How Virtual Reality Gaming Is Finally Reaching Its Potential

Virtual reality is gaming's storytelling tool of the future.

This article originally appeared in the Den of Geek New York Comic Con special edition print magazine. You can find the digital copy here. Illustration by Sophie Erb.

“There was a time when I thought VR was dead.” This solemn confession comes from David Votypka, creative director at Ubisoft subsidiary Red Storm Entertainment, a studio that will, by the end of the year, deliver two groundbreaking VR games to the headset-wearing masses: Werewolves Within (Dec. 6) and Star Trek: Bridge Crew (Nov. 29).

With Star Trek: Bridge Crew, Votypka and his team at Red Storm have conjured up a fascinating, deceptively simple concept. Four players work together as officers of the Federation, each member manning a different station on the U.S.S. Aegis with the shared goal of finding a new home world for the recently displaced Vulcans. The four positions – Captain, Helm, Engineer, and Tactical – must work together to make strategic decisions, using voice chat and motion gestures to develop a successful flow of communication. Red Storm have bridged the universe of Star Trek with immersive VR. They’ve also found a tight balance between the social, table-top gaming experience and the digital world of video games.

It’s a new frontier, as they say. The future of VR is finally here, and it’s been a long time coming. In the ‘90s, geeks everywhere dreamed of wearing magic goggles that would whisk them away to new worlds, only to have their hearts broken by an infernal machine that shattered said dreams and brought forth a pixelated, blood-red VR apocalypse. They called it the “Virtual Boy.” It was a dark time, but after decades of technological advances and creative innovations made by engineers and developers like Votypka, VR is finally on the precipice of meeting its true potential.

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“I think we’re at a point now where VR can be what we want it to be,” says Votypka, who has been anxiously awaiting the imminent VR boom. “My passion for VR started in the ‘90s. The developers back then, trying to do VR the way we all thought it should be, with that hardware… it was impossible. That’s why it died. Now, with the headsets that are out there, we finally have a baseline. We can generate a sense of presence for the player. It starts to really feel like you’re there. The pricing is low enough and the quality of the graphics is generally high enough.”

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Today’s tech is indeed powerful. From the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, to the debuting Playstation VR, the current headsets on the market give developers the tools to create wildly immersive experiences like we’ve never seen before. Suffice it to say, Votypka and his team at Red Storm pounced on the opportunity to explore the myriad possibilities that modern VR brings to the table.

“We’ve been focused on social VR,” Votypka says of the studio’s approach. “One of the first prototypes we did was the Werewolves prototype, which led to Werewolves Within. When we put the headsets on and saw each others’ head movements, sitting across the table, we thought, ‘Wow, that’s a real human being.’ It was something different and something special. That led us to thinking about crew-based experiences and strategy-based gameplay, but with a social hook. When you think crew-based, Star Trek is perfect for that.”

While Votypka is excited and inspired by the current VR boom, he also acknowledges that there are still some issues to iron out before we achieve true virtual immersion. Until then, studios like Red Storm have been coming up with creative ways to work around the technical obstructions current VR builds present.

“With Star Trek: Bridge Crew, I felt that hand tracking was super important,” Votypka explains. “But I also didn’t want to do floating hands; I wanted a full-body avatar. A limitation is that we don’t have elbow tracking. We can’t exactly tell where your elbows are. But we’ve made some really cool tech that will limit the positions of the player’s elbows so that it looks natural.” Despite elbow-tracking issues and the like posing challenges for developers, Votypka is confident that the VR experiences currently available to consumers are the real deal.

“Virtual reality is kind of self-defining, right? The end goal is to create experiences that are virtually real. We’re not 100-percent there yet, but we’re at a point where we have enough that it’s engaging for the players.”

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Now that developers have the tools to create convincing, immersive, high-quality VR experiences for consumers, the conversation can finally shift from focusing on hardware limitations to exploring new hardware innovations.

“A thing I think is probably coming in the next generation is facial expression recognition,” Votypka says. “There are headsets that have been announced that do that. That, in a social game, would be awesome. For hand tracking, the headset makers know about the elbow problem, and they’re working on solutions for that. The more accurately we can track the upper body, the more convincing the multiplayer experience is going to be.”

Votypka has been dreaming up different VR applications for years, and he’s only now seeing some of his old ideas come to fruition in the hands of his fellow creators. He recalls, “In the ‘90s, I thought, ‘I want to sit at the 50 yard line at a football game but be in my living room.’ That’s happened, which is amazing.”

One VR experience Votypka is especially excited about is The Void, an immersive VR theme park based in Utah that seamlessly synchronizes custom VR experiences with physical, real-world environments and props, creating an unprecedented illusion of presence. Unlike the home VR experience, The Void allows you to walk around and explore and touch and feel. Heat lamps, fog machines, moving set pieces and a bevy of other interactive objects help create a sense of tactility that pushes the boundaries of VR further than ever before. It’s the definition of cutting-edge, and The Void plans to open hundreds of locations across the U.S. and around the world in the next few years.

“The Void sounds awesome,” says Votypka. “I’d thought of the idea before, I haven’t tried it yet. I’m super excited to experience it. You’re walking around, you’re convinced there’s wind blowing in your face, you’re carrying a gun in your hand that matches what you’re doing in the game. That sounds awesome. We’re just scratching the surface right now.”

The future of VR is blindingly bright, but the medium’s potential extends far beyond the world of gaming. VR has been used for documentary filmmaking, medical training, mental health treatment, and in a bevy of other fascinating ways. Filmatics, a production company based in Los Angeles, has been exploring ways to provide engaging narrative content in virtual reality. To accompany their horror VR short Eye for an Eye, they’ve created a traditional short film called Henrietta that adds its own layer of intrigue to the larger experience.

“We love to do narrative, cinematic VR, with real actors, locations, and props, and we like to do transmedia,” says Elia Petridis, Filmatics founder and CEO. “We think VR experiences are more powerful if you have accessed the world through other forms of media first. If you watch Eye for an Eye, it’ll be great, but if you watch Henrietta first, it’ll mean a lot more to you.”

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Petridis and Filmatics’ larger aim, beyond creating compelling narrative VR content, is to help usher VR into the mainstream. “We would like to make content that converts early adopters into a wider audience,” Petridis says.

Helping lead the charge on the narrative VR front is Baobab Studios, whose VR comedy short Invasion! is available now on Gear VR and Oculus Rift and will be out shortly on HTC Vive and Playstation VR. Baobab co-founder and CEO Maureen Fan thinks mainstream penetration for VR is inevitable, and that the impact of the new technology will stretch out far beyond the games and entertainment industries.

“I think it will take longer to become mass market than others say,” says Fan.  “But when it does, the impact will be huge. It’s like magic. And I’m not just talking about entertainment. It will change every industry – you can travel without getting on a plane. In school you can actually experience the Middle Ages or Ancient Greece. Surgeons can train in VR rather than in life. They’ve already shown that VR can help people with nerve damage regain some movement.”

The explosive popularity and potential of VR right now is mind-blowing. Twenty years ago, many of us, like Votypka, assumed VR was a dead-end concept. But now, with some of the biggest names in tech and entertainment throwing their hats into the ring, all signs point to VR becoming a permanent staple in the world of entertainment and beyond.

“One of the most exciting things about it is that all of the big companies are supporting it,” says Votypka, whose games will be available on all major VR platforms when they’re released. “From Facebook buying Oculus to Sony getting into it, it continues to grow, and that gives consumers confidence that this is going to be the real thing.”