Five interesting VR experiments demos from Tore Knabe

Posted December 2, 2014 by whelanwebdesign in Features

A few months ago, I wrote about five of Tore Knabe’s VR tech demos.

Since then, he has produced another five, equally fascinating, equally well made VR experiments. As before, they provide proofs of concept for inventive approaches to VR design and are produced well enough to also be entertaining diversions in their own right.  The focus of these new studies is movement and character interaction. In fact, four of the demos centre around the player’s relation to other characters – which makes them a treat for anyone itching for more narrative content for The Rift.

Two demos, Subway Car and Movement Experiments both break new ground with ideas for exploring an environment and they have enough little flourishes to make you want to explore. Two more, Let’s Dance and Groundhog station, both use the Razer Hydra and are powerful demonstrate the expressive power of having your hands in the virtual world. Coffee without words is a short, intimate scene that simply showcases the power of believable eyes on virtual avatars, and it is probably the most affecting of the five in spite of its apparent simplicity.

NOTE: Click on demo title to download the experience.

tore knabe virtual reality experiences 3Subway Car

Subway Car places you in – you guessed it – a tube carriage. The passengers, who are various stock character models including Stan Lee, all react to your presence in some way, which makes for a stimulating if not entirely believable few minutes of exploration. The real points of interest, however, can be found in cycling through the various game modes that play with your perception of reality. In the first mode, when characters hold your stare, the rest of the carriage drains of colour and time slows down. This device seems to be a natural evolution of ideas seen in Knabe’s previous ‘Ambient Occlusion Room’. Several other modes go on to demonstrate this effect further: Explore mode de-colours the carriage and silhouettes the passengers. While focus mode does the same but retextures characters when you look at them. This may be a retread of Ambient Occlusion, but it is an effect much more compelling when applied to people than inanimate objects. There are several other, more playful modes, which reward you for showing up by completely recontextualising the scene in inventive ways. My favourites are Upside down, which is very much as you might expect, and ‘The Uploader’ in which you’re able to see the footage of the boy who is filming you as you roam the carriage.

tore knabe virtual reality experiences 2Movement Experiments

Movement Experiments is another quite literally named tech demo. The environment is a reasonably sized gallery space that  is interesting enough to sustain the experiment but compared with Knabe’s other latest demos, it feels pretty lonely with no NPCs. You are free to wander round and explore using a fairly standard keyboard and mouse setup or to switch between four novel locomotion methods designed to combat simulation sickness. There are some quite smart ideas on show here, but as someone who does not suffer much sim sickness due to normal movement anymore it is hard for me to judge any one method’s effectiveness on that front.

Canvas Mode essentially places a bubble around you when you move or rotate. This gives you a stable point of reference as you travel. I can see how this would work to reduce motion sickness as it makes movement feel a bit more like it does in a cockpit or racing game. There are a few different styles to try out, with varying degrees of subtlety – presumably which one you prefer will depend on the severity of your sim sickness.

Third person mode switches your perspective when you right click. You can then move your avatar around whilst holding the right mouse button. When you release you are instantly teleported back into your body. This method certainly has a profound impact on the pace of exploration and style of the experience. I can imagine certain genres adopting, or forming around, this movement system.

Teleport mode operates in much the same way as Third Person, although it cuts out the middleman of actually having to direct an avatar around, You simply look at where you want to end up and then release. Targeting areas in by looking in this way, is natural, quick and surprisingly accurate. When you release the right mouse button in this mode, your view jumps through each step of the movement to your destination. At first this can be quite disorientating, but there are controls to manipulate the pace of these steps – and if you can find a comfortable configuration then you’ll appreciate the context that experiencing the journey can provide.

