Wevr Making Huge Leaps in VR-Creation Game
VR is having a moment – one that will forever change the entertainment landscape. Front and center of this boom is California-based VR startup Wevr, that’s not just poised for consumer-era virtual reality, but well in the throes of creating slick cinematic-esque content that’s making the medium look good.
We caught up with Scott Stephan, Wevr’s technical/design lead, who takes pitches through to production. He gives us his take on cracking into the industry, experiential user engagement, and the essential elements of top-notch VR.
Q: You work within the design team at Wevr. Can you tell us what your role there involves.
A: My official title is “Technical/Design Lead, theBlu”, which is kind of a catch all. I work on the initial project pitches and then follow them all the way through production. The nice thing about my job is that I have a Comp Sci background, so I’m not just an “idea guy” – I get my hands dirty, too. A lot of the day-to-day work is integrating new assets into the game engine, setting up and timing the experiences, writing new features etc. I like being on both sides of that experience. For something like theBlu, that’s really tightly scripted, there are many, many, many, many late-night debates about really small things, like the timing of the turtle or the speed of the anglerfish. VR is a really visual, experiential medium and those details matter so much.
Q: For those looking to crack into the biz, what’s a good starting point?
A: It’s a good time. No-one is really an “expert” and just having even a hobbyist project to show off is a huge leg up on the competition. So, get started! Make a VR game! Or an experience, whatever. Zero in on what you’re interested in. Give us a great VR UI or a really amazing mechanic. Far and away the No.1 thing we look for is some kind of VR-enthusiasm. It’s still rare!
There are many, many late-night debates about things like the timing of the turtle or the speed of the anglerfish. Those details matter so much.
Q: You’re passionate about the potential for VR to be used as an expressive medium, kinda like poetry. What elements will ensure this is so?
A: I always try and ask myself what problem new technology is solving. It’s really easy to end up with too many solutions and not enough problems. So, something like 3D TV, why was that better than regular TV? For me, and for a lot of media consumers, it wasn’t. But VR feels fundamentally different. My biggest interest is that the engagement runway is so much longer. In a lot of console and mobile games, you have maybe 30 seconds to hook someone. You have be like, “Hey! Get coins here” or “Check out this explosion over here!”. VR is different – people love being there. They engage with the act of being. Particularly, roomscale VR, like the Vive, really gives people a sense of presence. Just looking and hearing becomes more than informational; it becomes experiential. As a content creator, this allows you to tell more textured stories, to ease people into the experience, to give them robust experiences that aren’t just junk-food, dopamine-drip treadmills (and, don’t get me wrong, I love a dopamine-drip treadmill, but still). People are more ready and willing to engage with your content and that kind of bucks the trend for interactive as a whole.
Q: Wevr’s theBlu, which takes viewers to the depths of the ocean, has been praised as a superbly executed intro to VR. Aside from the “cool” factor it facilitates, why do you think it’s had the impact it has?
A: Much of the praise here belongs to Jake Rowell, who was the Creative Director on The Encounter and theBlu. Jake has an incredible amount of VFX, game and storytelling experience, and he really took to VR like, well, a fish out of water. The work he and Andy Jones did on animating the whale is incredible. Really take a look at it. There’s an astonishing amount of detail in the movement, small twists of the fin and such. And I think that really privileges the player’s viewpoint. It rewards you for looking, it gives back. It’s not just a movie with a fixed POV; it’s a kind of real, living world for you to be in.
Q: In your own words, what are the essential elements of a kickass VR experience?
A: Roleplaying! We don’t do a lot of this in theBlu, but a great example is the stealth-game Budget Cuts. You actually have to hide under tables and behind walls and peer around corners with your body. It’s a great way of tying game mechanics to your proprioception and your behavior. You start to really feel like the character. Audio is also a huge element. For a long time, audio has kind of been the very last thing you do in a game. It’s important reinforcement, but it’s rarely a front-and-center design element. In VR, spatial audio is incredibly important and is an enormous dimension for creators to think about.
Q: What are the specific challenges of roomscale VR versus non-roomscale?
A: My biggest early fear was that you don’t really have a way to stop players. If I put a wall in the middle of the virtual room, you can walk right through it. What we found was that players will go to amazing lengths to avoid that. They’ll walk around walls, jump over them, anything to avoid stepping through it. It really speaks to the power of roomscale VR to tap into our experiential, real-world brains. We see the same thing with humanoid character models: You could walk through them, but instead of, players walk up to their real-world, personal-space distance and wait. There’s also just the quality expectation. If someone is using their body, they expect to be able to pick up things. And then they expect that thing to fall the way it would in real life. And if they throw it, it needs to have the right heft and on and on. You just get many, many more expectations in roomscale.
Q: Do you foresee more VR creators stepping forward as the medium gains traction?
A: Absolutely! We’ve already seen interest from filmmakers and authors and artists. It really does feel like more than a gimmick, it feels like a new medium.