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During 2020 we all had our ups and downs. For me personally I had a very frustrating summer trying to figure out how to switch my virtual reality (VR) building activities from one type of VR headset (the Vive) to another (the Quest 2). Then in the autumn trying to crack the technical aspects of making multiplayer VR experiences that are properly synchronised nearly broke me. But it all came together at the end of the year and now I’m building freely, turning out projects at a rapid pace. So I cannot tell you how glad I was to learn that the year I just spent consolidating the knowledge I gained in my 2019-2021 VR Master’s Degree concluded with a Christmas that saw more VR headsets reach people in their homes than ever before.

Why now, after so many false dawns? Well, with a price tag of £300 the Quest 2 finally enables people to experience VR in the comfort of their own homes at an accessible price point. It’s as simple as that. For comparison, when I got my first Vive headset 5 years ago it cost £500, but needed a £2,500 personal computer to plug it into. This put off all but the most determined back then, but now Oculus has dispensed with the need to be attached to an expensive computer and “lighthouses” that send infrared signals to the Vive headset from each corner of the room, the cost of access to the wonderful world of VR has dropped by a whopping 90% in just 5 years (£3,000 to £300). It just didn’t makes sense for me to keep building only for the Vive when there would be so many people out there in the world at large who only have access to a Quest 2.

At a fraction of the price, most VR developers are moving from the Vive to the Quest 2

Another advantage of building for Quest 2 rather than Vive was that I could finally start making multiplayer experiences and then get my friends and family involved. Co-creation is a vital part of any development process after all. Bullying and cajoling friends and family into finding £300 to invest in a Quest 2 headset was clearly going to be more viable than asking them to find £3,000 to buy a Vive Pro plus graphics PC.

Given rumours that the Quest 2 must be being sold at a loss, it seems likely that Facebook’s idea (prior to re-branding as Meta) was to plant lucrative seeds in the VR soil that will no doubt yield a bumper crop of millions of humans stumbling their way into the wonders of VR who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford it. And once they are having fun inside the walled garden (that Meta have so expensively and so carefully built), these newcomers may never find their way out again.

On the plus side, the Quest 2 can be “side loaded” (using SideQuest), which means that anyone can make a game and get it onto the headset. Which comes in very handy when developing exciting new products like Brain Man VR. But I’ll tell you all about that in a future blog.

The latest data suggests that I’m not the only person to find the price point of the Quest 2 irresistible given that the 2021 Christmas period saw nearly 650,000 downloads of the Oculus app (required to get the VR headset ready to roll), up from ~250,000 in 2020 and 100,000 in 2019 and ~50,000 in 2018. And as those who didn’t get a Quest 2 for Christmas becoming increasingly envious of the fun everyone else seems to be having, it seems likely that an even larger number of people will be have it on their wish list next year.

Many VR experiences allow people to feel virtually present in the company of others

The reason that a neuroscientist like me gets so excited about virtual reality, (while flat screen gaming leaves me completely underwhelmed) is its potential for helping people improve their quality of life. It is a medium that naturally lends itself to social experiences that trick the senses into helping people feel like they are in the same physical space as others, even when separated by hundreds if not thousands of miles. It enables a level of intimacy that goes way beyond what a mere phone call or videoconference can achieve in terms for making people feel genuinely in the presence of others and therefore less socially isolated. Regular followers of this blog (and readers of The Science Of Sin) will already know that social isolation is really bad for a person’s physical and psychological health.

Any medium that can enhance a person’s sense of social connectedness will likely do the opposite: namely, improve their physical and / or mental health. But not all VR worlds are born equal in this regard.

Rec Room is a free VR experience that enables people to play various games with others. 5 years ago it was full of interesting adults from all over the world and I just couldn’t get enough of. Sadly these days it’s full of sweary loud mouthed little brats who are so I now give it a wide berth. I have a similar problem with altSpace and VR Chat. Don’t get me wrong. The kids are having a marvellous time and godspeed to them. It’s just not the kind of vibe I’m looking for.

