Have you ever dreamt of flying? Kelly Weaver certainly has. He’s the developer behind a new sandbox flying ‘experience’ using the immersive power of the Oculus Rift and the motion precision of the Razer Hydra to make that dream an interactive VR experience. Kelly takes time out to talk to us and let’s us take a spin in an impressive early build.

Learning to Fly…

unassisted-flight-superman-featured

It’s an innately human desire, to fly. From the earliest age we wonder and dream of what soaring unaided across the sky might be like. It’s embodied in our art, our literature and our games. I’ve been an avid gamer all my life, but stepping into Unassisted Flight is by far the closest I’ve come to experiencing what I’d imagined might be like.

Kelly had warned me beforehand that what I was playing was an early pre-alpha demo, he’d only just got the controls remotely resembling what he personally felt he was trying to achieve. I fired up the demo with some trepidation, but was soon surrounded by a detailed landscape with soaring cliffs and a majestic castle in the distance, the sense of place and scale was already convincing. And I was still grounded.

First there’s the two-step calibration process which adjusts the in-game avatar to your arm-length and position relative to the Hydra base station. Then (typically for me not having RTFM’ed before) I mashed at some of the Razer Hydra‘s buttons and was launched, somewhat unceremoniously into the sky.

I flailed initially, but remembering what Kelly had told me and taking cues from his earlier developer video, I adopted what can only be described as the ‘Superman pose’ — arms straight out in front of me, with a Hydra controller in each hand angled at 90 degrees towards each other.  Raising both hands upwards simultaneously caused you to climb, downwards to dive, and raising arms asymmetrically (one arm up and one down) a touch cause you to bank left or right. And that’s essentially it. So simple, yet incredibly effective and completely intuitive.

With the messy launch behind me and the controls in place, it all melted away almost immediately and I was lost in the feeling. The Rift’s enormous field of view was built for this kind of panoramic experience. The sense of scale and height was superb while climbing and looking around .

At present the game has zero physics or inertia whatsoever, yet the visuals alone sold the illusion to my brain. And despite the expected alpha glitches and viewing through the Oculus Rift‘s screendoor on reality I was hooked. Looking down I saw my avatar’s arms and shoulders, exactly where they should be in the virtual world, right there in front of me and they moved exactly as I was moving.

This is incredibly early work, there are some glitches, you can’t walk, there’s nothing in particular to ‘do’ in the world, but it barely matters. It’s an immensely promising start for what I sincerely hope is developed into a fully-fledged flying experience. Regrettably, the demo can’t be distributed as it’s built with a trial Unity license. But with any luck, and some positive feedback from the community, the developer may consider crowdfunding to develop the title.

The Interview

Unassisted Flight developer Kelly Weaver kindly agreed to talk to us about himself, his past and his future development plans.

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Road to VR: Can you tell us about yourself?

Kelly: My name’s Kelly Weaver, and I am an aspiring independent game developer from Athens, GA. I’ve been a gamer for as long as I can remember, and about three years ago I decided to try my hand at actually making some.

Road to VR: What’s your professional background? What was it that lead you to develop for the Oculus Rift?

Kelly: Professionally, I write software for the financial sector. Nothing game related at all. I backed the Rift Kickstarter on its very first day, though at the time I was too excited about it to really think about any sort of development ideas. But as time went on, I asked myself what fundamental thing did I think everyone would want to try once they got their Rift. Flight seemed like the most natural choice.

Road to VR: Would you consider yourself a VR enthusiast? What is it that excites you about the concept?

Kelly: Honestly, before I got my Rift, no. That’s odd, because I had all the similar trappings of a VR enthusiast it seems — I remember playing Dactyl Nightmare in a Dave and Busters some 20 odd years ago; I owned and LOVED my Virtual Boy; I’m one of those people who will argue that S3D is not a gimmick, but rather really adds to immersing yourself in a game. For some reason, though, VR was never really on my radar until the Rift. To be completely honest, I sort of feel like I’m some kind of sham! One minute, I’m not really thinking about VR, then the next I’m trying to program my own VR game.

What excites me the most is probably what I imagine excites most everyone else as well — the new opportunities that this will provide. For example, those of you that have tried the Hydra Tuscany Demo know just as I do that the level of immersion that can be achieved with the Rift and Hydra is beyond explanation. It’s really something that must be experienced. I literally laughed with joy as I picked up a baseball in the demo, tossed it into the air with one hand, and caught it with the other. My girlfriend, who is not a gamer, played the demo and I watched as she tried (and was partially successful) at dribbling a virtual basketball.

And these are experiences that are being done in the very early days of consumer level VR. This stuff is the Super Mario Bros of virtual reality. I can’t even begin to imagine what ten or even twenty years from now will hold, but I know I’m very excited for it.

Road to VR: What games do you admire? Are there any in particular that influenced Unassisted Flight?

Kelly: I play almost all games. I’m fond of everything from retro 2D platformers, to FPSes, to puzzle games, to whatever you can just about imagine.

No game in particular really influenced Unassisted Flight, though I did briefly consider making it a homage to that terrible Superman 64 game for the N64. I may still put in some rings to fly through.

I have drawn a lot of influence from comics, though. While I started out with Superman like controls, I’ve lately been working on making them more Iron Man like. Basically, I want to work with the idea that boosters that fire from your palms will allow you to steer and move about, but it’s still to be seen if this really works in a fun and exciting way.

