The thorny subject of locomotion in VR experiences crops up with every major release. On the Road to VR team there are people who have cast-iron VR legs and people who can’t handle more intense sessions. Both groups seem to have weathered Lone Echo without much discomfort or complaint, which is interesting for a movement scheme which, not more than a year ago in VR’s rapidly developing timeline, would have inspired thoughts of instant nausea. Whilst the game defaults to a more comfortable setting, there are options to allow full freedom of movement and rotation for people that want a no compromise experience.
Was the Lone Echo movement system and its defaults a reaction to community feedback, we wondered, or perhaps a reflection of lessons learned from other experiences such as Adr1ft (2016)? Weerasuriya doesn’t hesitate to answer. “We went our own way from day one. That locomotion system was what started the project in 2015, so we hadn’t seen anything in VR yet and we didn’t know what would work and what wouldn’t.”
From my conversation with Weerasuriya, it seems that Ready At Dawn are taking the long view.
“I remember people being nauseous just playing a 3D game for the first time on a TV. But now, 20 years later, we don’t even think twice. So for us, we saw Adr1ft come out, but we didn’t try that locomotion. I don’t want to say that we knew better than them, but just theoretically we already knew that was gonna be a problem. We’d thought about the different kinds of movement model. What we found out was that there was potentially a future for that, but we need years of people being comfortable in VR to get there. So as a first step, we decided that we would [do it differently].”
This isn’t to say that they avoided complete freedom of movement, in fact, Lone Echo has the player covering lots of
ground space, with the ability to move very fast.
“We did it in a way where we’ve added more extreme options, but they still feel comfortable to people. Surprisingly so. Even the last few days showing at the event in San Francisco, we had some people saying ‘I’m not very comfortable in VR’ and these same people jumped into their first game of [Lone Echo’s multiplayer spinoff] and were immediately moving around at speeds they couldn’t imagine. If I had told them how fast they were going they’d be like ‘are you kidding me?!’ but they were comfortable. Even after the headset came off, there was no moment of feeling nauseous.” A conclusion echoed by us here at Road to VR.
“I think the movement model helps the brain lie to itself. Because of the fact that we emulate the distance from the hand to the eye, we do things that people expect and that the brain expects to work correctly. I put my hand out, I pull, and my body moves in that direction.” A feat matched by Crytek’s The Climb with equal success albeit in more relatable surroundings. “Although in reality I don’t [move], my brain tells me that’s exactly what should happen. The velocity of pushing off of something feels right. As soon as the brain can lie to itself almost, I feel right. Your brain’s lying to your inner ear, that’s how we look at it.”
That the game largely succeeds in making 3D spaces in zero-G navigable—and more than that, fun to navigate—is no easy feat; locomotion that’s comfortable, immersive, and still offers such freedom is a big step forward for VR.
The Future of VR and Echo Arena
With Lone Echo and Echo Arena (the game’s multiplayer spinoff) completed and launched, thoughts inevitably turn to the future and what directions technology might take. Weerasuriya warms instantly to the subject.
“It would be awesome to get more sensory feeling in your fingers. Fingers have an unbelievable way of detecting anything. The cold, the hot, a breeze blowing by. Things with a different kind of texture, whether it’s a hard surface or soft. Imagine that if you’re in our game and walking around and you touch metal and it’s a little colder than if you put your hand on Liv’s shoulder. Wow! That actually feels like a human being. Those things are things that we take for granted in the real world. How amazing would it be if you got that much sensory input coming from [a VR controller like Touch], and your brain is completely fooled into thinking these things are real. That would be awesome. I wanna get there.”
A nice, easy target to set for the guys and gals building the next generation VR platforms then! For Weerasuriya, however, the future is only indirectly to be decided by developers. It’s the players first and foremost who will steer the industry’s direction.
“They are the people who will define what VR is going to be. For us that came when people started playing Toybox. People playing in a social environment, passing each other toys and all that. And that came not even one year through the project.”
Anyone that has played in a social VR space couldn’t help but agree. From Toybox to Rec Room to Pool Nation to Racket: Nx, there are examples of feeling an uncanny closeness to a person often represented in extremely abstract visual forms. With impressive levels of virtual embodiment and some great looking IK, Echo Arena manages the same.
“That’s what started Echo Arena,” Weerasuriya said. “It came out of a full five day game jam that we had at work that basically ended up spawning a different path to the game, and building Echo Arena and Lone Echo at the same time with a split team.”
Now that both paths have been travelled, and the games are out in the wild, how does it feel?
“The true measure of VR for me personally has been since we started the beta. I sat in the lobbies of the beta, just watching people and their interactions. The amazing thing that actually happened is that you realise that VR is about community. It’s unbelievable to see a community of people that are now emoting as avatars… avatars, but closer to who they really are,” said Weerasuriya. “We saw people helping each other in the community. Right now we’re building experiences, but the best thing is what the community is going to communicate back to developers what they think should happen with VR. And that’s the cool thing about just being in the second year of VR, I’m looking forward to a few years time with more games out, more experiences out. New things that we haven’t even thought of right now.”