Augmented & virtual reality: The future we’ve been waiting for is now

Virtual Reality, also known as ‘VR’, has been a technological pipedream for decades. Silicon Valley has already had several goes at trying to make it a mainstream commodity in the early 2000s, without success. However, we are now seeing a brand new wave of VR and AR (Augmented Reality) that is capturing the public imagination. The most obvious example of this is Pokemon Go which saw millions of people worldwide engaging AR through their smartphones – and smartphones are the apparent the key to the success of VR this time round.

Profile view of Playstation VR

Being able to slot your phone into a cardboard headset and instantly entering a virtual world, with all its sight and sounds, is allowing people to use VR in their own homes for a minimal price. Google Cardboard, as well as slightly more technologically minded set ups such as Samsung GearVR and the PlayStation VR, are leading the field in home based VR and AR, but you can also download design patterns for your own headsets to make, or even 3D print – what an age we live in.

Of course, it’s not just the headsets that are making their mark. Larger set-ups, such as the CAVE automatic virtual environments, which projects a virtual reality onto wall-sized monitors, is having an impact in universities, research labs, industrial training, and entertainment-based VR experiences. It’s unlikely that we will start seeing this for personal use, but who knows what might catch on; with VR gaming, television and film might also become the next big thing.

VR gaming is one of the biggest integrators of VR into the home. There are several companies making games designed specifically for VR and I was lucky enough to get to try out some of them at the EGX earlier in the summer. One of these games was demonstrated was Augmented Empire by Coatsink studio, a gaming company who design games predominantly to be played in VR.

They describe themselves as “passionate and talented game development team working on games for PC, VR platforms, console and mobile.”

I was lucky enough to chat with Paul Crabb, the CEO of Coatsink, about VR, gaming and the future of the technology, as well as Jon Davies their narrative designer and Jack Sanderson, the head of their marketing team about their brand new game, Augmented Empire, as well as having a go at playing it myself.

Holly Swinyard: Let’s start off with some basics. A lot of people know what virtual reality is, but a lot get it confused with Augmented Reality. What is the difference between VR (Virtual Reality) and AR (Augmented Reality) and are they complimentary to each other?

Paul Crabb: Virtual reality completely replaces your vision with a virtual environment, while augmented reality attempts to overlay virtual elements on top of your view of the real world.

They both have different strengths and challenges. At the moment, AR faces much greater challenges technologically, as it must find a way to work in potentially any environment/lighting condition, and must update almost as quickly as your eyes do (otherwise elements will look “floaty”) but once those challenges are overcome, it’s possible that AR could become the dominant tech.

HS: Since VR is still very much in its experimental phase, what hurdles have you met working with it and developing the games?

PC: One hurdle for us has been the rapid pace of technological improvement in the hardware. That has meant that we can’t really spend much more than a year on any one particular project, as the tech might be completely different by the time we release the game if we took much longer. So while it’s tempting to think of grand innovations and epic six-year super-projects, it’s just not realistic when the hardware is in such flux.

Another challenge has been performance. Since a badly optimised game can be devastating to play in VR, it is our number one concern above any other decisions we make for a game. This can sometimes feel limiting when all you want to do is innovate and experiment and push ideas to their limits, but ultimately it’s been a great discipline for us and has made us all better developers because of it.

HS: Obviously one of the most important points of VR is the immersion, how immersive is Augmented Empire and how does it work with [the] VR gear?

PC: The way we try to immerse people in ‘Augmented Empire’ is by going several levels deep. The first level situates the player within a simple, relatable room that the player’s character inhabits. The second level has the player viewing the game’s city from a top-down perspective, that the player character accesses via a holographic table within the room. After playing a mission from this top-down perspective, they exit back out to the room level, which should at this point feel familiar enough that they almost feel like they’re no longer in VR … The fact that there’s a talking robot might disrupt this a little, but I think it’s worth it.

HS: The game is all sort of cyber-punky, and I wanted to know what you decided to settle on that as a field, as it’s not that popular in mainstream gaming at the moment, it’s all a bit more steampunk.

