Oculus Rift

Oculus is pumping up support for its developer site

Facebook wants to get better at helping its Oculus Rift developers.

The virtual reality division of the social-networking behemoth announced today that it has collaborated with its development community to find out what resources it needs to provide to empower creativity in the people making VR experiences. In a blog post, Oculus explained that it has upgraded its online portal for game makers in a number of key ways. This comes as a direct result of polling various studios and independent developers on what they want.

“We recently conducted a global developer survey. The purpose of the survey was to better understand how we can improve your VR experience as a developer,” reads the Oculus blog. “We received a lot of valuable and actionable feedback. The main themes of which included [calls to] improve the developer site, to improve documentation, and to provide more communication and support.”

Oculus is putting those changes…

IBM Watson enables voice commands in Ubisoft’s Star Trek: Bridge Crew virtual reality game

IBM Watson‘s artificial intelligence platform will enable voice commands in Ubisoft‘s Star Trek: Bridge Crew virtual reality game.

IBM and French video game developer Ubisoft have partnered to include Watson’s interactive speech and cognitive capabilities in a VR game for the first time when Star Trek: Bridge Crew launches on May 30 on the Oculus Rift with Touch, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR (PSVR).

It’s another one of those wonderful confluences of technology and games that we highlighted at our GamesBeat Summit event.

With IBM Watson, Star Trek: Bridge Crew will provide players the opportunity to use their voice and natural-language commands to interact with their virtual Starfleet crew members. This feature is part of a strategic partnership with Ubisoft. I recently tried out the game and found it to be a lot of fun to play with human strangers. I’m curious if Watson will answer in various actors’ voices, like Mr. Spock.

“We have been eager to find the right way to use interactive speech further the immersive and interactive experiences that virtual reality offers,” said David Votypka, senior creative director at Red Storm Entertainment, a Ubisoft Studio,…

Sorry, Zuck: AR & VR won’t replace TVs or phones

Last week’s F8 conference is still generating a boatload of excitement, especially over CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of an era without smartphones or televisions. While Zuck is right to believe AR and VR will have an important place in tomorrow’s ecosystem, he may be missing where their replacement value will be. Even worse (and this is uniquely ironic, coming from the world’s largest social network), Facebook is completely missing the intrinsic social need that drives adoption of most high tech products.

The numbers behind virtual reality don’t add up

Zuckerberg hinted at his vision for a post-iPhone, post-TV future by unveiling Facebook’s plans for augmented reality at F8 and was even more explicit in an interview with USA Today, saying, “We don’t need a physical TV. We can buy a $1 app ‘TV’ and put it on the wall and watch it.”

“We all want glasses or eventually contact lenses that look and feel normal but let us overlay all kinds of information and digital objects on top of the real world,” he explained at the keynote, which I was fortunate enough to attend. But while everyone in the audience around me nodded enthusiastically, I squirmed in my chair, resisting the urge to facepalm. There’s little to no evidence many people want augmented reality glasses (let alone contacts!), and copious evidence to the contrary. Consider:

To be sure, Samsung Gear VR, which uses Oculus technology, is doing fairly well. However, many of its 5 million+ shipped units were given away for free, and 5 million is still a fraction of the 100 million or so Samsung smartphones the headset was designed to work with. While Snapchat Spectacles attracted much initial buzz, it’s way too early to know if they actually attract mass market sales. (And being sunglasses, they are explicitly designed for a narrow range of use cases — mainly, while outside — and aren’t ready…

Star Trek: Bridge Crew makes zapping Klingons in VR a hoot

Some say that virtual reality is going to be the most social medium ever, and that’s the feeling I got from playing a demo of Star Trek: Bridge Crew, the new virtual reality game coming from Ubisoft and its Red Storm studio.

In a four-player preview of a couple of missions, I had a hoot playing with my fellow game journalists during a preview event at Ubisoft in San Francisco. This game is built in a way that makes it easy for you to immerse yourself in the role of being a Star Trek bridge crew member. You’ll have no problem as captain shouting orders at engineering, even if the person is a total stranger.

I played a couple of four-player missions on the bridge of the new starship USS Aegis, which is from the Kelvin timeline in the JJ Abrams films. You can also play on the bridge of the original USS Enterprise (no bloody A, B, C, or D), and the game accommodates anywhere from one to four players. It comes out on May 30 for Oculus Rift with Touch, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR (PSVR). It will have full cross-platform multiplayer.

Above: Star Trek: Bridge Crew

Image Credit: Ubisoft

You can play the role of any of four crew members: Captain, Engineering, Helm (moving the ship around), and Tactical (scanning and weapons). Inside VR, you can see the other players at their stations on the bridge, and you can see them as they move around and try to get your attention. You sit throughout the game, and most of the time you spend looking down at your console.

