Let's look together at some things we might be able to do in a 15 x 15 foot space using Valve / HTC's Vive solution virtual reality gear. This is pretty exciting stuff.
So here's what we've got to play with:
[Disclaimer: "I don't actually have any of this equipment on hand, except for the room and I, ha ha, certainly am not keeping anyone in it and if I were, ha, ha, they'd be free to leave any time they wanted."]
------- Let's begin ----------------
If you've ever watched Little House on the Prairie, the show's credits roll with Laura happily running down a flower filled hill with their dog as the theme music plays. Haven't seen it? No matter, I've linked it here:
Now imagine that we wanted to experience this ourselves using the latest VR technology. We could actually get to be Laura running after Jack. Finally.
Right off the bat, there are a few problems. The flower filled hill is very big and the path that Laura takes is longer than 15 feet. Let's ballpark her target travel distance at say 150 feet.
In the real world, our test subject occupies a 15 x 15 foot room made of concrete. These dimensions are fixed and constant, we can't make holes in these walls despite our test subject's best efforts to do so.
VR Room + Target Simulation:
Starting at the edge of the room, if our VR test subject were to attempt Laura's run down the hill at speed, it would make it (at most) 15 feet before suddenly (and blindly) encountering the real world concrete wall.
Boy, we've covered a lot of important ground. Let's sum up our scientific findings so far:
"If you try to run in a straight line for 150 feet from within a 15x15 foot room, you are going to run into a wall."
So, do we need to give up on the dream?
Well, let's simplify our goals and write down a list of wants.
Here are things that people want out of VR and VR Rooms. This list is terribly important, so read the following with zest:
Huh. I only had two points, maybe this list isn't so important after all?
Anyways, there have been some very clever and very determined attempts at solving these two "wants". Here are some of them:
Just use your mouse, stupid.
The mouse was originally designed up as a tool to navigate business applications in the 1980s. By all the accounts that I have read thus far, the folks at Xerox and then Apple were not trying to design a tool that was great at shooting people. Yet, this is exactly what they did and what people started to do with it around 1992
Now, twenty three years later, the mouse is still, STILL the goto method for 3D world navigation. Yes, yes, game pads have evolved considerably and now offer an absolutely amazing alternative*, but there's no denying that keyboard / mouse input does the heavy lifting. Would you doubt these guys?:
* no they don't.
This is wandering off topic, I know, I'm sorry, but it's absolutely baffling to me that we managed to arrive at such an ideal first person navigation tool while trying to make VisiCalc easier to use; and then what makes even less sense, is that we managed to do such a profoundly good job at it that we've not done much better in two decades of effort.
God knows we've tried to change the form factor and failed, again and again and again:
Unfortunately, using a mouse breaks the first "want" on our list (remember our important list?), our desire to not throw up while enjoying ourselves. Yep, that's what we want.
Wikipedia does a bang up job telling us why we have this problem with getting sick in VR:
In other words....... if your eyes tell you that you are moving (something that, wow, VR is really, explicitly designed to do...) but your body's movement/balance sensory system reports that you are actually NOT moving, or worse, moving in a different direction - some very old reptilian defense mechanisms kick in and conclude that you are likely hallucinating and have also likely been horribly poisoned.
Your body then arms the torpedoes and makes ready to violently bring up anything you might have eaten and likely over your keyboard and your mouse that is so good at 2D, fantastic for 3D and absolutely crippling for VR.
Instead of walking around, let's teleport everywhere in VR space and dispense with all the problems involved with walking. Let's just side step around the whole goddamn problem and enjoy ourselves for once.
This is something that AltspaceVR pulls off rather well, take a peek at the video below if you'd like to see it in action.
This neatly solves the VR sickness issue since you are instantly jumping between points rather than smoothly translating between them. This unfortunately does not even being to address our second "want", the desire to wander on our own two feet, so I'm going to simply have to disqualify on the grounds that it threatens to invalidate what I'm writing. NOTHING TO SEE HERE, MOVE ALONG!
Virtuix Omni offers a platform (shown below) that allows a user use the sliding motion of their feet and directional facing of their body to navigate a VR world
This is a very bold product that tackles need desire to walk in VR head on. I have tremendous respect for the audacity of launching such a solution. From what I have read, it does a very good job at translating your movements into VR space and is a quality product.
Alas, I have also read that it does not entirely provide for our first "want", the need to not get horribly sick sometimes. I haven't tried it yet to be sure, but some have reported issues.
