His dedication to detailed, believable user journeys has made him an indispensable resource in the Australian VR scene, using forward-thinking technology to create age-old popular narratives. Red Wire spoke to Daniel about the five things that make incredible VR experiences, and why only those who put their audience first will survive.
Knowing your limits
There are over 700 VR-centric start-ups currently operating, fighting for a market expected to be worth $120 billion by 2020. Though according to Sim Lind, one of the most important development stages comes before you’ve even put pen to paper.
“When you’re in a virtual environment, and you forget that you’re not really there, you’ve had what we call a moment of presence” he says. “The better the hardware is, the more likely it is that you’ll feel present in a VR experience.” Those in creative and technology firms need to understand VR from the inside out – from motion tracking, display systems, spatial sound, screen peripherals and controllers – to force the user to suspend belief.
“Almost none of the computing interface metaphors we’ve been using for the last thirty years are a good approach in virtual and mixed reality. (Things like) 2D buttons, clicking and dragging and scrolling, planes full of text – none of it makes a lot of sense in a physical 3D space.”
You only need to take a look at the trajectory of 3D films to see how the lack of imagination within a format can effectively kill off its relevance. “The worst VR experiences go beyond pedestrian, they’re literally nauseating. This happens when the images aren’t updated quickly enough, or your brain believes you’re moving (because you’re shown as moving in VR) but your inner ear disagrees… It’s generally due to an unwillingness to accept the constraints of an entirely new medium.”
The key players in the race to mainstream VR acceptance – Oculus, HTC, Samsung, Google and PlayStation – are fighting to shave milliseconds off their lag time, a number that makes all the difference when trying to create make people believe the unbelievable. “The HTC Vive tracking system is accurate to within fraction of a millimetre, and relies on two base stations projecting a laser grid into the room.” Dubbed ‘Lighthouse’, the hardware system was primarily created by Australian Alan Yates, now at Valve, creator of the Vive’s underlying tech.
Make it believable
Though technology is important to creating believable VR experiences – a well-considered narrative framework is often the difference between a disengaging experience and an effective one:
“I think there are two main things that separate them: hardware capability, and how well the designers understand the medium.”
“When you play peek-a-boo with a toddler, it’s fun for them because at that age they haven’t yet learned that reality is persistent. They think that when they close their eyes the world disappears… you can actually do this switcheroo in VR and see people’s surprise. That’s because rather than just being a 3D system, virtual reality makes your brain believe that you’re in a different physical space.”
Take Cloudhead Games for example: when developing VR mystery game The Gallery the developers installed a strict ‘no breaking immersion’ policy – that meant no loading screens, intuitive interactions, no cut scenes, and fully scaled environments that really felt like you were solving a unique mystery in the first person. They managed to raise over $85,000 on Kickstarter, garnering 500+ positive reviews through Steam on launch.
“When I demo the Vive system to a first-timer, I always ask people to turn around, walk over and grab the controllers from my hands. They walk a few metres across the Icelandic lava flow, or wherever they are, and grab the controllers from me. To them, they were just floating in space. It blows people away, and gets them used to the idea that they don’t have to just stare forward like they’re looking at a 3D monitor, but they can actually move, look around and reach out.”
“I love archery in VR. The sensation of drawing back an arrow with spatial audio and haptic feedback, really makes you feel the string’s tension, and it’s magic to see it flying towards your target, whether they’re cute cartoon villagers who explode into balloons, or glowing crystals who shoot back.”
Find the talent
As with many emerging industries, finding credible tech talent with the required narrative discipline is tricky. Sim Lind is confident however, that Australia’s low-scale gaming industry gives us a phoenix-like opportunity: “Australia should have a deep pool of 3D talent, essential to VR content creation. A string of major game studios shut down in the last ten years, so hopefully these people are still floating around somewhere, and can bring their talents to the VR/MR tsunami that is coming.”
“Huge resources are pouring into the Chinese VR market (think billions of dollars), that’s been a little slow to get started. With our large expat pool, I think we’ll be well-positioned to sell into that colossal market, if we make the right partnerships.” [We need people] who solve creative problems with technology, or technological problems creatively. Soon the technological barriers to VR content creation will fall, and creative people will be able to work in the medium without needing as much technical sophistication.”
Put business in front
Digi-Capital predicts 500 million VR headsets could be sold by 2025 – creating an enormous content opportunity for brands to engage with their audience (note – not ads). It substitutes the idea of ‘try before you buy’ – opening up an incredibly lifelike experience to drive the pitch home.
“If the product is high-value: (such as in cars, boats, holidays, cruise ship holidays, and real estate sales) then a compelling experience can significantly increase activation and conversion rates. The salesperson doesn’t need to tell the prospect how great the car looks in green, how amazing the waterslide is on the cruise ship, how spectacular the view will be from their 20th floor unit and so on – they can experience it and feel it for themselves.”
Sim Lind also sees a huge opportunity for VR integration into live events, via a mixed 3D/2D reality experience that generates permanent, socially shareable content. Here’s how it works:
- Create a compelling VR experience that ties into the brand both in imagery and spirit
- Set up a booth with matched brand and thematic elements
- Include a green screen wall in the booth
- Connect a virtual camera to physical real-world camera
- Composite the real world person (recorded with the camera) with the virtual scene (recorded with the linked virtual camera)
- Allow the player to get a copy of the composited video showing them in the virtual world by signing onto their social media accounts on an iPad, where they can share it with a brand message with their network. The video can have a brand overlay and a pre or post-roll brand sting and/or call to action.
“The output becomes more than someone enjoying a compelling VR experience, it is a mini-viral campaign showing the player in a branded virtual world having a big emotional reaction. This is almost impossible for most people to achieve at home.”
Take it to the moon
So where do we go from here? “By the end of 2017 we should move from hundreds of thousands to millions of high-end VR systems in consumer’s hands worldwide. That provides us with a content export opportunity in 2017.”
Daniel points to major games companies like Valve  (creators of the acclaimed Half Life and Portal series), and newer start-ups like (augmented reality firm) Magic Leap and (lightfield/visual effects pioneers) OTOY as exciting players in the scene, who will be responsible for taking this technology mainstream. “Hopefully, it’s not all hype and they can deliver the Mixed Reality future they’ve been promising. If they can it will be a huge game-changer.
‘We’ve got a lot of creative talent here. We’ve got a high level of interest in VR. We’re launching a never-ending stream of movie stars. We have one of the world’s highest levels of average income. We’ve got a big enough population to nurture pre-export businesses.
My experience has been that corporate adoption of new technology is slower than it is in my home country of New Zealand, and the startup scene is minuscule compared to Silicon Valley, but the consumers are early and enthusiastic adopters.”
Get hands on
Following two years of research and experimentation, Daniel Sim Lind will be presenting ten weeks of hands-on VR learning at Academy Xi from late August 2016. One of the first courses of its kind in Australia, it’s recommended for any business looking to understand the design of VR and its impact on your industry.
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