Of all the early demos I played on my Oculus DK2, Titans of Space was absolutely the most polished. Its designer really “gets” the process of designing for VR and making an experience accessible to all. This is a demo I would point to as a template for others to follow. While it isn’t a game (it’s more of an educational experience) I still felt a sense of Presence throughout, and the interface was optimized for VR in a way I hadn’t seen in any other demos.
Titans of Space was developed by Drash, an independent developer who has worked on a number of different projects including Titans of Space. You can check out his blog, DrashVR, for additional thoughts on VR development and other topics. You can also follow him on Twitter.
As with the other two demos I’ve reviewed, I want to again stress that I am reviewing an unfinished product and that the designer may already be planning or have made additional changes since I played through this experience. Game design is an iterative process and I’m examining Titans of Space in regards to how it hits the Three Components of VR Game Design I laid out in an earlier post.
Titans of Space
Having recently watched Neil Degrasse Tyson’s latest version of Cosmos, the “Ship of the Imagination” is the first thing that popped into my head when I started playing this demo. A “virtual tour of our solar system”, Titans of Space places you in a reasonably sized spacecraft and flies you (on auto-pilot) from planet to planet in the solar system. You can examine each planet up close and also review facts and trivia about them if you so choose. It was easy to play and extremely immersive. Highlights:
- Seeing a prompt inside that ship that said something like “Inertialess drive provided for your comfort”. While it was a nice tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that I wouldn’t feel acceleration, it was also a small step toward maintaining Presence. Suspension of disbelief.
- Looking around the spacecraft itself. I had a clear view of the space ahead and around me, but when looking down I saw the floor of my craft, my seat, and even my body in a spacesuit. It rivaled the Oculus “desk” demo in making me feel teleported to a real physical space.
- You actually leave the solar system after hitting the planets and go beyond to see some very interesting comparisons of scale. Without spoilers, these comparisons were my favorite part of the demo.
I maintained a strong sense of Presence throughout this experience. It really felt like sitting down in a spacecraft and touring the solar system. I’ll break down why I feel the experience worked so well below.
The Bubble in Titans of Space matched up exactly with my real world existence. I was sitting in a chair, in a small space, looking around – except while playing this demo, I was in a spaceship. While I wouldn’t endorse making *every* VR experience the exact same thing, I felt comfortably contained in my spaceship while still being able to look in any direction I wished. The presence of a visible “floor” to my spacecraft made the space (and my virtual chair/body) feel real and grounded. The vehicle I used to move around and its interior were perfectly suited to the experience and this is why this demo did such a great job of maintaining Presence.
Titans of Space provides a spacesuit clad body attached to my head in just the right place, with an easy way to calibrate my position if it isn’t. When I looked down I saw my body and this kept me in the world. My spacesuit was bulky, without visible skin or even a visible body shape, so it would likely work for a wide variety of viewers. Its hands were resting on its lap, which, had I been using a controller (an option but not required) would also have matched the position of my real world hands. So even in cases where the demo can’t track the position of my hands, the developer took a good guess at where they might be.
Having a body, one I could even start to believe might be my own, did a great job of keeping me in the world and making me feel like I’d truly been transported somewhere else.
Titans of Space makes *heavy* use of the Oculus DK2 to configure the experience and control it once the tour begins, and this, more than anything, was actually what I found the most immersive. The webpage for Titans of Space boasts that you can control the entire experience (barring a few optional features) with only the headset, and this is correct. This is the best VR interface I’ve yet encountered.
In-game menu text is displayed on floating screens on the walls of my spaceship, easy to read and focus on (at least with the DK2). I accomplish menu navigation using what is essentially a laser pointer that projects a small red dot wherever I happen to be looking. To adjust any option (language, recalibration of headset position, speed, tour length) I simply focus on a “target” icon beside the option I wish to change with the laser pointer. After a second or so of steady focus (to avoid ticking by mistake) it ticks to the next option in line.
This is a slick experience that feels very, very natural. Focusing on where I put the laser pointer and receiving in-game feedback is the most immersive experience I’ve yet had, probably because it focuses my brain on a task within the virtual environment and draws me into the experience. This is in direct contrast to fumbling with a mouse or keyboard I can’t see or using a controller, both of which draw me out of the experience.
Navigation once the tour begins works the same way. I simply look at the button I want to press to advance to the next location or read a bit of trivia with the laser pointer providing guidance. This allows me to focus on the experience of flying through the solar system, looking at planets, asteroids, and suns, without ever being distracted by anything outside the experience. It allows me to really be drawn in and wowed by what this demo does extremely well – providing a sense of scale, and creating a real sense of wonder about our solar system and beyond.
The first time I flew into orbit around Jupiter, for example, I realized just how incredibly massive it was in relation to the planets I’ve previously visited. When I saw the difference in sizes between our sun and others, I really understood the massive scale of stars in a way I never had before. By the time the tour was finished I was in true awe of our solar system and the areas beyond. It was a truly memorable experience and the best VR experience I’ve had yet.
How Can Titans of Space Better Establish Presence?
There honestly isn’t much to be done here. This demo set out to provide a specific experience (riding a spaceship through the solar system) and hit that experience on practically all cylinders. It’s immersive, memorable, and accessible. The design of all three elements (Bubble, Proxy, and Controller) are top notch.
If I had to suggest enhancements, I’d like to see the user provided with a set of possible Proxies (male or female, taller, skinnier, rounder, and so on) so that anyone could feel like the body in the seat of the spaceship was truly theirs. While the bulky spacesuit works well, it would feel even more immersive if I could make it into a Proxy closer to my own body shape.
Also, not a lot goes on between planets, and the travel experience is rather uneventful. So providing some action during travel would be interesting. Perhaps micrometeorites impact on the “glass” of my spaceship as I travel, and I watch as tiny robots crawl along the surface and repair it. Or, as I speed through the rings of Saturn, dust and ice particles collect on the glass. While we all know sound doesn’t travel in space, adding the roar of my engine as I accelerate and decelerate or some sort of sci-fi “thrum” as I orbit would also help. Maybe even a cheesy “sonar” sound as I orbit planets, a Star Trek reference.
Titans of Space is well-designed, easy for anyone to use, and incredibly immersive. I’d suggest any game developer developing for VR play it, as this design (particularly the menu setup) is the type of thing I want to see in every VR experience I play in the future. I could sit anyone down with a Rift and this tour, gamer or not, and really give them a true sense of how amazing and immersive VR is going to be.
Moving forward, experiences like Titans of Space are going to be the Killer Apps of VR.