I imagine that the full body motion does help to alleviate motion sickness for some, but we really do want to push for as close to 0% nausea as possible. I don't think this is too much to ask from a fun experience, except for maybe the Gravatron.
Back to our 15 x 15 room. In the basement...
Reportedly the HTC / Valve Vive Lighthouse tracking system gives us an effective way of accurately tracking your body in a 15 x 15 foot room. So, far I've not come across any reports of the the device causing motion sickness. This is very promising!
All changes to perception in the hmd are as a direct 1:1 result of your body moving in space. It might well be possible to wander around all day in VR space with one of these and not feel the least bit sick. Fingers crossed.
Let's look about our small room and think about how we might escape these confines in VR.
Let's run the Laura test again and see how far we get down the hill.
Not even close. Impact at 15 feet. Yep, checks out with earlier findings. Good to be sure.
Well.....um.. let's think hard now... what if.... instead of walking in a straight line, we had the test subject walk around the perimeter of the room after we throw some water on it to wake it back up?
Not only do we end up 90 feet short of our target distance, our test subject needs to make 3 90 degree turns in a simulation that is SUPPOSEDLY about running in a straight line.
What if we had it walk in a circle instead?
So despite our very thorough and very scientific investigation of BOTH squares and circles, both paths fall far short of our target distance and this is an obviously an unsolvable problem. I must conclude then, that VR is a bust and everyone is wasting their time.
Thanks for reading!
Wait, Hold on... What if the test subject did multiple loops of the same path in order to cover the distance? The pretty trees and flowers are an attempt to show a transition from one area to another. You don't like my diagrams?
Ok... so as the test subject moves around the circle we update its perceived surroundings with new content. So the trees give way to pretty flowers. You can think of this kind of like a path winding up a mountain like a corkscrew, except there's no change in elevation, just scenery. Maybe it isn't like a corkscrew. I don't know.
Here's a diagram anyways in case it is:
Growing rapidly tired of circles and sarcasm, I've gone hunting for geometry that might help us out to start thinking about designing interesting levels. Surprisingly my cultural ancestry came into play here.
If you start to look into "infinite paths", you'll soon come across Celtic designs such as the ones below. These are knots of different kinds, lots of them bearing the name "eternity" or "trinity" or "endless".
So, you start to paw through these types of designs and start imagining them superimposed on the floor of your VR room as a paths to take that won't send you flying to walls.
The best of them in my opinion contain gentle curves.
And we need quite a few more curves to make things interesting, and unfortunately a lot of the Celtic stuff gets a bit too dense and artsy.
The best stuff I've found, the good stuff, seems to dwell in what's known as "religious or sacred geometry". I unfortunately don't have a background in it, but I can tell you about the symbolism but I CAN tell you that most of the designs are circular and a great many of them look like a good start when I think about using them as the basis of navigational guides for VR.
Here's a common motif that you'll find, albeit somewhat modified to my whims.
You can travel this shape in a winding path, sometimes veering left, sometime veering right, sometime traveling straight only to branch off into another curve. You could spend a long. long time navigating through this geometry while being gently steered clear of the walls.
Level design for walk-able VR in a limited space is going to be challenging, kind of like authoring a geometric haiku.
Here's my suggestion as we start to work on the problem:
Turn off the scenery and embrace the void.
Even though it's a great film, I hesitate to invoke the Matrix here because you might die of cliche, but I do so only to mention that I think they actually gotten a fundamental right. The sequences that take place in a formless white void ring true. I believe we could find a shapeless void endlessly entertaining.... because um... we could put anything we want in it on a whim.
A void would allow us to explore some of the path finding trickery our geometric pathways offer. We'd not need to worry quite yet about bending the world around us to fit the dimensions of our physical space as we simply remove all points of reference. Besides, our processing power is better spent working on the few objects or people that have our immediate attention in VR.
You could wander in an endless sea of white, following faint geometric guides on the floor, or a floating way-point on the non-existent horizon. Despite the lack of surroundings, you would always have a sense of where to go thanks to faint guiding paths on the floor.
Humans love paths, we do a really good job at following them, even at high speed on our daily commute to work. Lay down a path for a user in VR and you immediately give them something they intrinsically understand. Watch young kids in a room with lines on the floor, they are magnetic and there is fun to be had in following them.
Give the user a path to follow, steer them away from the walls and provide interesting things along the way for them to find in the void. Maybe we can start there.