Stoboscopic Mode is easily the least comfortable, and should probably come with a warning to those who may suffer from photosensitive conditions. This mode hides a certain number of frames while moving. I’m not sure if this is designed to reduce the computational burden to get improved performance, but to me it just felt broken and, if anything, came close to making me sick after playing around with different strobe speeds for a little while.

tore knabe virtual reality experiences 5Let’s Dance

Let’s Dance probably the most commercially viable of all Knabe’s demos, given its party appeal for anyone who enjoys rhythm games like Dance Central or Guitar Hero and you probably won’t find a funnier Hydra demo to watch people play. You step onto a stage and, using a Razer Hydra dance to songs streamed in from YouTube in front of your virtual audience. Unlike most rhythm games, though, you are not scored or judged, but you are mimicked – by your support dancers and by your adoring audience. This is quite interesting because seeing all those other dancers mimic your movements – no matter how cringe-worthingly bad – does kind of act as social reinforcement – enough to help you shed your inhibitions. Although I can’t dance, and certainly wouldn’t do it sober, I quickly found myself working up a sweat, and really trying to pull some sweet moves.  The physical reality of the hydra controllers themselves, prevent you from clapping to the beat – which is definitely a noticeable handicap.

It’s also both motivating and interesting to see what you’re captured movements look like from a variety of perspectives.  Another mesmerising slash creepy facet to the experience of Let’s Dance is stepping off the stage to dance with members of the crowd – who turn to look at you even as they continue to copy your movements. When the calibration inevitably does drift though, and your audience’s arms start flailing as the demo desperately tries to render plausible arm motion, it can be as interesting to observe as when things are going well. Some might say it improved my dancing.

tore knabe virtual reality experiences 4Groundhog Station

Groundhog Station also goes further in demonstrating what motions captured with a Razer Hydra look like from the outside. In it, you relive the scene of a train stopped arriving at a station from the perspective of each character one by one. Each time you control a new character, the actions of past characters play out simultaneously – encouraging you to act out believable actions so that your future experiences are more interesting or believable. This is certainly quite fun until you realise that you’re just performing for yourself. The idea of using the motion capture to transform the player into an actor is fundamentally interesting but Groundhog station is too limiting in its current form to be a practical tool for Mechanima. It’s easy to find yourself ‘wrecking’ a scene if the Hydra controllers go wonky. They invariably do when you lose continuity of where your arms should be, during the frustratingly long black screen transitions between characters. Allowing you to recalibrate your Hydras during this downtime would reduce the amount of unrealistic flailing arms in the scene.

tore knabe virtual reality experiences 1Coffee without words

Coffee without words feels like a scene from a French film. You are sitting at a coffee shop opposite a woman. Knabe’s experiment in this demo is the woman’s eyes – which dynamically move in a remarkably realistic fashion. I would go so far as to say that, the eyes go a long way to taking us through to the other side of the uncanny valley – which is obviously very impressive. She will look you in the eyes, following you if you move your head, and then, seemingly of her own accord look away. Sometimes this is quite socially uncomfortable – without any conversation you’re forced to read body language, and it’s very easy to feel like you’ve been dropped in at the end of an unpleasant conversation. You’ll try to recapture her attention by leaning into her line of site. She will often, but not always, then turn her attention back to you – this unpredictability has a big impact on making this character opposite you feel like they have an inner life. My favourite moment of the demo was in realising at one point that she wasn’t just avoiding my gaze – but actually staring at the paintings hung just behind me. When I turned to look at the picture for a moment, I caught her watching me when I turned back. This transformed the scene into a weird, wordless, shared moment that felt quite genuine. Coffee without Words proves magnificently that the eyes really are the windows to the soul – If your characters eyes are believable then, in VR, the player will project a huge amount of additional meaning in their interactions with them.

This latest batch of tech demos is even better than the last! My stand-out favourites are ‘Coffee without words’ and ‘Let’s Dance’, but ‘Movement Experiments’ is also really interesting to try out. If you suffer from motion sickness when walking in VR games, then I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on some of those solutions. If Tamulur continues to be so prolific, then we may have to make roundups of his studies, and art pieces, a regular feature here at Virtual Reality Reviewer. I for one, can’t wait to see what he does next.




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