A year since the advent of consumer-based virtual reality platforms like Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR, developers and researchers are mounting considerable efforts to innovate and improve the emerging technology, particularly for kids and family experiences.
And while a great deal remains unknown, established companies are bringing a raft of new insights, lessons learned and best practices to light. The goals for players like UK-based research firm and digital studio Dubit, UK games developer Climax Studios and L.A.-based The Virtual Reality Company (VRC) is to garner parental trust, ensure the safety of kids, and ultimately, drive the financial sustainability of the nascent industry.
Dubit, for one, is currently in the midst of a three-part, in-house study examining kids’ use of VR as it relates to on-boarding, engagement and health and safety. Leading the research is childhood education specialist Dr. Dylan Yamada-Rice, senior research manager and a former early childhood education lecturer at the University of Sheffield. She also previously worked on CBeebies’ Tech and Play project, which explored preschoolers’ app usage.
The Dubit VR study has so far delivered an initial pilot report, where 10 pairs of children ages eight to 12 were brought in to play on a range of different devices with various content to see what they liked or didn’t like. A second element of the study, which is also underway, looks at health and safety and tests how VR might affect sight, depth perception and balance. The third segment of the study will take an ethnographic approach, where VR equipment is placed in children’s homes for a week to see how it fits into their everyday lives.
“What I find interesting on the interactive and engagement side, is that children are most interested in content that looks less visually realistic,” says Yamada-Rice. “Content like Google Earth is popular, but with other content we tested, the kids enjoyed cartoon-type images more. The reason this content is so popular is that it’s easier for children to use their own imaginations in the experiences.”
Not surprisingly, open-ended VR games like Owlchemy Labs’ animated Job Simulator also proved to delight kids by letting them do things that they might not be able to do in real life like work in an office or become a gourmet chef or an auto mechanic.
Along with confirming the popularity of Minecraft-type experiences, the study also provides insights that help dispel the notion that VR is an anti-social, solitary experience detrimental to kids’ development.
“We’re finding the opposite,” says Yamada-Rice. “In pairs, children are really chatty and engaged with each other.”
For each pair, one kid would have the VR headset experience while his or her friend watched on a separate screen in the room. According to Yamada-Rice, children without the headsets added to the experience by shouting out things the other child might be able to do. Or from a tactile, physical place, they would sometimes run behind their VR-immersed friends to touch their backs.
“Just how tactile kids want to be with content is really interesting. Compared to adults and parents, who are a bit cautious with VR at first, children run all over the place,” says Yamada-Rice. “But in terms of content development and health and safety, do you want them to move around that fast, or could this potentially throw them more off balance?”
Balance is one of the more obvious and immediate health and safety issues developers need to sort out, notes Yamada-Rice. “Kids are used to reaching for things because they’re at adult height. But even when you calibrate the VR experience for kids’ heights, if they do lose their balance because they are very much engaged in the space, they might try to use virtual objects to steady themselves, which are obviously not there, so it’s problematic,” she says. “So keeping the interactive content down a little bit lower, where they don’t have to stretch, could potentially solve the issue.”
Between first and third
Digging deeper into VR as a more social outlet, Climax Studios is on the verge of releasing what is perhaps the industry’s first VR experience to include a companion app, Lola and the Giant. The mobile VR experience for kids and families is slated to launch exclusively on Google Daydream. It is a first- and third-person VR adventure game where you experience the game’s epic journey as both a little girl with a mysterious power and as a powerful, stony giant. The company’s 11th VR title is particularly unique because it includes a companion app that allows another player to assist the VR player on their journey.
“We wanted to create a VR game that could be experienced by everyone, not just the user in the headset. We feel this is an important step to ensure the growth of the market,” says lead designer Matt Duff. “In the development process, we started to discover that one of the negative factors of VR was people mentioning the isolation of it, not only for the person inside the headset, but for the other people in the room, too,” he says.
