Virtual Reality is coming back at us!
Are we ready this time?

Hello! Who are you?
My name is Ilja Kivikangas, I’m 33 years old, and I’m a developer of content for the virtual reality (VR) system known as Oculus Rift.

Crash-course on virtual reality, if you please?
Well, virtual reality is on a constant development, but in general it’s any system that can override most of the input we get (through the senses) from the real world, and replace them in a convincing way with input from another, artificially-built (virtual) world. The general public was first exposed to VR mostly in the eighties, through movies (The Lawnmower man, TRON, Brainstorm, for example) and novels by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Neal Stephenson, and many others. In those stories the characters use some sort of gear to stop seeing or “living” in this world, and proceed to exist in an alternate reality. It’s a virtual world because it doesn’t exist, but it does. So anyway, after an initial boom VR went under the sea and disappeared from the public view for literally decades. But now it’s coming back with renewed force! Only… I don’t know if this is evident for regular people. To me it seems obvious but, is this comeback visible, you think?

Good question. When we focus on something we see it everywhere.
Yeah, and especially because the places I frequent are full of this stuff. It seems to me like it’s a vast explosion, and every tech-related event is mentioning VR these days, so anybody following technology should have some kind of awareness to it. But if we go out on the street and start asking about the state of VR today, I would guess most people wouldn’t have a clue…

So yes, the resurgence of VR is here, and I am convinced in the next five years it’ll become more and more popular, until reaches the general public. I am just one of the many around the world working to make this happen.

What’s your background?
After college I was interested in math and physics, so I went to the University of Technology, which is where the future Nokia people go to get their engineer diplomas. But I’ve always been into gaming, since kindergarten, and they weren’t teaching any of that in that school. The whole gaming thing was gaining momentum in Finland, and other schools were offering programs on game-making so I went to Tampere to study interactive design, visual design programming, and 3D art. I tried to turn every project into something gaming-related. There was no gaming platform yet, we were doing Flash-based things. Nobody else was doing 3D so I was practicing on my own. And all this led to my first job at Digital Chocolate (I was there for five years as a 3D artist). I also graduated, and started doing projects with my colleagues. DC didn’t survive the boom of Facebook gaming, and after that I did some editing and GUI programming. But at that time there was already a lot of VR stuff happening, and I really wanted in. So I got my first DK1 kit and began testing it. It made me literally sick.

What motivated you to get the prototype?
Well… When I first heard about the concept of the iPhone I thought “this is gonna be BIG”. At that time I was at THQ-Mobile and tried to tell people “hey, why don’t we develop for this?” I would have wanted to make something for mobiles, but I missed that train. At the beginning the app store was like the wild west, you could do whatever you wanted and it would be up there for millions to download. There were so few apps and games, that whatever got published got a tremendous visibility. Only 100 apps or so in the first six months that the store was open! Now, there are more than 100.000 in there…

It seems every five years or so there is a revolution like that, and today we are there again. And I didn’t want to miss this one, no way. I wanted to start as soon as possible, gather experience, see what works and what doesn’t.

So you jacked in.
Yeah. I took part in VR JAM, an event meant to encourage the development of VR games and content. You had four weeks (which is pretty long for a jam) and price-money. There were several milestones and mock-up screenshots that you needed to present, video, and the final thing. And while I was doing this I was having so much fun that I began to lose interest in my day job, and eventually quit and started my own company.

You work full time on this now?
Yes. I’ve been working on this project for almost a year, on my own. Simo Sainio, a friend of mine, creates the soundtrack and audio of the game.

What has rekindled the current interest in VR, would you say?
This renaissance we’re experiencing began with a very interesting character named Palmer Luckey. He is a hands-on guy who was creating electronic stuff in his garage, and exploring VR since very young. He built a respectable collection of VR devices (one of the largest in the world, according to some), studying and traveling around, researching VR.

Back then VR systems were horribly expensive (we’re talking from 10.000 to 100.000 dollars) and they were not good at all, The hardware was not up to the task (at the time, computers were 20 to 100 times less powerful than today) and the headsets were heavy, clunky, uncomfortable to wear, and made people really, really sick. All of that is what probably put VR to sleep back then, all these bad experiences.

