Last week I posted my thoughts on three components that are important to VR game design: the Bubble, the Proxy, and the Controller. Originally I planned to run through three demos in this week’s post. However, the resulting post was way too long and shortening it wouldn’t allow me to do each demo justice. I’ve decided to instead space my thoughts out over three posts, one for each demo experience. The others will come later this week.
First, I need to establish that each experience I’m reviewing is a demo, not a finished product. Demos are incomplete experiences that a game designer releases for early feedback and testing. The designer may already have or be planning to implement changes and additional features, and the final experience may be dramatically different than what I played. I’m evaluating how each demo uses or doesn’t use the three design elements I established last week to contribute to future VR experience design.
Today’s post will focus on Ocean Rift, a neat demo from Dr. Llyr ap Cenydd at the Bangor University School of Computer Science. You can learn more about Llyr on his blog and also read about the latest updates to his projects. Llyr developed Ocean Rift in a game engine called Unity.
An Overview of Ocean Rift
This was one of the first demos I played after receiving my Oculus Rift DK2 and one of the earliest to be updated with DK2 compatibility. It simulates scuba diving. You start in shallow water among crabs, fish, eels, and whales, and can move into deeper water with bubbling volcanic vents and, eventually, a giant shark. Even though I knew the shark was coming, it still made me jump when it chomped me.
I really enjoyed this experience and it was a great intro to virtual reality in the Rift. Some highlights:
- Seeing an eel for the first time. The movement was extremely convincing.
- Watching air bubbles from my “breath” appear in from of my “scuba mask”.
- Hearing a whale song, then turning to find a whale swimming leisurely in the distance.
This is a really cool demo, but unfortunately, I never felt a sense of Presence. I’ll call out why below.
When diving you wear a heavy mask. The Rift, by no coincidence, is a heavy mask. The designer choose an experience where the hardware you wear supports the experience rather than fighting it, which was smart. Any time a designer can make what you feel match what you see, it aids in establishing Presence.
Setting the experience underwater was also a good decision. Fish and other underwater animals have less visual detail and simpler natural movements than humans, making them easier and less complicated to convincingly animate. It’s also relatively straightforward for an engine like Unity to render a convincing seafloor. Finally, “swimming” lets you move over or under objects in a believable manner.
Where Ocean Rift’s Bubble suffers is because the experience clashes constantly with physical reality. You aren’t swimming – you know this from the fact you are sitting in a chair in a room, rather than being immersed in cold water. Your feelings of physical existence never match what you’re seeing in the Rift and this fights strongly against Presence.
The designer added air bubbles that routinely float by just in front of your “scuba mask”, bubbles you “breathe out”. The air bubbles help immerse you in the environment, especially when you time your breathing to match. The contrast between where your “mask” is, the air bubbles, and the scenery in the distance also enhances the perception of depth and makes the experience more believable. Often, the best perception of depth in the Rift comes from having objects at different distances for comparison.
However, other than the air bubbles, the demo version of Ocean Rift I played is missing any sort of Proxy. If you look down at yourself there’s nothing there – no body – so looking at yourself immediately breaks Presence. The combination of not feeling the water in which I see myself immersed and having no body was an insurmountable obstacle for me in ever feeling Presence in this demo.
The demo suggests a standard XBox Controller to move about. While the demo is easy to navigate with that method, unfortunately, using a controller doesn’t fit the experience of scuba diving at all. Every time I moved the joystick to “turn” my invisible body, or hit a trigger to swim up and down, it reminded me I was watching an ocean inside a VR helmet, not actually there. It felt jarring and robotic.
The movement was also disorientingly binary at times – rather than looking around naturally, I would “rotate” at a steady rate left or right as I pushed the joystick. This isn’t how we swim and my body knows that. In order to really look around I couldn’t just turn my head. I had to use the joystick to “turn” my body mechanically then look around from there. This constantly broke Presence.
How Can Ocean Rift Better Establish Presence?
In my opinion, the best way to improve Ocean Rift would be to convert it a submersible simulation, rather than a scuba diving simulation. Nothing need change but the Bubble and Proxy.
Regarding the Bubble, wrapping a submarine around the player with a chair in it would provide a visible barrier between you and the cold water, making your other senses match what you’re seeing in the Rift and aiding Presence. Your body can believe it is inside an air-conditioned submarine, but not cold water.
Regarding the Proxy, adding a body in a wetsuit sitting in a chair would drastically increase Presence. Even without animations, looking down and seeing a wetsuit clad body would go a long way toward increasing the sense that I’m piloting an underwater submersible, not wearing a VR headset. Sitting in a chair matches what I’m doing in real life, and I’d see myself doing that when I looked down in the Rift.
Finally, regarding the Controller, wrapping a sub around me would allow me to use the joystick to control something that makes sense (a submarine). I could turn the sub and increase or decrease depth with the joystick in a mechanical way while I look around (and presumably out the generously sized windows) in a natural way, using my Rift headset as my primary input device. All of this would feel completely natural and could easily establish and maintain Presence.
Ocean Rift is an excellent experience and ultimately, how it proceeds is up to the designer. Everything I’ve called out is just feedback. However, I hope my deconstruction provides insight into how I think about designing VR experiences and will give other designers food for though.
Next up, I’ll be providing the same thoughts on Radial-G, a really fun rollercoaster/racing simulator. Expect that post in a few days. As always, feedback is welcome.