Summary:

Conventional wisdom about virtual reality is falling away as developers learn what gamers like and don’t like. The team at Survios hails from the same lab as Oculus’ founder, and has its own ideas about what players want to experience.

Qualcomm Ventures investment manager Gareth Keane fights off zombies during a demo of Survios' virtual reality gaming system. A bulb attached to the top of the Oculus Rift headset senses the location of the player's feet and hands, while two Sixense controllers allow players to shoot and pick up items.
photo: Signe Brewster

The more times I strap on an Oculus Rift headset, the more I notice the quality of the memories formed from the experience. The memories are vivid and real, more like those I have from emotional real-life events than sitting in front of a TV and playing xBox. It’s a product of the realness the immersive platform provides, and companies are getting better and better at tricking our brains into feeling like we are really there in these virtual worlds.

My most recent experience involved fighting a horde of zombies. They swarmed from all directions, emerging from around corners and under murky water as I rushed to cut them down with a rifle and axe. In reality I was in the San Francisco satellite office of Survios, a virtual reality startup that is incorporating movement into Oculus Rift to create a more physical gaming experience.

My hands sweated as I clasped a pair of Sixense Razer Hydra controllers, one in each hand, on which I clicked buttons to pick up, fire and drop different items. More than once I nearly dropped the controllers when I went to ditch a weapon in the game. It’s a trippy experience, teaching your brain to operate in both the virtual and real worlds at once, as your imagination proves surprisingly capable of convincing you the two joysticks in your hands really are a tommy gun.

A scene similar to what I saw while battling zombies in Survios' virtual land. Photo courtesy of Survios.

A scene similar to what I saw while battling zombies in Survios’ virtual land. Photo courtesy of Survios.

The realness is a product of Survios’ tracking platform, which converts leg and arm movements into virtual motion. A sensor-packed orb perched atop an Oculus Rift headset picked up my hand movements as I reached out to click a button or slip an arrow into a bow and pull back on it. I was able to walk around small arenas in virtual worlds, which in reality were bounded by a carpet in Survios’ office.

Survios plans to replace the orb with magnetic motion trackers that will attach to users’ arms and legs, co-founder James Iliff said. It will make tracking more accurate while cutting down on the bulk you need to carry on your head. The first commercially available Survios systems also will no longer require players to strap a “Ghostbusters”-like backpack composed of a computer and batteries to their back. Instead, the headset will just connect wirelessly.

Survios’ co-founders hail from the same University of Southern California lab as Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus. During my visit, Iliff wore red pants and swigged a Red Bull, while fellow founder Nathan Burba took a call to talk a visit to Boeing and reined in Iliff when he thought he had said too much. The $250,000 the Los Angeles startup has raised so far is pennies compared to Oculus’ millions in Kickstarter and venture funding and $2 billion Facebook acquisition, but it is clear that interest is building ahead of Survios’ first product launch next year. I actually shared my demo time with representatives of Qualcomm’s venture capital arm.

Developing the Survios platform has already taught the team not to trust conventional wisdom about virtual reality, Iliff said. For example, while it might be tempting to perfectly replicate real actions in virtual reality, people don’t actually want to run for miles in a game. Short, dramatic motions like jumping, diving and laying flat on the ground are more fun and add to the immersive feel, Iliff said, while walking can be kept short or relegated to a joystick-controlled action.

And those quick motions don’t need to be captured perfectly, either. The orb that currently sits atop Survios’ prototypes doesn’t track every inch of your arms and legs when you play. On your hands, it tracks your thumb and pointer finger, and treats the rest of your fingers as one giant digit. If Survios tried to track every single finger and joint at once, the system would probably cost $2 million, Iliff said.

Currently, you enter different Survios games through a virtual menu. You reach out and tap different options. Photo courtesy of Survios.

Currently, you enter different Survios games through a virtual menu. You reach out and tap different options. Photo courtesy of Survios.

Instead, Survios filled in the exact motion of body parts like those three fingers in the game. He pointed out during the demo how the hands in the game, which are visible to the player, fluidly move to grab an object or execute some other kind of motion. The dissonance between the game and what your hands are really doing does not register at all.

“You want to be as human and as natural as possible,” Iliff said. “[In the game, your hand] looks really juicy as it grips around the gun. You didn’t really do that, but you might as well have.”

Survios founders James Illiff and Nathan Burba. Photo by Signe Brewster.

Survios founders James Iliff and Nathan Burba. Photo by Signe Brewster.

But there are some types of actions that can create major problems for players. For example, people don’t mind moving forward and backward with a joystick in virtual reality. But turning with a joystick is disorienting, meaning it is better if people physically turn their body. It’s also uncomfortable to be walking in real life, while in the game your body is moving 40 miles per hour.

I had never felt nauseous in virtual reality until I tried walking around in the Survios demo. At times my vision in the game indicated I was tilting slightly or walking faster than I was in real life. The sensation instantly gave me a feeling of vertigo. Danah Boyd recently posed in Quartz that this could be an inherent problem for women while using virtual realty. But Iliff said my nausea was likely a result of latency and drift problems with the current sensors, which is part of the reason Survios is switching out the orb for magnetic trackers.

I found myself wishing for even more haptics to be integrated into the Survios world. I loved having the Sixense controllers to grasp to represent the physical objects in the game. But then when a zombie snuck up behind me and started attacking, it was represented by a red flash on the screen. I couldn’t feel the zombie, despite feeling my gun and axe. It was a strange dissonance that wasn’t exactly upsetting, but it made the experience feel slightly incomplete. But there are already haptic vests and other virtual reality accessories popping up, so it won’t be long before anyone is able to create their perfect immersive experience.

Survios' current prototype is compatible with Sixense's Razer Hydra controllers. Photo courtesy of Sixense.

Survios’ current prototype is compatible with Sixense’s Razer Hydra controllers. Photo courtesy of Sixense.

Survios won’t yet say what kind of product it will announce next year. But Iliff said the startup will spend the rest of 2014 building out its software and suite of games. The team will open up the platform to developers.

Burba emphasized that you are meant to interact with Survios with your body. Now that developers have the tools to dig into what gamers really want out of virtual reality, we are going to see a whole new generation of devices arise that are finely tuned to that immersive experience.

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