One of my favourite early VR experiences was “SightLine”, an Oculus experience where the VR world around you changed as you looked around. Its creator, Tomáš Mariančík, is presenting at VR/AR With The Best this weekend and was kind enough to take some time to share his experience bringing others into his imagination with VR. Here are seven tips I gathered from our chat.
Everyone tends to get into virtual reality for different reasons. Different things lure in different people and I find it fascinating to see what people love most about it! For Tomáš, virtual reality is a literal, unfiltered pathway for others to enter his imagination —
“What I love about developing for VR is that it literally allows others to step into your imagination.” — Tomáš Mariančík
He goes on to elaborate — “I love imagining and thinking about various fictional worlds and scenarios, but also the real world (what’s happening on different scales) or abstract concepts. With VR, I can transform those ideas into a virtual world that gets its own life and that other people can interact from within.”
When Tomáš first started getting into the field, resources were scarce as the technology was still incredibly early in its revival. Tomáš struggled to find support and resources as “almost nobody trusted the new technology”. In the end, he put as much time and energy as he could into it, allowing his quality work to bring the attention and resources he needed —
“What helped me a lot was just putting every bit of time into experimenting with the medium, buildings things and participating in VR jams and just putting my work out there. That eventually brought some attention to my work and funding.” — Tomáš Mariančík
There is a valuable lesson here for developers out there who are just getting started — just build things. Get your hands dirty. Go to hackathons, get involved with the VR community and make cool things. Success can follow from there. Not only that, but resources and support for VR developers are much more plentiful these days than they were when Tomáš got started.
Virtual reality is an entirely new medium which is largely unexplored territory for the community as a whole. As Nikki van Sprundel put it earlier this year, “The way we use VR isn’t yet set in stone […], we still have a lot of freedom to experiment. If nothing is ‘right’ yet, nothing you can do is wrong either.” Tomáš had a similar experience when starting out — the problem of finding the best/right way to use this new medium, or as he says “learning what works and what doesn’t”. However, this isn’t an insurmountable challenge. It just takes time. “I think learning that is just matter of time, so putting that time into it is most important.”
If you are still new to VR, keep this quote from Tomáš in mind:
“You can’t just copy what you’d do on a computer screen and expect good results.” — Tomáš Mariančík
It is a new medium. With new rules. New expectations. New possibilities and new unexplored paths still to be tread down before we know quite what is right and what is wrong. Make mistakes. Most of all, avoid just taking a desktop/mobile app and pasting it into VR. Find something which truly works in the VR medium. That builds upon what is possible when you can completely immerse someone in a whole new world.
My favourite example of this from Tomáš’ work is SightLine. In SightLine, the VR world around you changes every time you look away at something else in the scene. Turn your head once, then look back and something has moved. A new object has appeared. Or a whole new scene has started to shift into view. It remains one of my favourite early VR experiences — for good reason!
“I got the initial idea right after I backed the DK1 on Kickstarter and was thinking about how would I use the headset. I was thinking about the fact that the worlds you build for VR can “break” the laws of physics in a sense. You’re restricted by the computational resources of the hardware, but the worlds you build don’t have to necessarily behave the same like ours does.
So I was thinking in which ways the laws of physics could be “broken” and I got the idea to have lacking object permanence, have the entire world change around you as you look around. One reason is that it also ties to human psychology, because object permanence is one of the very first things our brains learn during their development, so having a world which breaks that expectation seemed like a good mind-bending experience.”
I love that entire thought process. It’s the best example yet of the sort of next level thinking virtual reality developers need to have. Think outside the box. Outside the realm of typical possibilities. The VR apps which do that will be the ones which stick in people’s minds and show them the true potential of VR. It’s incredibly exciting!
Here’s one quote from Tomáš that really brings this one home:
“Imagine if what you are building was an environment, device, vehicle, object or tool that actually existed in the real world. Would it feel practical and fun to use? Would it feel safe and comfortable (unless you’re making a horror game)? If you had the power to make anything happen with pure thought in the real world what would you do? Try working from that mindset.”
“A lot of things you might be used to when developing games and apps on a screen just don’t work or make people sick and uncomfortable. Comfort is important above all in VR.” — Tomáš Mariančík
Copying things straight from the desktop/mobile screen environment can even create entirely negative results in virtual reality. Please don’t make your users sick and unwell. Read up on best practices in virtual reality. Be cautious and responsible. You can still go wild and explore the possibilities of the medium, just be aware of how your world impacts those within it. Get people to test your prototypes and see how they react. Make sure they’re comfortable and happy. Unless you’re building a horror game or a rollercoaster. Then go wild. I guess. To an extent at least.