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Road to VR: How did you settle on the concept for the project?

Kelly: I think just about everyone dreams of flying. I know I’ve had a small handful of dreams in my life in which I could fly, and they were all amazing. So, making a flight game seemed like a n0-brainer.

I knew most people — myself included — would simply load up TF2 or Unreal Engine’s Epic Citadel and turn on no clip mode, but I wanted more than that. FPSes don’t allow you to do barrel rolls or loop the loops, and frankly, those are key components of any sort of daredevil flying. Since I already knew my way around Unity, I decided I would sit down and write something that would allow that as I was eagerly awaiting my Rift’s arrival.

Road to VR: What drew you to the Razer Hydra as primary controller for the Project? How have you find developing for it?

Kelly: After I sat down and wrote the preliminary controls for my game, I decided to just post it to the MTBS forums and see if anyone else was interested. The Hydras weren’t even really on my radar at the time. The very first reply I got was how cool it would be to use the Hydras for Superman-like controls, and instantly my brain went crazy with ideas. I ordered a pair right then.

I’m extremely impressed with Hydra development. They are amazingly accurate. Programming for motions takes a little more thoughtfulness than simply programming joysticks and buttons, and there have been a number of times in which I’ve had to draw myself diagrams in order to organize my ideas, but that’s more of a lack of experience with motion controls on my part than any fault of the Hydras. They really are an amazing piece of kit, and they’re a perfect fit for VR. Again, going back to my non-gaming girlfriend, she doesn’t particularly like the XBox controller because she doesn’t like there being so many buttons. But with the Hydras, she was getting around easily and naturally.

Road to VR: Have you found any limitations in working with either the Rift or the Hydra?

Kelly: With the Hydras, calibration was one of those things that became a real head scratcher for me. Finding a good way to write a general purpose method for determining if a player’s hands are fully extended turned out to be something I attempted several different ways, most of which I was unhappy with. Again, this may simply be because of my inexperience in dealing with such problems, but it was certainly something that seemed to be easy enough, but proved otherwise.

The Rift limitations are already well documented — the low resolution and the motion blur are probably my two biggest complaints, but they are small ones.

Being tethered to your computer is another issue. Playing with the Hydras, I’ve hit my hands on my desk a few times as I’ve reached for a virtual item. And brushing up against a cord is a small way to remind yourself that you’re just in a game. But again, for what you’re gaining, these are very minor complaints (though I could see these becoming bigger ones, once people start using the Virtuix Omni Treadmill).

Road to VR: Tell us about the technology under the hood. What game engine are you using?

Kelly: I’m using Unity to make my project, namely because it’s what I have the most experience with. Unity is a very versatile and easy to use game engine. Implementing both the Rift and the Hydra in Unity was a breeze — it’s simply a matter of including the packages. With the Rift, you just drag and drop the pre-defined camera setup into your scene. You don’t even need to code anything. The Hydras do require you to roll your own code to interpret the movement and rotations and stuff, but that’s to be expected. Both work amazingly inside of Unity.

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Road to VR: Do you intend to pursue crowdfunding via Kickstarter or IndieGogo to extend and develop the project as a commercial venture?

Kelly: I’ve been encouraged to take my prototype to Kickstarter, and I’m considering it. A number of people are interested in trying it, but because I don’t own a Unity Pro license, I’m not allowed to distribute it. I’m uncertain if I want to make it into a full game or just leave it as a free roaming/flying sandbox demo. Probably the latter.

Road to VR:  What features are missing currently that you’d most like to add?

Kelly: The controls really need to be made razor sharp, which I’m constantly working on. At the moment, I’m adding in a virtual avatar, so that instead of you being a pair of disembodied eyes floating around, you have arms and legs. And most importantly, you can more easily keep track of which direction you’re flying, thanks to your arms. It also adds a crazy level of immersion — there’s just something about looking down at your hands as you rotate them in a virtual world that has failed to get old to me.

I’d like to add multiplayer, so that you and your friends can get together and fly around. Along those lines, my ideas typically take off in the direction of making a flying racing game, or maybe a flying stunt game, but I don’t know that I’ll be able to devote that amount of time to it.

Road to VR:  Have you had any problems with nausea or dizziness? Have you any tips to counter these reactions?

Kelly: Yes, which was odd considering I’ve never had issues with motion sickness. I partially blame my computer, which is getting a little long in the tooth, and can’t produce the frame rate that is probably best for VR experiences. This is also going to sound weird, but part of my problem also dealt with the smell of the headset. It had a very faint sort of petroleum like smell to it, that when combined with the other motion sickness causing effects, really made me feel uncomfortable. I was actually worried at first that I was going to develop a Pavlovian response to playing in VR, and it was going to put me off of it forever. But the smell has faded now, and I can spend long periods of time in the Rift with no feelings of discomfort.

The only real advice I can provide is to just stick with it. Eventually, you’ll get your VR legs, and the queasy feelings will all be long gone as you excitedly explore your new virtual worlds.

Road to VR: Be honest, have you donned tights and a cape whilst play-testing this?

Kelly: No. But I have honestly looked at a number of human sized gyroscopes for sale and done a lot of dreaming. Anything in order to get that experience of flight just that much more realistic.

A huge thanks to Kelly for sharing his early work with us and sharing his thoughts. You can find out more about Kelly and Polymath Games at the website.

See Also: How Virtual Reality Can Teach You to Fly

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