So Palmer, seeing that not much was going on, began to design and build his own prototypes. He was showing his developments on a forum called MTBS3D (Meant to be Seen 3D), and one day John Carmack -the famous guy from iD Software- approached Palmer, who lent him a prototype for testing. He took it to the E3 fair in Los Angeles and the people there were really stoked (for a while it was assumed that it was a Carmack initiative). As interest grew more and more, Palmer (and other professionals) created the Oculus VR company, and launched a Kickstarter campaign for the first DK1. That went very well, and more external money began to pour in. Then Facebook bought them for two billion and FB stock (that’s dollars). So that’s more or less where we are now.

So Oculus Rift is not a consumer product yet.
No, it still is in development. What came out of the original Kickstarter campaign is known as the DK1 (Developer Kit One), and recently the second iteration came out, DK2. I was just recently at the Oculus Connect Expo in Los Angeles, where version 3 was presented, and that is very close to what the final retail version’s going to look like.

Is it difficult to get one?
Not at all. You go to their website and order one from them, that’s it. These days it’s much easier. Not a long time ago, developers where expected to pay 10.000 eu for the Playstation developer kit, and you had to have a license (which they would not give to everybody who asked). But it started to change because of the indie scene. Nowadays you can get dev consoles pretty cheap, and as long as you can show something of your project, and demonstrate that you are a serious developer, you’ll get it. With Oculus it’s been like this from the beginning, they didn’t have inflated prices because what they want to see is people making content for the device, which takes a lot of time and effort. And the learning curve is steep too.

What makes each model better?
Higher resolution, faster refresh rates, shorter lag (how quickly it responds to your movements). Less weight: the second iteration is heavier than the first, but the third is lighter than both. Greater freedom of movement: with the DK1 you could turn your head on the X and Y axes only. The DK2 has a tracking camera which follows your head and tracks your movements (but only works while you are looking at the camera). It’s infrared light (IR) that can “see” the markers on the headset, but if you look away it can’t track anymore. In the DK3 there are IR LEDs on the back of the headset too, so you can turn 360 degrees with continuous tracking, and it works surprisingly well. At the fair they had an enclosure of about 4×4 meters, kinda like a cubicle with soft walls, so you could move about wearing the headset without hurting yourself. You could lie down, jump and move about, and it would track just fine.

What other options have been tried for tracking?
Well, in these devices the camera is external to the headset, but it could also be inside the device and track the movement in relation to the surroundings. It has been tried, but it’s not good enough, not precise enough. Valve had a show presenting this technology, with a camera on it and a gazillion fiducial markers pasted all around the room. In such setting it does work, but I doubt people will be happy to wallpaper their rooms in fiducial print-outs. Then they were talking about having lasers do the tracking, which of course has other problems.

Can’t we fire lasers directly into the retinas and dispense with the displays altogether, like in Snow Crash?
Carmack tried that. He built a low-power laser device, and it kinda worked! But only if you kept your eyes fixed where the laser is firing… There’s some other guys who built a model with a miniature projector. DLP mini-lens arrays look beautiful, but Palmer tried it and said the technology is not suitable for VR, at least for now. But yeah, now that there’s a renewed interest in this, there are many offers out there.

Do you test every VR product that comes out?
I am committed to the Oculus brand, because it’s the best out there right now. For example, there’s Sony’s Personal Viewer, which has been on for some time and has separate high-res mini-screens (which also gives you 3D) but that’s not really workable. For VR to immerse you, the screens must surround your field of view, to minimize your visual input from the real world and to maximize the virtual one’s. There should be as little “holes” around the screens as possible. In the DK1 for example, the horizontal viewing angle is 100 degrees, and diagonal is 110. Other viewing devices have 45 degrees in the horizontal, but they are meant for viewing content, not for VR, and they don’t include any tracking technology. They are different creatures.