Players can communicate with others through an in-game voice client. That voice communication is also key to the simulation’s immersion.

David Votypka, creative director at Ubisoft Red Storm, worked on Star Trek: Bridge Crew as well as Werewolves Within, a VR version of the Werewolves tabletop game, where players try to figure out who among the villagers among them is a werewolf. Players in that game stayed in VR for hours at a time, and it gave Red Storm the confidence that people would play longer sessions in VR, he said.

“We saw the community in Werewolves Within was the super-positive and that strangers have a great time playing together, which was a big question mark,” Votypka said. “You can have fun pick-up matches with strangers you meet online.”

In designing the bridge, Votypka’s team found that there was no standard function assigned to various buttons for the crew members, based on the variations that occurred in the TV shows. One fan had created blueprints for the bridge, and Ubisoft made use of them. The Ubisoft team also visited the Star Trek Set Tour, a physical re-creation of the original Star Trek sets created by super-fan James Cawley.

Above: Star Trek: Bridge Crew

Image Credit: Ubisoft

We played on the Oculus Rift with the Touch controls. At first, you can go through short tutorials in the Starfleet Academy training. I went through Tactical training, and took a short look at the tutorials for the helm, engineering, and the captain. In each role, a console appears in front of you, and you have to reach out with the Touch in your hand and press a button or slider. It’s a physical action that can both speed you up or slow you down, given how familiar you are with the idea of using your hands in a game.

It’s amazing how quickly you slip into the role. The Engineer stays busy shifting power to shields or prepping the engine for warp speed or repairing the ship. The Tactical Officer scans objects that appear on a radar. If the objects are out of range, the Captain can ask the helm officer to move toward the target. As Tactical Officer, I also had to raise or lower the shields, which can take some precious seconds. If the shields are up, you can’t use your transporter.

How to Set Up Google Cardboard on Android

If you’re hungry for a taste of this new-fangled virtual reality, Google Cardboard is by far the cheapest (and easiest) way to get in on the action. Sure, it’s not as high quality as something like the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, or even the mobile-focused Samsung Gear VR or Google Daydream, but it’s still a nice experience for the little investment involved.

And best of all, it works with almost any Android phone.

First things first, you’ll need a Google Cardboard unit. The cool thing about Cardboard is that it’s basically an entire platform—an open design allows pretty much any manufacturer who wants to get in on the action to build and sell their own Cardboard product (many of which aren’t actually made of cardboard). To check out all the options and get one for yourself, check out Google’s Get Cardboard page. You’ll find options ranging from as little as $5 to $70 or more. It all depends on what features you’re looking for.

In this tutorial, I’ll be using a basic Google Cardboard unit: a limited edition Kylo Ren Cardboard headset from the Star Wars: The Force Awakens launch. Sorry guys, those are unfortunately discontinued. Either way, the process is the same on all versions of Cardboard, so you should be able…

Virtual reality has a motion sickness problem

Resident Evil 7 screen capture
NOT JUST THE JITTERS Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is one of the most popular virtual reality games available. But it has also gained a reputation for making people motion sick.

Tech evangelists predicted that 2016 would be “the year of virtual reality.” And in some ways they were right. Several virtual reality headsets finally hit the commercial market, and millions of people bought one. But as people begin immersing themselves in new realities, a growing number of worrisome reports have surfaced: VR systems can make some users sick.

Scientists are just beginning to confirm that these new headsets do indeed cause a form of motion sickness dubbed VR sickness. Headset makers and software developers have worked hard to combat it, but people are still getting sick. Many in the industry fear this will be a major obstacle to mass adoption of virtual reality.

“A lot of VR, people today cannot tolerate,” says Kay Stanney, a human factors engineer with a focus on VR at Design Interactive in Orlando, Fla. Search for “VR sickness” on Twitter, she says, and you’ll see that people are getting sick every day.

Around 25 to 40 percent of people suffer from motion sickness depending on the mode of transport, scientists have estimated, and more women are susceptible than men.

Count me among those women. I’m highly prone to motion sickness. Cars, planes and boats can all make me feel woozy. It can take me a day or more to fully shake the nausea, headache and drowsiness. Certain that virtual reality would also make me sick, I’ve purposefully avoided strapping on a headset. (Until this assignment came along.)

VR Headset

Women who got sick
playing a VR horror game

Men who got sick playing the game

So far, avoiding VR hasn’t been much of a loss for me. A lot of the VR industry is focused on video games, vying for a chunk of an estimated $100 billion market. And most of the early adopters who are willing to pay for one of the new premium headsets — $400 for Sony’s PlayStation VR or $800 for an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive — are probably serious gamers or technophiles. I don’t fit either category.

