Headmaster addiction? There was a clear consensus why. It wasn't just down to our unified love of football. It was something that can be easily overlooked in the realms of VR: game physics.
If you can't build a beautiful, all encompassing VR world, then focus on working on the element that you can make more lifelike. That's what the folks at Frame Interactive have done and it really does pull it off. You do feel like you're heading a ball (or a ping pong ball or a rubbish bag) and your approach to making contact as it's being fired out you does matter.
Simulating the physics of heading a football in such a sophisticated way served as a reminder of how creating that realism is about more than just fooling the eyes with lifelike visuals. I am not a brain connected to a pair of eyes, I have limbs and muscles and joints. That means it's also about replicating how you interact with that world. And while it might seem like an obvious thing to think about, (and it does depend on the accuracy of controllers/ head tracking) there's only really a handful of experiences so far - VR Fun House, Job Simulator - I can think of that really achieve this.
I realise now that I was consumed by the idea that VR needed to deliver on the visual front to bring things to life. Headmaster has changed that. If you're picking up a VR headset for the first time, my advice is don't dismiss some of the more basic-looking experiences out there. You might just be surprised how well it gives you that immersive feeling.
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