Amir Ebrahimi, principal software engineer at newly formed Unity Labs, has bad news for people looking to invest in Tron lightcycles. “If you’re sitting here wondering, how am I going to make money with VR? Then I’d definitely suggest looking at the business-to-business side of things.” For those of us impatient to climb into our Better-Than-Life codpieces, it’s a sobering statement on a technology built on such outlandish promise. But these fantasies are one of the very pitfalls Amir Ebrahimi says VR developers need to be aware of.
“At our vision keynote summit, John Riccitiello [CEO of Unity Technologies] presented an alternative adoption curve for VR. Some of the other suggested models show a steady climb from 2016 moving forward.
2016 is going to be a modest year for VR investment, a year of survival rather than a miraculous, overnight success.”
“What he brought up was the potential for this gap of disappointment. Not with the technology itself, but with the promotion in the media of what VR is, or what it will be this year. What I can say is, the more we mitigate this gap of disappointment, the better off we will be. JR said at the talk, ‘It’s not going to make or break the industry, but right now, for developers, it could be a problem.’”
In essence, it is the fantastic media-generated narrative that could lead consumers to become disillusioned with the state of the technology. This leads Ebrahimi to suggest that 2016 is going to be a modest year for VR investment, a year of survival rather than a miraculous, overnight success.
Do you know the way to San Junipero?
Ebrahimi, with methodical elan, contrasts these grim warnings with encouraging signs from the industry, noticeably Owlchemy Labs’ recent announcement that they are going “all in” on VR technology. “Start now,” he advises, “and start experimenting early so that when the market is there, the risks of missing the mark are reduced.”
Ebrahimi’s talk for Hacker Unit, “Eyes Wide Open”, takes a market-oriented approach to VR development, and one of the market’s most encouraging features is the amount of new hardware that’s being shipped.
From an economic point of view, a product with limited access, untested design and 20+ years of hype is not the safest investment.”
“If you’re building VR right now and you want the biggest reach, Google Cardboard is out there to the count of 5 million. Google are reporting that there is still a good retention of those Cardboard users and they’re still consuming content,” says Embrahimi. That said, if you’re intending on doing desktop-class VR, consider the number of GPUs that can run this content. “One of the sleeper hits for me is the PlaystationVR – you’ve got 36 million Playstation 4s out there, and they just announced the price point of $399, which is certainly something to keep in mind in terms of what platforms to support.”
It is these practical considerations that make Ebrahimi’s talk so engaging and difficult to summarise. He describes the world of VR development as the cutting-edge of current technology severely hampered by the same limitations it is seeking to push. From an economic point of view, a product with limited access, untested design and 20+ years of hype is not the safest investment.
“If you’re designing for studio survival, you may not even want to consider the consumer devices right now. Audi is talking about having VR configurators in their dealerships so, that work is already done for you.”
For developers, you need to turn Holodeck safety protocols off
Outlining some of what he believes are the best practices for VR, Ebrahimi suggests that designing for user’s comfort should be one of the highest considerations – after all, making the consumer nauseous is a bad way to encourage them back into the tech, but he ruefully admits that he’s sure “we’ll have plenty of barf simulators eventually.” He also recommends reducing polygon count and texture sizes, advocating the use of “toony” or non-mimetic graphics because they’re so readily accepted by the brain.
“Frame rate is king. Dropped frames are not worth better graphics. Once you’re in the headset, it’s more about presence than realistic graphics.”
But Ebrahimi readily acknowledges that now is not the time to be proscriptive. It is a new world for VR, particularly as the design and tech struggle to find the way forward, but Ebrahimi is certain of one thing: that for VR developers, right now is the time to start.
“If you’re going to do VR, go all in with it,” he says. “If you’re not going to bet the whole company on it, if you’re going to put a small team on it, consider creating something that is an experiment, so you can learn what works best for the platform.” His advice is pertinent to the current VR climate, whereby developers are still discovering what works and what doesn’t. “Anyone who says that ‘this is the only way to do things in VR’ is probably wrong.”
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