Motion in VR has always been a tricky prospect; there’s a battle between the desire for between fluid, realistic motion, and nausea-inducing flight-like movement that can create. As someone who has trouble with 3D movies, I was skeptical that virtual reality would reach the point in my lifetime where I could sink into the experience and enjoy walking around. I’m so, so happy to have been proven wrong.
The first thing to consider when thinking about movement in a VR game is where the player will be. It’s easier to tackle this when the player stays in one spot, like with an Oculus Rift or one of the many other headsets designed for a stationary experience. The player sits or stands in a single location and uses a traditional video game controller to move around the environment. In this case, the most that moves is a player’s head. There’s definitely still a lot of immersion, and a lot of fun to be had, with this variety, but something is always missing for me. Not being able to stand up, move around, or touch things with my hands makes suspension of disbelief that much harder. Playing a game in a headset designed this way feels more like being in a 360-degree video.
Two major developers, Oculus and HTC, have gone to the next level with movement. Thanks to special cameras and controllers, these headsets track your movement and encourage you to interact with your environment. That means you can walk around, poke at and pick up items, and peer over and under objects. You’re given a rectangle, often the size of a full room, that moves with you and lets you interact with a space that feels real. It takes you from looking through a window at another world to actually being there. Game developers are still testing out various ways to move beyond the limits of your room, though, which takes us to…
THE UGLY (and why it’s about to be beautiful)
Most players express concerns about motion sickness before they try VR. Luckily, modern virtual reality games have combated this with high frame rates, low latency, and movement methods like “teleportation,” the current most popular method for moving longer distances in VR. I’ve never personally experienced motion sickness while using a virtual reality system… save for once. My nemesis is the “free movement” style motion used most notably in the Minecraft mod for VR. It sends you careening over the environment, your head spinning and your body struggling to keep up. Luckily, the developers seem to know that’s an issue; they give you a setting option to move by teleportation instead. I expected to have these problems with free movement and flying styles of motion; there’s a good reason most game developers are trying to avoid them. What I didn’t expect was to already have a fix for that.
Just recently, Google Earth released a VR app. It has all the data and standard satellite images from classic Google Earth, with an extra selection of sites around the world that have been enhanced for walking over and through them in virtual reality. Their method of movement is flying. But it works. Here’s the trick: by giving you what Google is calling “tunnel vision” while you fly, and graying out your peripheral vision, you’re momentarily removed from the world. Rather than the sick feeling of being flung forward, it’s like you’re looking out a glass-bottomed airplane, watching the world go by and deciding where you want to land. It’s absolutely brilliant. VR is already amazing, and it’s only getting better. The little innovations like this prove that it can be just that much smoother, more comfortable, and more real.