Tomáš gets into some really complex areas that look unbelievably overwhelming to me. He has looked at light-fields, volumetric MRI visualisations… way beyond the typical Unity prototype app! However, as intimidating and overwhelming as some of that can seem, it really brings home a lesson which I’ve picked up from a lot of VR devs — learn more than just VR and dev stuff. Don’t just learn that area. Go beyond and use entirely new concepts in these experiences. Tomáš seems to have the right idea, as when I mentioned all this to him, he said,
“I generally love learning as much as I can about other fields, like biology, physics and mathematics. There’s a lot of ideas and concepts that transfer to computer science and give you a richer mental repertoire for tackling different problems, especially ones that you can’t just Google the solution for, because nobody has tackled them before, at least not in the same form, but also help you understand the internals of how the tools and hardware you are using work under the hood.
More generally, it’s about being able to work with information efficiently, know how and where to search for the right pieces and put them all into something bigger. Then it comes down to just tinkering and playing with stuff to get the feel for things.”
Just do it. Get into VR and experiment. Learn about other fields too and see whether the two can compliment each other. It goes back to the last point — the more you know about fields from this world, the more you might find rules you can break or concepts you can push to new limits. Who knows what fantastic stuff you’ll create!
Virtual reality isn’t necessarily an isolated world that someone locks themselves into. It can be social. Others can join in and collaborate with you. Keep that in mind when coming up with ideas. Tomáš’ next big project sounds like it is just that — big. But it involves collaboration. It’s best if I let him explain it as I don’t think I could do it justice!
“Neos is a very ambitious project of mine and has a lot of layers, so it’s a bit difficult to describe in its entirety. The gist of it is that it’s a system designed to power metaverse experiences and make building them much easier. The computing and development tools have been through many layers of abstraction, from hardwired computers, assembly languages to progressively higher level languages, frameworks and whole engines, each time allowing us to build more with less time and lowering the entry bar for new builders, because they solved a set of common problems in a generic way and allowed people to shift more of their focus on what they were actually building.
A big part of Neos is taking the next step in that direction, creating a new layer of abstraction that allows you to better focus on building the actual experiences and less on the tedious repetitive bits. The biggest part of that is networking. To have a proper metaverse, whatever you build should be automatically networked without you having to even think about it, so anyone can join over the internet and interact as if you were in the same physical space. In fact, the building of content itself should be networked as well.
Another big part of Neos is actually building a set of tools and concepts within the system that are designed for VR from the ground up and not just the same tools pulled from a computer screen.
What it aims to do is essentially be like a collaborative game engine/editor for VR, giving you freedom to build any kind of application, experience, virtual tool or device from within VR and with other people.”
When creating VR experiences, it’s always tempting to develop most of it without putting on the headset. Putting a headset on and off can be time consuming and a little tedious at times when you’re really getting into the flow of things, but it can make all the difference and save you some time when it comes to checking whether the scale of your project is right. Build using real world units. Tomáš says, “keep the scale right and keep checking how whatever you are building looks in VR. It often looks okay on a screen, but then in VR you can immediately see that it’s wrong. A street might be too large or a person too small. Building everything using real world units makes things much simpler, because if you try to eyeball things you’ll get it wrong and then you have to rebuild everything.”
Don’t let the staggering possibilities of the new medium scare you off. Or let that procrastination kick in and keep that Oculus/Vive/Cardboard/Gear VR/Daydream headset packed away. Try building for it with an open mind, like Tomáš did with SightLine, and see what happens. Even building the simplest of VR applications is an incredible experience I’ve seen open many developers’ eyes. I’ll leave you with one final quote from Tomáš:
“Don’t be afraid to tackle this new medium with open mind. It’s full of exciting possibilities and applications that wouldn’t make sense without it.” — Tomáš Mariančík
Thank you so much to Tomáš for sharing his insight as a virtual reality guru! His work continues to inspire me to think bigger and make more stuff! Make sure you check out his website and follow him on Twitter over at @Frooxius. If you haven’t tried SightLine and his other works, you really should! Also, if you haven’t got a ticket for VR With The Best yet, it’s on this weekend and available to watch from anywhere in the world! Get your ticket here and use the coupon code devdiner to get 50% off. You can even book in time to speak one on one with Tomáš himself!