EGX Rezzed: Interview with Elliott Myers (Roto VR)
“The biggest problem with virtual reality is that you put the headset on and end up playing it like a normal video game.” Elliott Myers, founder of Roto VR, has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about where the shortcomings of virtual reality lie, and has provided what may be a solution to at least some of them.
I got to speak to him on the Thursday at EGX Rezzed, when there was clearly a busy weekend ahead – as well as demonstrating the Roto, I asked when the project’s Kickstarter was beginning. Elliott checked his watch. “About 10 minutes ago!” Videos uploads and press releases were due to go hand in hand with the three days at the show.
Getting a session on the prototype of the Roto itself, I was provided with an insight into the project. The unit attracted a lot of attention from visitors, as does the Oculus Rift anywhere it is set up. But the Roto does it a little differently, being a seated base that allows the VR wearing player to physically rotate themselves freely.
Elliott sees this as the solution to several problems – “We’re resolving the cable tangling issue which is a big deal for some. We are resolving the fact that you’re never going to miss anything in a film because you can be turned to face the action, which is what other people are going on about. We are resolving nausea by physically turning you in the real world, which is what a lot of people are going on about. And resolving all of these together.”
The demo unit was running Alien: Isolation – and let me interject by saying that if the game seemed tense on a regular screen, when you’re wearing the Rift then seeing the xenomorph for far too long as it begins to kill you is genuinely terrifying. But more importantly, the demo was to show at least two of those problems being offered a solution.
Nausea is a common complaint when using VR headsets for a length of time, as the movement the eyes see and the movement the body feels don’t match up. The Roto’s motorised base matches your character’s turning with physical rotation, seeking to offset the feeling of sickness as well as provide more immersion. To further this, turning was controlled by a rotating foot pedal, using your legs rather than right thumb to affect movement… although I will confess that muscle memory is a hard thing to fight, and I had to force myself to stop using the Xbox pad initially.
Learning to use the foot pedal was a new experience, where it took a short while to get the hang of simply not oversteering myself in some slightly inelegant pirouettes. “We’ve got it quite fast”, Elliott explained afterwards. “We had it much slower before and then people said “no, no – beef it up”. So this time we’ve got it beefed up. The kit’s settable.” That initial confusion overcome, feeling the seat turning you along with the character does quickly feel complimentary to the whole experience.
Even with a wired headset and joypad, another aspect of the Roto is a slip ring, allowing the player to keep rotating without cables becoming tangled. This sounds extremely utilitarian, but is essential to the whole thing. Elliott wanted to emphasise how VR can be a completely different way to explore games.
He feels that sitting in a fixed position and limited by cables leaves players confined. “You just face forwards. So all these beautiful rendered graphics, there’s this vicious cycle – why would a developer put amazing stuff behind you? Why would they invest the money when they know you’re going to be sitting there?”
“So what we’re trying to do is give people the inclination to explore, and having a motorised system not only makes it easy [and] comfortable, but it makes it fun. So now people will spin around, people don’t need to use the right joystick for navigation, and they can play for longer periods of time. And the fact that we’ve gotten rid of all the cables means all this is possible via the slip ring solution, which is upgradable – so it is a future proofed design, and when you put all of these together you really do have 360 VR. And as gamers, that’s what we wanted to deliver.”
Of course, with a motorised base it also allows the Roto to turn the user towards something too, which Elliott feels is a benefit with the prospect of virtual reality movies becoming more common. If an important set piece or plot point has been developed, it won’t necessarily be missed because the viewer is looking at something else – or rather, if the viewer has to be forced to turn towards an important event, it can be matched with physical movement towards it.
The market is expanding with a lot of interest in VR devices – the Roto is promised to work with all of the headsets and games coming out. The prototype was using an Oculus Rift DK2, perhaps the most recognised brand coming through, and a solid queue had formed for goes while we were talking. But VR is still developing, and Elliott is clearly a believer that they will be successful, so I asked him what he felt their place in the market will be.
“I think it depends on what time line you’re talking about. I think in the next few year it’s going to be gaming enthusiasts, and we hope movies which is enthusiasts too. I think that is going to be the short-medium term frankly,” he predicts, before looking at the significantly longer term.
“Ultimately augmented reality and virtual reality will blend together [...] So if there was no processing power delays, if there were no triangulation issues about what’s in the foreground vs what’s in the background, with that resolved in time then I can see people wearing something that’s quite lightweight, wireless and you’ll be able to do some sort of gesture where you’ll be able to see what’s in real life and what’s in the virtual world. I think it will become acceptable to walk around with these things over time. I think Google Glass proved we’re not there yet, but I think over time we will get there.”
The Kickstarter for funding of the Roto VR is currently in progress, aiming for a release by Christmas 2015.