Boston VR Bender | Valve + Unity + VR = Good times

This past week, over 50 people from in and around the Boston game community gathered together for a small, invite-only VR game jam. The Boston VR Bender, hosted by Owlchemy Labs, was a weekend-long (and then some) series of 3 events starting off with a Saturday/Sunday VR game jam, a VR demo night, and ending with a VR drinking night at the Mead Hall in Cambridge.

With the help of fine folks from Valve as well as Unity, the event was a great success. The purpose of the jam was to expose developers to positional tracking and low persistence. To enable this, Valve brought along some prototype headsets with positional tracking capability using desktop IR cameras. With this being the first public showing of a VR headset to utilize positional tracking, this was a chance to witness the creativity of the community first hand.

The participants split up into teams, some with just a couple of folks, others with full teams comprising programmers, artists and designers. There was only one rule – teams had to hit 95 frames per second (the refresh rate of the Valve prototype hardware), or their demos wouldn’t be shown at the showcase.

Creating an experience that hits 95 frames a second, with only two days to do it, was a huge challenge, and I can honestly say I wasn’t the only person to be surprised at the number of teams that succeeded. Surprisingly, all of the devs were able to hit the frame rate after being prepped for the constraints. “No full-screen pixel shaders, go with Quake 3-level-graphics. Simplify! Simplify!

One team built a simulator where the player was a giraffe, reaching its head through windows in a home searching for tasty treats to eat. Another team developed a playfield full of block buildings populated with small screaming humans and giant kaiju punching bags to give the player a sense of what it is like to be a giant robot with telescoping arms.

A further project involved using the rotation of the player’s head to cause a sea snake to swim underwater, a potentially nauseating experience, but with the positional headsets this sort of head movement seemed robust and the devs could keep the headset on for a long time without any ill effect. Additionally, one of the most simple, yet fun, games at the jam was made by a single person to simulate heading a goal in soccer – a game that yielded many calls to “beat my high score” during testing.

There were many times where developers asked about specific cases of best practices, and the response was always the same: “We don’t quite know, and in fact no one can say at this point that they know exactly how that mechanic will play out in VR… so make something crazy and weird and lets find out how it feels in that world.”

In so many ways, we are still in the very early days of VR, and we just don’t yet know enough or have enough experience to know everything that will work well or go poorly. It was great to see seasoned professionals be forced to think through their design in a new way, knowing that they did not have a clear picture of exactly what it would look like during game play.  I believe the new wave of positional VR hardware is another huge step forward, and it will take years before we know collectively how to use it in the best way.

For an understanding of what the current challenges are, and where the current state of the tech is at, I recommend watching Michael Abrash from Valve’s presentation: What VR Could, Should, and Almost Certainly Will Be within Two Years.

Thanks again to Valve, Unity, and everyone who participated! It was a KILLER event!

Here’s some additional imagery:

The VR jammers, from above!

Group shot from Monday night’s Boston VR meetup

The crowd on Monday night was huge!