Thursday, August 20, 2015

GUETS POST: The Future Freaks Me Out - Virtual Reality for Horror Fans

Written by: Brandon Engel

Virtual reality has risen from the dead.

After years spent languishing in relative obscurity, VR is back and fully capable of transporting users to the darkest, outermost reaches of their imaginations. In March 2014, Facebook bought a small company called Oculus VR for the paltry sum of $2 billion. Today the company is planning to bring a virtual reality headset called the Oculus Rift to consumer markets in under a year. Though the headset is not yet publicly available, that hasn’t stopped Oculus from developing new video game and film content specifically designed to fright.

Virtual reality, the digital manifestation of convincing and immersive illusions, has a surprisingly
long history. In 1968, Ivan Sutherland of MIT came up with the first attempt at fully-fledged VR
technology. Although both NASA and the military were keenly interested in the new technology,
it turned out to have some bugs: The helmet was horrendously heavy, and the simulations caused the users to develop severe nausea. The latter problem plagued VR designers throughout the 1980s and 1990s as well.


The lucky few who have been granted access to the Oculus Rift headset before its release claim that its makers have solved that particular problem, and that using the headset is now actually a pleasurable experience. Recent innovation in high speed fiber-optic and sensor technology, as well as improved graphics and more ergonomic headwear design contribute to the product’s newfound success. Sony Computer Entertainment also believes they have conquered VR’s problems and plan to release a VR headset called Project Morpheus sometime in 2016 as well. It will work with the PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 4 game systems. Designers and filmmakers with a taste for horror have a particularly vested interest in taking advantage of all that VR has to offer. Honor Code, for example, is working on a version of a game called “Narcosis” that will work with Oculus Rift. In the game, the players explore an abandoned and flooded undersea research facility. Those who have been able to give Oculus Rift a “test drive” comment that the helmet is light enough to enable the player to forget they’re wearing it – which means it won’t distract the user from the game. The “test drivers” of Narcosis also praised Honor code for taking advantage of the player’s peripheral vision. Seeing something menacing or potentially menacing out of the corner of one’s eye can be a lot more alarming than seeing it head on, simply because of the uncertainty involved.

Filmmakers are getting into it too - a low-budget horror movie called Banshee Chapter (produced by Zachary Quinto and loosely based on “From Beyond,” a short story by H.P. Lovecraft) was the first-ever first feature film released in virtual reality format in 2014. The last Sundance Festival, held this past January, had a New Frontier program featuring VR movies. These included Clouds Over Sidra by Chris Milk which allowed the viewer to experience the life of a 12-year-old Syrian refugee in Jordan. At that same program, Oculus VR announced the creation of Story Studio which will develop animated VR films. According to Brendan Iribe, the CEO of Oculus, the company plans to experiment with the movies to learn which techniques work best with their upcoming headset.

At least one game designer fears that a greater prevalence of VR tech could prove to be dangerous. Denny Unger of Cloudhead Games has spoken on the issue, acknowledging the fact that the more realistic a game becomes the more realistic the player’s reactions become. He fears that it’s only a matter of time before somebody dies while playing a VR game, and horror games stand out as the most potentially dangerous culprit. Unger points out that even a regular horror game can make a player’s heart race if they encounter something frightening. A VR game would hypothetically intensify such reactions – which could have lethal consequences for players with heart troubles or other medical conditions.

VR horror games and movies will surely provide more effective and “immersive” frights than conventional horror games and movies given the immersive nature of VR. In a conventional game, the player sees their avatar get trapped somewhere by a monster. In a VR game, the player experiences the sensations of being trapped by the monster. They can hear the creature, and they might see it out of the corner of their eye. They might hear themselves panting or hear their footsteps crunching in the snow. In such a game, it would be much harder to maintain the usual emotional distance that lets people tell themselves “It’s only a game” or “It’s only a movie.

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