Thus the companion app was born. Duff says it serves as a magical window into the same world as the VR player. “You see what they see, except you have your own unique controls, like the camera. You can move the phone using the gyroscope, and that moves the camera for you, but not for the VR player and vice versa. The VR player can move their head around and the companion app isn’t affected.”
The ability to have first- and third-person perspectives in VR, notes Yamada-Rice, is a feature kids have been asking for. “Children are saying it would be nice to be able to switch from third person to first, which is something they can do in Minecraft,” she says.
As far as providing two-player interaction in Lola, Climax developed a small hint system, where the person using the companion app can tap anywhere on the screen to make a giant arrow appear, which also appears in real time in the VR headset. “It’s a way of saying, ‘Hey, come over here, or look over there,’” notes Duff.
Lola is expected to launch as one self-contained premium adventure download divided up into six chapters. The game, according to Duff, is fairly straightforward narratively, but does include some puzzle problems and gaze-triggers to visually lead players.
Describing a lesson learned, Duff says the original version of Lola was much more traditional in terms of camera movement with a fully 3D camera that would turn with Lola. “We did it fairly slowly to keep the comfort level up. And 50% of the team testing it was absolutely fine, but the other 50% couldn’t deal with it and had to take the headsets off,” explains Duff. “So we ended up locking the camera so it never rotates with Lola, which has worked out for the best. It’s allowed us to focus on designing a world that you see in front of you, and all the levels of design and interaction stem off of that.”
Raising the bar
VRC is another company focused on designing groundbreaking new worlds and stories in VR. Co-founded in 2014 by two-time Oscar winner Robert Stromberg (Avatar, Maleficent) and former Overbrook Entertainment CEO Guy Primus, the studio prides itself on employing the best artists, storytellers, filmmakers and technicians to create imaginative, emotional and immersive VR worlds.
VRC’s latest project, Raising a Rukus, is the first storytelling franchise for families to hit the VR market, according to the company. The episodic, branching narrative series follows the magical adventures of a brother and sister and their mischievous pet dog, who are transported back in time to live among dinosaurs.
“We wanted to create something that hadn’t truly been done in VR which was create not just a series, but a well-told story with cinematic qualities including original orchestral music from James Newton Howard and audio from Skywalker Sound,” says Stromberg. “The other very important thing for us is that our stories have a message. In this case, the first 12-minute episode is about sharing and working together to solve problems.”
VRC recently secured a distribution deal with IMAX that will see the Raising a Rukus experience debut at the flagship IMAX VR Center in L.A. this month. The series will then roll out worldwide over the next several years to all VR platforms, including less expensive ones like Google Cardboard, as well as Daydream, Vive, Oculus and PlayStation VR.
“Not only is it a great story and environment, but you won’t get sick in it. It’s also not a parlor trick. The VR enhances the narrative, the empathy for the characters and the ability to go deep and explore different situations,” says Primus. “We chose short form because we don’t want to over-expose people, especially young people, to too much at a time,” he adds. “In terms of monetization, putting it into theaters is a critical element of what we’re doing versus what everyone else seems to be doing. We want to make sure that the business is sustainable.”
As developers continue to evolve their internal best practices and monetization models, the co-founder and CEO of new Dubit-incubated company XRGames, Bobbi Thandi, is currently working in partnership with medical professionals and a number of kids entertainment companies on a list of recommendations that could lead to the creation of industry standards. The effort could go a long way towards speeding up VR’s move into the mainstream market.
Benefits of Virtual Play
- Interactivity with virtual 3D
- lifelike characters.
- Includes social/sharing in
- virtual 3D space.
- Physical movement as essential part of game.
- Incorporates the real-world environment in AR gameplay.
- Promotes a sense of presence
- as you move beyond 2D screens to 3D virtual worlds.
- Can interact using touch,
- body and voice.
- Incorporates all benefits of digital play, plus supports gameplay that feels more realistic and lifelike.
Courtesy of Dr. Ariella Lehrer, president and CEO of Legacy Interactive and Legacy Games