HTC Vive's mixed reality finally makes VR a spectator sport

Gamescom 2016: Now *this* is how we want to watch people in VR
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For VR enthusiasts there's something of a mantra. You'll hear it shared over drinks, murmured with a knowing glance or, occasionally, repeatedly patiently six or seven times to your parents: "Everyone loves VR, as soon as they get a chance to try it out."

The problem, sadly, is that watching someone else in VR just doesn't do it justice. If there's no screen to mirror what they're looking at, you're just sat watching somebody wave their arms around. Even if you can see a screen, the wobbles and shakes you see watching someone else experience VR in first person can be off-putting: it looks like it'll make you sick. If you don't try it, you're unlikely to buy in.

It's not just the fans that have noticed. The team marketing the HTC Vive have picked up on it, too.

"When you're viewing someone else's live feed in VR, it's got this strange Blair Witch style shaky-cam effect going on." said Ryan Hoopingarner, director of product marketing for HTC's VR division. "So, for the last year we've been up against this question: How do you tell somebody what VR is all about without actually putting the headset on them?"

Real camera, virtual camera

By Hoopingarner's own admission, HTC has spent the last twelve months trying to put the headset on as many people as possible, with appearances at most of the major worldwide tech and game shows. For a few weeks they even took over a warehouse in East London, paying actors to dress up as zombies and bellow blood-flecked spittle at visitors as a prelude to playing Arizona Sunshine. HTC really wants you to try room-scale VR with the Vive, because they know that as soon as you try out their holodeck, you'll be hooked.

Read this: Don't let crappy mobile VR put you off

But what if you didn't need to strap on a Vive to get a better sense of the experiences you might be able to have with one? That's where its new Mixed Reality set up comes in, devised by Northway Games and Radial Games, the partnership behind Vive launch title Fantastic Contraption.

"They would take a controller and turn it into a virtual camera." said Hoopingarner. "Suddenly they had control of what you were viewing so you didn't have to view the experience in this moving, shaky head camera."

HTC Vive's mixed reality finally makes VR a spectator sport

This in-game set up is coupled with a fantastic contraption of a different kind. Set in front of a greenscreen (which at AMD's Gamescom booth is actually a very on-brand red) is a HTC Vive touch controller mounted to the top of a camera, which in this case is affixed to the top of a tripod. This, plus a few connectors and a capture card, allows the team at HTC to put me into the game.

"You have the real world camera capturing the real world individual and the remote control virtual camera capturing the virtual world. Then you transpose any other green screen footage. You take the two and blend them together. Here we're using a tripod, fixing you, but you can take it handheld and do it real time live as well."

Twitch and YouTube gamers need this

What does the finished product look like? Well, here's me playing Space Pirate Trainer, dancing between virtual flashes of white-hot death. Nothing in the scene barring me is real, but despite a tiny bit of image distortion, it looks the part.

For the player, running mixed reality is completely negligible so you won't even notice it's going. For the viewer, the experience of spectating is increased tenfold: this sort of mixed reality represents a chance to show potential buyers not merely how they might look with a Vive strapped to their face (the answer is, and always will be, quite dorky) but of the adventures they could be having once they're inside the matrix.

It's not just embedded into a handful of games, either. Mixed reality is being pushed out at the engine level of VR games and experiences developed in Unity and the Unreal Engine, meaning if it's developed in either engine, it will only take what Hoopingarner describes as "very light engineering effort" on the part of the developer to enable mixed reality.

For HTC and the developers working on VR games, it's a marketing tool. You can watch the footage and see someone experiencing room-scale virtual reality as if you are watching them inside the game. We play games for escapism, and watching people shoot down drones, tackle robots with swords or fight off zombies is a powerful marketing image that really shows why you should pick up a certain headset or even a certain game.

For users of Twitch and YouTube though, it's a big opportunity. Virtual reality has been a tough obstacle for streamers to overcome, in a world where the gameplay of a title isn't as interesting as the reaction of your favourite gamer while they're playing it.

Letting the player maintain that connection with their audience by showing how they're reacting and interacting with the virtual world around them is going to be a real draw. And, when the battle to reach potential buyers in the video games world often comes down to the YouTube trenches, HTC could have just come up with its own secret weapon.


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Award winning (& losing) journalist. Sporadic game designer, unreliable narrator.

Jake is a commissioning editor at NME and has worked for Trusted Reviews and MCV.

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