Jon Davies: I guess that decision was based on the fact that whole gaming experience is around augmented reality, which is a very kind of futuristic thing. You mentioned steampunk, there’s no real association to steampunk through VR, it’s very modern and contemporary. I guess that’s where the decision was made. In terms of my involvement in that decision, the prototype was always the concept of augmented reality, a mix of cyberpunk and gangsters, those were the two genres that they wanted to mash up. Coming back to steampunk, steampunk gangsters, I’m sure that’s been seen, cyberpunk gangsters is more unusual and really suits the VR.

HS: On the graphics, it’s very slick and polished but at the same time you’ve kept it quite simple, I really like the art style.

Jack Sanderson: The lead artist, sits next to me at work, I can’t really talk too much about the decisions made, but obviously it’s made exclusively for Gear VR, to cater to the technical capabilities of Samsung phones. In terms of the art style, I guess ‘Torgun’ takes all the credit there, he’s just fantastic. Our last game ‘Esper’ and ‘Esper Two’, were critically very well received and I think that was largely to do with the art style as well as the gameplay.

HS: It has the feeling of ‘Bioshock’, especially the first game with that grim and gritty feel, I really liked that. Not sure if that’s flattering or not.

JS: The ‘Bioshock’ comparison definitely is [a] couple of genres to refer to here. Looking at the art style, how would we call it, 1950s retro-futurism, is kinda the term for it. I’m not an artist to describe is (laughs). Art deco would be the other one, art deco punk. Unfortunately, you don’t see too much of it in the demo, at least not enough to get a good sense of it. But in the full game itself, art deco is definitely the theme.

HS: Storywise, how much can you tell me, because a lot of people might not have heard of the game, so what’s the basic premise of what is going on in the game or what you’re characters are trying to achieve?

JD: Yeah, so you inhabit the mind and body of a criminal mastermind called Kraven, looking to take over the city of New Savannah, or rather liberate its people from a corrupt, controlling elite. They do this by recruiting a team of six augmented criminals and misfits. A large portion of the game is dedicated to finding out about these people and recruiting them and they each have unique classes and personalities, motivations of their own.

HS: Just like setting up your Dungeons and Dragons team.

JD: (Laughs) Exactly. Just how Kraven goes about achieving this, you will have to wait for the game to come out.

Augmented Empire is definitely a game that those of us who enjoy gaming and the narrative experience that gaming provides will get a kick out of, especially with it being in VR, though getting used to the platform can prove a little tricky to start with, but what about those people who may not be interested in gaming? What can VR do for them and is it something that we will be seeing more and more in daily life? CEO, Paul Crabb was keen to tell me more.

HS: What makes VR different this time around? Will it stop being just a fad and actually become part of mainstream gaming, as well as other areas of our lives, especially regarding the mass market outside of gamers.

PC: VR will never replace mainstream gaming. It isn’t equipped to, nor was it ever intended to. Much like mobile and social games didn’t replace traditional games, VR represents a brand new, additional way for people to enjoy games and other media alongside those traditional ways. While I agree that VR is still very niche, I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon. There’s just too much useful stuff it can do that traditional media can’t, and that list of stuff is only going to increase as the tech advances

“VR will never replace mainstream gaming. It isn’t equipped to, nor was it ever intended to.”

HS: Do you think that is could be used for less “innocent” purposes than simply gaming or watching TV?

PC: I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “less innocent” purposes, but there’s already plenty of adult VR content if that’s what you’re implying. But there are also many other “innocent” purposes besides watching TV or gaming:

  • There are some great programs coming out that allow people to do their work in VR, whether it’s an engineer using VR for design, or a surgeon examining a medical scan of a patient to detect any complications before an operation;
  • There are numerous great ways to use VR to communicate with people, socially or long distance;
  • VR can allow people to visit places that they, for whatever reason, will never get the chance to visit in their lifetime;
  • Just the other day I saw a great use for VR as a distraction method for kids while they get their vaccinations, completely eliminating trauma and struggle caused by needle fear.

HS: Lastly, what do you see as the next big step for VR?

PC: For low-end VR like Gear, it’s all about improved hardware and input at the same affordable price ranges, allowing for better experiences for more people.
high-end VR like Vive and Rift, it has to be the removal of the wires. They’re literally getting in the way of VR. They have to go.

So, it looks like VR is here to stay. With more affordable options available to the public, as well as new and innovative technology flooding the field from high-level industry down to grass root indie companies, it seems that VR and AR will be making a massive change to the way we see the world.