When I was invited to drop by VREAL’s offices in Seattle to try out a demo and meet with their CEO, Todd Hooper, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew they were making a product to stream virtual reality games, but I couldn’t figure out why that was special. Doesn’t Twitch already have streaming covered? What could VREAL be bringing to the table to stand out?
It turns out I wasn’t dreaming big enough.
Hooper is enthusiastic about VR. Coming from a position with Unity Technologies (Unity is a very popular game engine, with a significant presence in virtual reality), he had early exposure to VR headsets and now feels that VR is the future of gaming. But the gaming space has seen a massive change that preceded the development of VR: games have evolved from a hobby that people play into a medium that people watch.
Have you watched a virtual reality stream? It isn’t ideal. For games without built-in support, you’re usually limited to the player’s point of view, an experience that can be disorienting at best, and nauseating at worst. Some games, and the Unity engine, do allow for a static camera in the playing space, giving a window into the VR world other than the player’s headset. Depending on the game’s style, this can work to some degree. And some developers have figured out that interaction with the users is so important that they’ve included Twitch chat integration, allowing players in VR to interact with their viewers.
As laudable as those initiatives are, they fail to capture the most important element: virtual reality experiences are not a flat space. Moving around to gain visual and auditory perspective is essential to understanding the game. What is needed is a real-time hook that allows viewers to be in the game with the player, able to move around independently.
This is what Hooper set out to solve and what I experienced while at VREAL.
Putting on a Vive headset, I found myself in the VREAL lobby, a meeting and game discovery location. I was joined there by VP of Marketing Bryan Chu and Community Manager Allie Murdock. Our lobby avatars were amazing, the absolute best I’ve yet experienced in virtual reality. VREAL has made good use of head and hand motions to animate movement, and even has lip synchronization for player speech. This allowed us to communicate not just with our voices, but using body language as well, making our interaction easy and fun. I quickly felt comfortable in the space, so the team started to show me around.
Just the lobby experience was so compelling that when this shot was taken by Bryan Chu, I was smiling in real life, forgetting that it wouldn’t translate into the virtual world. This was the photo we actually took of our meeting in the lobby. Like with many photos, I’m not looking at the camera. Image: VREAL
The lobby is a cool place. There are buildings representing games you can check out. It’s kind of like being downtown with some friends and deciding what to do. Should we go watch some Surgeon Simulator over here, or maybe check out VR Legends over there? While you’re deciding, you can pull out a camera and take a photo (screenshot) of your group hanging out. There were animations you could drop into the space; I placed a stormy rain cloud over my head and got some laughs from Chu and Murdock – they hadn’t seen anyone do that yet. While much of what I saw must still be under development, it was already a great experience.
With the lobby explored, we hopped into VR Legends. This isn’t a published game – it’s a tech demo that VREAL has developed in-house to test their technology. The depth of control that VREAL provides requires integration of their software development kit (SDK) into games, necessitating the use of a tech demo. VREAL has also been working with the developers of Surgeon Simulator and Cloudlands as they work on their technology, which is why they appear in the VREAL lobby.
VR Legends is styled like a MOBA (think League of Legends or Heroes of the Storm), and while it had simplified gameplay, it was visually appealing and more than sufficient to show off VREAL. Murdock was there playing the game, looming above the battlefield as a giant head. Her controllers were visible, so you could see what part of the game she was focusing on and interacting with. Invisible to us, she also had access to a list of viewers and was alerted when we joined the game. She was also able to upgrade our permissions in her game, giving us the ability to voice chat with her and be heard by the other viewers.
Here, the player is represented by a disembodied head and Vive controllers. “Eva” (the panda) is watching the game. While she is alone, there could be other viewers joining her to talk about what they’re seeing and enjoy the experience together. Image: VREAL
Watching VR in this way felt natural. It was like being at a sporting event. Chu and I could be in the space, moving around and discussing the game while Murdock played. We even had some options of where to go, being able to shrink down to the size of the mobs in the game and watch from ground level. The specific examples I’ve given here are how VREAL has baked support into VR Legends specifically; developers will have the option of how to support player movement, viewpoints, and interaction, and I expect we’ll see a lot of creativity specific to different game genres and developer creativity. As Murdock wrapped up the game, we returned to the lobby and I took off the headset.
What I had experienced is a significant part of VREAL’s technology, but it isn’t all of it. What about players with mobile VR headsets like Gear VR or Google Daydream? What about viewers with no VR headset at all? I was surprised to learn that VREAL handles all possible platforms gracefully. While Vive and Rift owners will generally get the best experience, with the game state sent to the viewer’s PC for local rendering, mobile headsets won’t be left out; to support them, the game will send that same state information to “the cloud” where it will be rendered as 360-degree video. As for traditional screen viewing, VREAL supports the placement of virtual cameras in the game. These could be placed by the game’s developer, the player, or even viewers of the game, depending on how the developer implements the SDK, giving multiple camera windows into the virtual reality space.
I didn’t get to try this functionality, but here Chu is shown spawning a camera to stream out 2D game footage from his location. Image: VREAL
In fact, this opens up the opportunity for not just game-playing streamers, but even game commentators to stream; they can simply set up their virtual cameras and stream the game to traditional 2D platforms. Maybe you’re not one of the world’s best players of a game, but you provide the absolute best coverage. Maybe you do it in concert with other people, from multiple camera angles. VREAL is opening up a lot of cool ways to watch VR gaming.
The team at VREAL is on track to create the future of how we watch games in virtual reality. I’m looking forward to seeing what game developers will do with this SDK, and the creativity that streamers will bring to the medium. Who knows, maybe a year from now I’ll be reporting live on the status of streaming from inside the VREAL lobby. It’s an exciting time in VR.