Oculus formally unveiled the Oculus Quest last month. It’s a 6DoF (6 degrees of freedom) standalone headset, meaning no tethers and no external computer. Yet it has essentially all the same features and capability as the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. At $400, the Quest and similarly priced standalones like the upcoming Vive Focus make VR relatively affordable compared to the current cost of a VR rig, which can easily run $2,000 once you include the necessary computer. If things go as Oculus hopes, expect the Quest to sell like hotcakes come spring.
The real story is everything this news opens up. Unlike first generation VR systems like the Vive and Oculus Rift, these new headsets could work anywhere, like public parks, arenas, or office buildings.
Obviously, there are major risks associated with players walking around in VR in public spaces, even if they’re engaging in limited room-scale experiences like Superhot. There are safety issues for them and other people, mostly regarding collisions. Right now, these same legal and health issues exist for first generation VR, but are circumvented by the reality that the requisite hardware, access to power outlets, and time required to set up a Vive of Rift means whoever is operating one in a public space probably has permission to do so — for example, demos at conferences, VR arcades, and so on.
The risks of worldscale VR
These same restrictions do not apply to 6DoF standalones. We’re likely to see a spate of news stories of people accidentally running into fountains or benches or whatever while using VR in public spaces. Let’s hope nothing worse occurs. The same kind of public discussions and policy challenges posed by flying drones or shared electric scooters or insert tech craze here might occur as a result.
The very first review video I watched of the Vive Focus, a 6DoF standalone out in China (but not the U.S. yet), featured people running around in a field.
Is worldscale VR wise?
At SixerVR.com, my cofounder Jeremy Kirshbaum and I have been creating experiences for the Vive Focus for the past few months, mostly focusing on worldscale games. These games leverage large, conventional open spaces (soccer fields, for instance) to create huge virtual environments for players to explore. There’s been a lot of research and design for arenas and pre-designated playspaces (Dead and Buried at OC 5, for instance). But arenas require a much more extensive setup than simply going to a park and playing a game.
Below is a mixed reality video of our first prototype, called Return to Grindelind. (We have no plans to bring this game to market; this article isn’t about promoting or trying to sell anything). The prototype was designed to fit a football field.
One of the reasons we built the prototype was to test whether worldscale VR is actually worth all the trouble it poses. Yes, worldscale VR games require the player has access to a large open space. And, being in a public space, we often had friends “spotting” us, to make sure we wouldn’t walk into objects or that strangers wouldn’t do whatever strangers might do to someone wandering around in their own world.
Despite the challenges, we found that the user experience and feel of worldscale VR is transformatively different than conventional 6DoF. Walking tetherlessly is more than just a mechanical capability. The ability to see a far off thing and simply go toward it makes the virtual feel all the more real; a castle a half-mile away is actually a half mile away. When you take off the headset, you almost feel that the virtual environment is still there, albeit invisible. In my experience, worldscale brings VR immersion to a new level.
Will we see it in the future?
We’ll have to see whether other designers and the public feel the benefits outweigh the risk, or if worldscale VR will be relegated to prebuilt and designed arenas. Perhaps new forms of public spaces will emerge. There are other, far more lightweight solutions; the very same technology that makes inside-out tracking possible (the front-facing camera array on the standalone headsets) can warn players if there’s any object immediately in front of them. This approach would basically be an updated version of first generation VR’s “you’re approaching the edge of your capture zone” warning.
All risks aside, as long as the playspace is empty, playing a well-designed worldscale VR game on a well-maintained soccer field is no more dangerous than playing roomscale at home, which posed similar, although simpler, risks (namely, stubbed toes on bookshelves and crashing into walls). However worldscale VR evolves, this conversation — around using VR in public spaces, design responsibilities, and social etiquette — is one we need to start having now, before the epic fail videos start rolling in.
Alexander Goldman and Jeremy Kirshbaum run SixerVR.com, a VR prototyping lab and futures strategy consultancy that helps organizations understand the power and potential of new media formats. Their backgrounds include game design, corporate consulting, UX research, futures thinking, and more.