Now it may be that I’m not going to the right places in these these labyrinthine multi-worlds and like-minded others are in there somewhere. But if you stumble around blindly like I’ve been doing, the chances are you’ll come out of it feeling more socially disconnected than you were before you went in.

5 years ago Rec Room was an amazing social VR space. Now it’s mainly full of obnoxious kids.

The safest bet is to use one of the VR experiences that enables you to create a private room in a very straightforward and intuitive way. Walkabout Mini-Golf does this particularly well, in my opinion. You simply select “Private Room,” create a name for your very own private room and share the name you’ve chosen with whoever else you want to join you for a few holes. They simply go through the same procedure and (so long as they’ve spelled it correctly) they’ll find themselves in the same virtual space as you.

I did this only yesterday, with a friend who lives in a city 120 miles away. When we meet up in person, usually just once or twice a year, we often bemoan how infrequently we get to hang out together. Now I’ve finally bullied and coerced him into investing in a VR headset (TukTuk, you will always be my number 1), we can now meet up once or twice a month. While we’ve started out by playing a round of mini-golf, my Unity/C# skills are now good enough for me to create my own multiplayer experiences. I’ve built an environment that looks exactly like a place in the countryside where we often meet up in real life and scattered a variety of bespoke games we like to play when we’re there in the flesh throughout this virtual world. Once he bought the dongle (£2) that enabled him to plug the Quest 2 into any USB socket, he got SideQuest working on his computer so he could “side load” my game to his headset. From then on, we were no longer limited to games bought on the Oculus store. We could make our own games.

Walkabout Mini-Golf – with several calm virtual environments in which to hang with friends.

I’ve already re-created several of our favourite games like Kubb – a.k.a. Viking Chess – frisbee golf, boules, liar dice and various other board games. And the best bit of all? If he doesn’t like a certain feature, like how far the frisbee flies with a given flick of the wrist for example, I just change it to match his preferred aesthetic. If he can imagine a different game that isn’t yet available? I can make it from scratch in just half a day!

While this first project is inspired by a desire to spend more time socialising with friends and family scattered all over the city and the country (so that we can all get the well-defined benefits of feeling more socially connected) I will be spending much of 2022 building various bespoke VR experiences for private clients and businesses. For example, my studio is a stone’s throw from the Bermondsey Mile (a mile-long stretch of railway arches that house over a dozen micro-breweries) and my favourite establishment specialise in honey lager and beers. My first business proposition was to build a VR experience that HIVER can use to attract customers into the establishment during their quieter periods. It involved catching bees in a butterfly net, taking them to an upstairs laboratory, miniaturising them, climbing a ladder to reach a hatch in the top of the bee’s head, to gain access to the cockpit, in which the bee’s flight can be steered with a helicopter joystick. The aim of the game was to visit as many flowers as possible to collect as much nectar and pollen as possible, ahead of other competitor insects.

In one of my latest VR experiences, you can fly one of these…

While the proposal was a whimsical one, it proves an important point. Creativity in VR is virtually unlimited. In the wise words of 3D Dave – if you can imagine it, and describe it to me accurately, then I can make it for you.

SERIOUS GAMING

The world of serious gaming is another big area of interest for me. VR has proven to be an incredibly cost-effective way of training staff and has great track record of helping people overcome phobias, develop various cognitive capabilities, finesse sporting acumen and even enhance soft skills that are vital to the workplace. Watch this space…

If you’d like to discuss a project, please do get in touch via Twitter (@drjacklewis) where I tweet about interesting articles on neuroscience and virtual reality breakthroughs that I think you might find interesting, useful and relevant. Thanks for reading. You are one of the vanishingly few people left on planet Earth who can get to the end of an article. Respect!

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Dr Jack
drjacklewis@gmail.com