Random Thoughts on VR and Game Streaming

With some new modes of gaming, it’s useful to write down some thoughts.

VR

The main hurdle to adoption is the need to purchase hardware. In general I don’t buy much hardware for specific uses, and VR is therefore a harder sale as it isn’t a general tool for computing.

It’s possible VR does become more generally useful, in terms of non-gaming content coming out, but even then it’s not like having a monitor, keyboard, and mouse, it seems. The best case is that the HMDs can become thinner in their built-in technologies, relying more on their host system for any computational needs. In that, their costs can drop to where they are mostly the cost of the built-in displays.

The immersion of VR is very important and a useful artistic tool. There are other aspects of VR gaming that are very attractive, including having two hands where every traditional first-person game only lets you have one hand. The trailer for HL: Alyx shows at least one event where they intentionally occupy one hand to remove that advantage, which is a good indication that the creators think that feeling of limitation is an interesting interaction—that the player in VR, used to having two hands, will find only having one available is challenging and heightens the excitement of the combat there.

I will probably get into VR gaming in a few years, when the hardware is further developed and hopefully more stable.

Streaming

There are a lot of upsides and downsides to the streaming games platforms like Google Stadia. One upside is that it makes cheating much harder to do without full-on machine learning. Another is the lack of install and update needs.

But there are obvious downsides, including the sensitivity to latency and the general reliance on the network to game at all.

Another big problem is the inability to modify gameplay. Mods for computer games have always been part of their charm and appeal. Many of the games I have played over the years began as modifications of other games. It is unclear how or if a streaming platform would allow for players to create and install modifications beyond a very superficial set of cosmetics.

I doubt I would play streaming games any time soon. The variety of games already available and the lack of any big draw to streaming makes it well outside of my personal appeal in gaming. But for the larger gaming market, particularly casual gamers, the choices and tradeoffs do show some appeal. That’s especially true for introducing gaming to players who might later decide to buy hardware for gaming or other purposes.

Indeed, the lack of ability to modify console games never deterred those players (though there have been some ways at times to modify even console games, for those who wanted to).


Hope all have had a happy Thanksgiving holiday.

More Spatial UIs

If you’ve ever played the kid’s game Memory, you would probably cringe playing it on a computer desktop, with each card being its own window, non-tiled, overlapping. Or what if you played it by picking a card, choosing a filename, then having to remember the filename to remember the card.

Studies have shown taking pad-and-paper notes beats typed notes for memory recall. Part of the reason for that is likely the spatiality of the notebook. If you had students write or type the same material, then ask them where something was in their notes, I bet the writers would beat the typers on anything that wasn’t on the first screen/page of notes or the last.

That’s because in a long text document the middle becomes a blur. There are no signposts. That’s why programmers use line numbers, to give them back signposts, but even these are somewhat cumbersome, the longer the document gets.

When you’re writing and hit the end of the page, you move to a whole new page. When typing (depending on the editor), you may just get stuck at the bottom of the file. So-called word processors do better, usually putting you on a new logical page at the top, but most text editors and IDEs I’ve seen simply keep you on the last line of the file, at the bottom of the screen.

When you’re reviewing a dead tree document, handwritten or not, you can flip pages and again get something akin to landmarks. With a digital document, you have this endless scroll, where everything in the middle is middle. It would be like drinking out of a straw in a wall, not knowing how full the reservoir of drink behind it was. After the first dozen-or-so sips, you sort of assume you’re in the middle, until you hit the gurgle at the end.

Some books even have chapter styles that have printing on the margin edge of the page, making it easy to see where chapters begin. You can see if you’re about to start a long chapter, and postpone until you have time. With a computer, it could mark the scroll positions of the chapter breaks, but as scrollbars vary by the length of content it would still not be as calibrated as a book.

The same goes for notecards. You can fan them out on a table, shuffle them, stick them on a wall. They are great spatially. But try to recreate those options with a computer and you usually either shrink their size or distort them. You lose their spatialness.

That is the real promise of Virtual Reality: bringing enhanced spatial awareness to computer interfaces. It’s not clear whether or not we could have the same enhancements without VR, but it’s at least likely that we could. The difference with VR is that it more-naturally fits that sort of interface, and it also provides a reset of expectations and aspirations for design, allowing people to experiment and find the spatial uses.