The crucial thing in a VR headset is the field of view, which should always be greater than 90 degrees, and the bigger the better (although there’s a point at which you start losing the benefits).

You mentioned we didn’t have the technology to implement workable VR back then. What has changed so much that today we can do it?
The iPhone. It changed the screen technology game altogether. People stopped using phones with old LCD screens, and began demanding smart phones, which in turn went for higher and higher resolutions. And of course gyroscopes, accelerometers, and IMUs (IMUs are used in rocket technology, another field in which John Carmack dabbled in). IMUs used to cost in the tens of thousands, today you buy them for one dollar. So all these elements, being sold in such volumes, have brought the prices down, and the tech has gotten better and better, which allows us today to make a 300 dollar VR device, instead of a 30.000 one.

Are there Chinese copies of the Rift?
Oh, yeah. But Oculus don’t mind that at all. In fact they have released most of the technical details openly. The DK1 software has been made available for free too, so anyone can understand how it works and make their own copy. They do this in the hope of elevating the quality of knock-offs, to try to give people the best possible initial contact with VR. There are many other copies around already, but that doesn’t represent competition for them, because the Rift is clearly much better.

Ok, let’s talk about your game.
The game is called Windlands, and it’s the maturation of the prototype I started at VR JAM. To understand what it is, I guess I need to tell I used to have a fear of heights. And when I first got the headset, the first demos I tried were the roller-coaster, and others where you could jump really high… In real life I couldn’t possibly experience anything like that, my stomach would come out of my mouth. Standing near a cliff would have also been impossible back then. So the game began as an opportunity to face all these overwhelming sensations; I wanted to create such environment. So what you do in the game is to jump very high in the air, hover for a while, then land on floating islands. Later on I added grappling hooks and other mechanics, more ways to move around, interact, and explore.

What’s the story, narrative-wise?

I have gone through several iterations of the story, every time simplifying it more and more, because working alone is tough. There’s Simo, who makes the music and the sounds, but for any grandiose plans I may have (places, textures, animations) it’s just me, so I need to keep it real.

The structure is inspired by games like Shadow of the Colossus, for example: a huge environment and a horse, that’s it. You can ride, and walk, and climb, but you interact with little else in the game. And every time you start on the same place, from where you must seek these huge creatures called Colossi, identify their weaknesses, and defeat them. It’s a “simple” game that alternates between the search for the enemies and the fights themselves, but it’s incredibly immersive and evocative, and this is the style I’m aiming for with my game. There’s also a nod to the non-linear system of level selection ala Mega Man, in which you find yourself at a hub, and from there you can select where you want to go. Each level has a distinct theme, and in the end a boss fight. Along the way you find items that slowly help to create a story about what happened to the world. When you have defeated each foe, you’ll gain access to the final area of the game, and the most powerful boss. Defeat it and you’ll have finished the game. So it’s more ambience storytelling than narrative or plot-driven. The backstory is implied.

I’m a fan of RPGs like Final Fantasy VII, for example, where you have lots of interaction and characters, so my next project will likely be more like that. It’s important to consider that at this point we’re really threading on new territory with this, because people are beginning to interact with VR, and how people use controllers is not universally defined yet. My plan was that before we grow an audience -which is limited while there is no consumer version of the Rift- I would build a game that can be shown to people, and it’s not outrageous in scope (although this is definitely NOT a small game to make for one person). I will deliver this one, and see where it leads me to.

So you’re thinking beyond this game already.
Yeah, from the very beginning; it makes sense to plan ahead. But the target of the next game is a more established audience, using more specialized controllers.

When will the game be out? How is it going to be sold?
The finished game will be ready by mid 2015. For now there’s a free demo that can be downloaded from Indiegogo (I update it from time to time). Oculus have been slowly implementing their own store, which has been their plan from the beginning. They won’t be making money on hardware (the Development Kits are sold at a loss). What they want is to have a platform for the content. Not to make products, but to get a cut from every game sold, that’s their business model. It will be like Steam (the biggest web-shop for PC games). So the idea is to sell through the Oculus store, Steam, maybe a direct download from our site, and perhaps also offer Humble Bundle, which is a widget that people can put on their website, and uses a secure payment system.

