Tomas Mariancik has been creating games since he got his first computer at age 12. Going by the moniker of ‘Frooxius,’ he’s been working on VR applications since the days of Oculus DK1. He’s the co-founder of Solirax, with ventures as part of the first River VR accelerator, and you may have heard of the other experiences he’s created since then: SightLine: The Chair, Neos: The Universe, Neos Origin, and World of Comelius.
His experiences with the tools within the world of VR applications led him to one particular design principle. “We need a new way of thinking about this medium when we are doing our design decisions. That is when deciding how the software is going to work like, what’s it going to be about, what are going to be its core principles? Even how is the user going to interact with the software?
“The thing about VR is that it’s a very different medium from a computer screen, so all the other design practices that you are familiar with don’t transfer well. Even if they do, they don’t truly utilize the potential of new technology. It doesn’t matter if you are designing games, educational or social experiences.”
Essentially, he argues, you want to break the laws of physics, getting rid of the limitations of the real world.
“The first of my projects was a game or an experience called SightLine: The Chair. It actually started as the basic idea, what would the world look like if the laws of physics were somehow broken?”
While waiting for his DK1 kit to arrive, he began thinking about what novel experiences he could build.
“I was essentially thinking that we already live in the real world, so if we had VR experiences that just copied, maybe with little tweaks here and there, they would seem mundane and boring, in a way, because we don’t need a VR headset to experience those things. We can experience them in real life.”
The real power of VR, he says, is being able to create experiences and worlds that can’t exist otherwise.
“In psychology, one of the first things our brains learn about the world that we live in is the object permanence, so I thought it would be interesting to break that principle. In SightLine, the entire world is volatile. If you look at a chair and glance away even for a moment, it might turn into a door, or entire scenery can change around you if you just look around.”
Needless to say, this created very unusual, surreal experiences, opening a new way of storytelling – and even transitioning within scenes – which also had the added benefit of creating a stable environment that didn’t make users sick.
“There was no actual movement, you just look around. When you are in VR, you feel that the objects or your environment are actually there. So when they unexpectedly change, it actually feels like the world around you is doing something that it shouldn’t, something that you wouldn’t normally experience and something that your brain wasn’t equipped to handle, which made the experience so surreal and so interesting and compelling.”
Mariancik explains that the same experience on a computer screen just wouldn’t feel the same. “The interesting thing about this mechanic, it didn’t really have the same impact when it was displayed on a computer screen. It was essentially a principle that needed VR to work.”
It was this first experience with SightLine that taught Mariancik not to be afraid of breaking physics.
“When you are creating virtual worlds, you are not constrained by the way your world behaves and works. Your constraints are essentially only the computing power and your own imagination. What this means is that essentially VR allows you and us to have other people step into our own imaginations and the worlds that we imagination, no matter how bizarre or unusual they are. This essentially allows us to enter into worlds and universes that wouldn’t exist in the real world. This is what I think makes them so compelling.”
Post his SightLine experience, Mariancik began to explore how VR can be used for education.
“I eventually developed a project called World of Comenius. It was essentially a concept demo exploring how education in VR would look like, but I didn’t want to just create a classroom that happens to be in VR, but instead to create a virtual universe that could be freely explored and interacted with.”
Instead of listening to a lecture, you could learn a subject by directly experiencing it, he says.
“You could actually be a part of the discovery process itself, like if you met with Newton or Einstein and you were their lab assistant, and you actually performed a discovery yourself, or a sort of rediscovery.”
The value in this, he explains, is how many scientists seem to intuitively grasp and visualize a subject in their heads.
“There’s a famous story about how Albert Einstein imagined chasing photons or rays of radiation, and he thought about what it would look like and how it would behave, and it essentially formed a basis for his special theory of relativity.”
At the end of the day, says Mariancik, we only get to experience one real universe, but VR allows us to build many more.
“There’s no reason they have to behave exactly the same. We might never get to travel to other stars and galaxies, but with VR we can travel to other universes in our heads. That’s what makes it so powerful, and what makes it so much fun.”