But, avoidance promises to become harder as VR moves beyond games. The technology has already begun creeping into other fields. Car companies, including Audi, General Motors Co.and used-car seller Vroom, are building VR showrooms where you can check out cars as if you were actually on the lot. Architects are using VR to walk clients through buildings that don’t yet exist. Schools and learning labs are taking students on virtual field trips to both contemporary and historical sites.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sees virtual reality as the next big social platform. In 2014, Facebook bought Oculus VR, maker of the Rift headset, for around $2 billion. “This is really a new communication platform,” Zuckerberg wrote in the Oculus announcement. “Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.” New VR sites where people can socialize or play games together in virtual spaces, like AltspaceVR and Rec Room, are springing up. And some tech luminaries see a future in which VR is integrated into many more aspects of our daily lives, from movies and entertainment to work and health care.

Nobody knows if the broader public will embrace virtual reality. Sales of the expensive high-end headsets have been underwhelming — the three premium systems combined sold an estimated 1.5 million headsets in 2016. But sales of cheaper mobile headsets were more impressive. For less than $100, Samsung Gear VR, Google Daydream View, Google Cardboard and others are powered by your mobile phone. But with smaller screens and less computer power, they are far less capable than the Rift or the Vive. Still, they are selling. In January, Samsung reported that it had sold 5 million of the $99 Gear VR headset since its release in November 2015.

But VR may never really catch on if it makes people sick. And while VR companies and developers are confident that they’ll find solutions, many motion sickness experts are pessimistic. “My hunch is that [the solutions] are extremely limited,” says Steven Rauch, director of the Vestibular Division at Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston.

In some ways, the very premise of virtual reality makes it an ideal vehicle for motion sickness.

Cue conflict or instability

Motion sickness has probably been with us as long as we’ve had boats. References to seasickness date back to Greek mythology; the word nausea is derived from the Greek naus, meaning ship. J.A. Irwin introduced the term motion sickness in the scientific literature in 1881. Since then, an extensive body of research has accumulated.

The most widely accepted theory to emerge is that motion sickness is brought on by a mismatch between two or more of the senses that help you keep your balance. For example, when you’re below deck on a ship at sea, your eyes see a stationary room. But your vestibular system — the fluid-filled canals and specialized membranes in your inner ear — senses the motion of the ship as it rolls over waves. “You’re getting conflicting information on different sensory channels into the balance system,” Rauch says. “That is believed to be the primary cause of motion sickness.”

In virtual reality, the mismatch is there as well, says visual neuroscientist Bas Rokers of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. But the sensory cues are reversed: Your eyes see that you are moving through the virtual world — in a virtual car or a virtual spaceship, or strolling down a virtual path — but your vestibular system knows you’re not actually moving. “That gives you a cue conflict,” he says.

While most motion sickness experts think sensory mismatch is to blame, some disagree. Kinesiologist Thomas Stoffregen of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, who’s been studying motion sickness for 25 years, thinks instability is the culprit. On a ship, the rolling motion puts you off balance, and that makes you sick, he says. “Motion sickness situations are ones in which the control of your body is challenged somehow. If you don’t rise to that challenge, then the contents of your stomach may rise.”

This idea, known as the postural instability theory, can be applied to VR as well, Stoffregen says. If your eyes convince your brain that you’re in the virtual world, your body will respond to it instead of the real world you are physically in, which can throw your balance off. Imagine sitting in a chair in the real world while riding in a car in the virtual world. As the car approaches a turn, you’ll want to lean into it, which could land you on the floor. The more convincing the virtual world is, the more likely you are to link the control of your body to what you’re seeing, Stoffregen says. “And in a virtual car, that is a mistake.”

Gender matters

While the postural instability theory is outside the scientific mainstream, it offers an explanation for another mystery of motion sickness: why more women suffer than men.

Stoffregen and colleagues have shown repeatedly that it’s possible to predict who is likely to get motion sick in various circumstances by measuring postural sway — the small, subconscious movements people make to stay balanced while standing still. By analyzing several aspects of sway, including the distance, direction and timing of the movements, the researchers have found that people who are susceptible to motion sickness sway differently than those who aren’t. And postural sway differs measurably between men and women. The difference, Stoffregen says, can be attributed to physical differences between the sexes, such as height and center of balance.

Lady playing a VR game
Women are known to be more susceptible to motion sickness than men. New research suggests that women may also be more likely to experience VR sickness — motion sickness brought on by virtual reality.

FEELING WOOZYStoffregen’s research suggests women are also more prone to VR sickness than men. In a study published in December in Experimental Brain Research, Stoffregen and colleagues measured the postural sway of 72 college students before they were asked to play one of two VR games for 15 minutes using an Oculus Rift DK2. The first game made two of 18 men and six of 18 women feel…