What part of making games do you enjoy more? The coding, the graphics, the creation of characters, animating them..?
Programming. It goes well with my brain. I like order and interesting problems to solve. But I can do art too, which is good, it balances things. In big companies it is all very compartmentalized. There’s maybe one guy whose job is to design virtual nuts and bolts, nothing more, that’s all he does. For me that is horrifying, getting stuck doing one single thing like that.

Do you think of bringing more people in to help out?
Yeah, when I can afford it, I will. But for now it’s just me, which is good and bad. Bad because it takes so long, but good because I think indie developers reflect themselves and their personalities through the games they make, which I think appeals to people, and would explain their success. Good movie-makers and script-writers do this. You feel their imprint there, it’s engaging story-telling, not million-per-minute Michael Bay explosion extravaganzas, empty shells. This has soul.

How do you sustain development?
We got some basic start-up money from the government, then through the Indiegogo crowd-funding platform. I would have preferred Kickstarter because I like their system better, but the Finnish laws are finicky about it. Still, Indiegogo was great. We pledged for 14.000 u$s, and reached more than 20.000. Our purpose was to gauge how big an audience was there for a game like this, and the results speak for themselves. Talking is free, but when there’s money on the table you can see who the customers are, and what they really want.

I see VR content as a two-tier thing. First there’s the hardcore racing games (Project CARS, Assetto Corsa) and flight simulators (X-Plane, FSX, Falcon BMS, DCS Combat Simulator, Rise of Flight) that have been worked on for many years by big teams. And then there’s the indie stuff: small, and focused experiences. My game belongs within this group. When I published the demo, the feedback was like “this is so far what most closely resembles a game”. In terms of structure and content, it’s a complex experience. Other games out there can be completed in a matter of minutes, but I have talked with people who have played it for more than eight hours now. And it’s not even finished yet.

Is it difficult to develop for an evolving platform?
Oh, yes, it is. This is a devkit, it has lots of problems. The software is not ready. There’s all kinds of funny issues. When everything goes well it’s really cool, but when it goes wrong… You have to wait and see what happens. That’s what I had to do two months ago when I got the DK2. I put it on, I tried it, it was awesome. I created a separate version of the game for it, then I realized the SDK (Software Development Kit) for Unity (the engine that powers the game) was a mess. You make people really sick, it is not ready, so I had to put it back into the package and stick to the SDK1 until last week. I just had to wait for the updates, which solved several problems. But it’s a new device, and follows its own development.

What’s the community like?
Awesome. There are no established franchises yet, so we support each other. Big companies are not developing for this yet, because it only makes sense for them if they can target a million units out there. So it’s mostly indies, making a huge variety of things. A lot of people are contributing with articles and how-to guides. The environment is incredibly friendly. We talk through FB or email, and collaborate freely. When you work alone you miss the teamwork, and these interactions help to compensate for that.

I think I’m ready to try the thing.
Okay, let me set it up.

Ilja moves about connecting cables, launching applications, calibrating peripherals, and setting up other paraphernalia…

Nowadays VR is a “sitting” experience, for legal reasons (Oculus is anxious someone uses the device while standing, maybe fall and get hurt, then sue them). The one we tried in LA could be used while standing, but we had to sign a waiver (I don’t remember signing it, ’cause I was so excited, but I did). Anyway, to put it on first place the headset on your face, then pull the cord backwards, unlike swimming goggles. And It needs to be tight, otherwise it moves around and the screens are not aligned with your eyes anymore, you’ll begin to see a blur. You can choose to sit or stand.

I remain standing and put the headset on. It feels a bit heavy around my head. My eyes begin to adjust to the new images in front of me, and… I am standing in a spartan office, close to a desk with some objects on top, a lamp, a flower vase. The graphics are nothing you wouldn’t see in any 3D game circa 1995. But the three-dimensional immediacy of my being there, created by the twin-displays in front of my eyes, is breath-taking. VR has grown up a lot since I first tried the Nintendo Virtual Boy in the nineties… I try to grab an object from the desk, but…

Where are my hands! I have no hands!
He, he. That’s what most people say the first time they try it. What you’re feeling is a certain dislocation. Your presence there is so powerful that it feels naturally strange not to see your own hands.

I move my head about and inspect the objects on the table…

Wow. This would be great for video conferencing.
Yeah. But it should also feature some system to track what the eyes are looking at, which is very important during a conversation. And also the hands. Hands are such emotive vehicle for conveying emotion. The more realistic it is, the more you are puzzled by not being able to see your hands. We were talking before about our brains picking up on stuff unconsciously before our conscious mind does. In regular games, you can forget about reality for a while and immerse yourself into the game, but with VR you go a step further and experience presence: your mind has already agreed to what it’s seeing, and taken a step on its own without asking you. Let’s say in real life there’s a cliff in front of you. Your automatic survival system may lock your knees to prevent you from advancing further and risk a fall (the fear effect). Presence is achieving this effect. Whereas immersion is trying to make the mind believe an experience is real, presence is you trying to tell your mind that this is not real!

Have they invented porn for it yet?
(laughs) A lot of demos initially were about that. Same thing happened when Betacam, VHS and Blue-ray came out. The force that moves the world. But let me show you the raft demo. Take this.

He passes on some sort of joystick controller and I grab it by touch, because my hands are unseen, in Real World now. Ilja now launches another scenario: I’m standing on the deck of a Kon-tiki raft in the middle of the blue ocean. Everything is made out of wood and ropes, and we float away. The sun shines. I know I have a joystick in my hand, but I don’t know -and I cannot see- what buttons should I press to move around the space.

How do I move?
Ah, yes… Whenever people are given a controller they get fixed into a direction, and this is a problem. That’s why we need to evolve some other form of controller, because this goes against the freedom of movement. We shouldn’t be tied into one direction; the idea with this device is that you can turn your head around. If you sit down a senior person in front or a display, give them a joystick and tell them to play Call of Duty, for example, they will find it very hard. But if they put on a VR device it will come naturally for them to move the head around, because they have been doing it all of their lives. It’s easy.

When you start introducing this kind of constraints, you run into all sort of unforeseen problems. For example, your vision is presenting you with one thing, but you need to be aware of your controller in order to move about in the virtual world. It’s an abstraction, and it makes it hard for certain people to feel comfortable with the experience; it takes them away from it.

But for now this is the best we have. I do own another controller that tracks movement, but it’s not precise enough to be useful. There are other Kickstarters who are working on something called Stem, which is a wireless device that tracks the hand via magnetic fields. That’s interesting and something worth following; it gives you a glimpse of what can be done.

I fumble with the joystick and begin to walk around the raft, while moving my head around, noticing the details. Like before, the graphics are very basic, but what blows your mind is the immersion factor. I am actually avoiding getting too close to the ocean-blue water, lest some giant monstrosity jumps out of it.

Would you like to see my game now?
Yes, let’s do it.

He launches Windlands, the game he’s been working on for so long, and that not only enjoys the support of a world-wide audience, it’s gathered more than 20.000 dollars in real, non-virtual cash. I suddenly am in a fantasy-tale land of cutesy forests and rolling hills. Looking up, I can see a multitude of islands that effortlessly float in the air like in the Avatar movie, while everything recedes in the distance through atmospheric perspective. It’s beautiful. Ilja’s disembodied voice wakes me up from my reverie.

Use the controllers to launch the grappling hooks. Don’t be afraid to fall; this is the easy mode and you cannot die.

I reach the limit of my platform and lock on some spot on the next floating island, which is separated from where I am by a seemingly infinite chasm. I launch the hooks but they can’t reach the other side. I’m gonna have to run, jump, and try my luck. My jump is not bad, but you have to do so many things which are not intuitive at the same time: press the button to run, press another to jump, look with your head at where you want to fire, press the fire button, forget about the overwhelming, instinctual reflex that’s telling you you’re about to die… Aaaaaah..! I fall. Many times. Until the hooks find purchase and I swing away like Tarzan on to the next island in the sky.

You not only need to learn how to play the game, you must already be used to the mechanics of VR too. The sense of dislocation is tremendous. My vision is telling me I’m catastrophically falling, but my body doesn’t.

Your inner gyro is conflicting with your sight, that’s why they recommend it as a sitting experience. There are lots of YouTube videos of people falling down using Oculus Rift. But yeah, it’s a skill-based game. At first you’re like a baby, you can’t do much, but then you progress, if you keep at it. There is this nice guy who played the demo content and made a game diary, where he wrote his thoughts on the first day experiences, second, third. That helped me a lot to improve on several things.

Is the headset dangerous, radiation-wise?
Magnetic field generators shouldn’t probably be too close to your brain. I’ve seen videos in which they use magnetic fields to pinpoint language centers and prevent a person from speaking, so… It’s all very exploratory at this point.

Uh-huh. Is there any danger in having a screen so close to the eyes?
There’s no definite word on that. But something beneficial for the eyes is the extra exercise. We spend most of the day looking at screens nowadays, and our eyes need to constantly work to focus. But when you wear a VR headset your eyes focus on infinite, which actually is good for the eyes. The tiny muscles of the eyes get to exercise on focusing far and near. But about harm… it’s light. Our eyes are meant to receive light.

What is real, Ilja?
Ah… We can get really philosophical about it. Even our reality itself is a virtual rendition of what our senses gather and our brain constructs for us. During one conference I attended to, they showed a video of a girl saying “BAR, BAR, BAR”. Then the girl began to vocalize “FAR, FAR, FAR” on the screen, but the audio remained the same, which created a confusion in the audience. Then they showed a split screen with both vocalizations, to show how the brain adapts to expectations. Or if we talk about languages, even if we hear people talking in a tongue we don’t understand, the brain will still attempt to interpret phonemes in the way it knows. We filter a lot of stuff automatically for our survival’s sake, and often make mistakes.

Speaking of survival, a potential problem I foresee is that virtual worlds can become so immersive and so much fun, that there is a real danger users won’t want to get back here at all. If I’m happier in the virtual world, what incentive do I have to let go of it and return to an existence that may be boring, threatening, or downright painful? We already have serious problems with players compulsively hooked into virtual community worlds, and actually dying of hunger and dehydration. And those worlds are seen through computer screens! What can happen when we are so immersed into a sensory experience as deep as the one you are crafting? J’accuse, Victor Frankenstein!
(he laughs, then thinks for a while) I guess that VR may be a two-edged sword, yeah. We can visualize this bleak, dystopian future in which people are vegetables, with tubes feeding them, all hooked up into virtual realities and not giving a hoot about the real world anymore. Also, if you are in an emotional state or something drives you away from your first life and into the virtual world, I think that could be potentially dangerous.

But if you are a balanced person offline you don’t need to be afraid of a virtual construct; you just go in for an experience that will add to the whole of you. VR should be seen as just another tool, which can open up new possibilities for education, entertainment, and communication. There are so many interesting apps, especially for bedridden or elderly people who have to stay at home without option, for example. VR can offer a life extension, so to speak.

So of course it’s up to us; it’s our responsibility to determine where the sweet spot is. When TV first came out we thought “oh, great! People will never leave their couch from now on!” But it wasn’t that bad… Not everybody is a couch potato today. I guess it all comes down to the subject of addiction. We can get addicted to anything and everything, and VR won’t change that.

Do you think people will eventually embrace VR?
It’s tricky. A two-dimension video of VR is meaningless, it simply can’t convey the experience of virtual reality. Converting people is only possible when they choose to try the experience for themselves. The majority go “Oooh, beautiful..!” and others reject it altogether; they go “Nope, this is not for me”.

In your mind, what’s your wildest projection about VR?
The end goal would be to bypass the nerve system altogether, and create a virtual reality world directly into the brain.

That would be really scary.
Or really awesome…

This is the game’s website . And this is the game’s page on Indiegogo .