The art of developing AR and VR experiences is a moving target. The underlying technology continues to evolve as do users’ interests and expectations. Companies across the spatial computing spectrum are meanwhile trying to feel out use cases and interactions that resonate.
This moving target is the case for all kinds of immersive experiences but it’s most evident in gaming, given the category’s early popularity (especially in VR). We have first-person shooters, rhythm games like Beat Saber, cockpit experiences, and 3D puzzlers among other formats.
One recent game that both defies and combines various formats into several levels and sequences is Sam & Max: This Time It’s Virtual. The game parlays endearing IP into a narrative-driven arc that’s part Job Simulator, part adventure game, and part category unto itself.
Panning back, this represents game developer Happy Giant’s first major VR title after producing several AR games. This gives it unique perspective into the dynamics of both mediums, which CEO Mike Levine recently discussed with Anthony Vitillo — the focus of this week’s XR Talks.
In developing a successful VR game, one of Levine’s high-level takeaways is the inherent differences from previous efforts in mobile AR game development. The latter includes the QuasAR battle game and the Untamed ARena companion AR experience for WowWee toys.
Specifically, mobile AR dynamics present game-design challenges. For one, mobile AR’s upheld orientation causes relatively short sessions. That works great for snackable AR ad campaigns or product visualization, but not for gaming which tends to succeed on longer sessions.
You could argue that Pokémon Go has long sessions. But the phone isn’t upheld throughout — much less in AR mode. In fact, Niantic has quantified the average AR time as 2–3 minutes per Pokémon Go session. The rest of the experience is propelled by geospatial mechanics.
Levine also pegs Pokémon Go as an outlier in terms of revenue success. In most other mobile AR gaming, monetization challenges persist as the medium is too early and unproven to get users to pay for it. Pokémon Go has defied gravity as an exception rather than a rule.
The above factors drove Levine and company to look to VR. Because VR is a “meal” (AR is a snack), the session-length challenges referenced above aren’t as prevalent. Of course, there are hardware comfort issues being hammered out, but session lengths are still favorable versus AR.
Speaking of hardware, Happy Giant developed and prototyped Sam & Max on Oculus Quest 1. This deviates from the common path of developing graphics-hungry PC VR titles that are ported. But it was smart in that the experience is native to standalone VR….which is the future of VR.
Sam & Max’s UX and game mechanics also have notable takeaways. There’s a varied mix of levels and types of interactions, as noted. But that variety is balanced with the right amount of consistency in the core mechanics. That way, players’ learning curves can be progressive.
Levine also points to other parts of the game’s success formula such as lovable IP, and the right humor and tone to stay true to its ethos. For the latter, Levine was fortunate to have Sam & Max OGs Steve Purcell and Mike Stemmle to genuinely evoke the brand’s signature humor.
But amidst these lessons, open questions loom, per the aforementioned “feeling out” process. Levine and colleagues often ponder what other types of IP — comics, classic games, or otherwise — could jive in VR. We’ll continue to see this feedback loop develop over time.
Back to AR, Levine is bullish on web AR, as its user onboarding is smoother by sidestepping app downloads. It also lets people consume AR in small doses as they encounter triggers and calls-to-action (CTAs) like QR codes. CTAs are an underrated part of the AR success formula.
But the “small-dose” part is the bigger takeaway. Levine asserts that no one has cracked the code in developing a mobile AR experience that aligns perfectly with the inherent strengths and weaknesses of the medium. This will be required to unlock mobile AR mass appeal.
But one accelerant could be tech-giant investments to make it happen ( follow the money). Apple is motivated to future-proof its business as iPhone sales mature, says Levine. And Facebook wants to own the hardware in the next big platform shift, which it failed to do with smartphones.
Meanwhile, AR evolution is underway in the expansion from front-facing to rear-facing camera. There are only so many ways you can augment your face, while the physical world is a broader canvas for AR fodder. This is where the rear-camera-centric TikTok could shine, says Levine.
For more insights from Levine, check out the full interview below, including several inside stories from the early days of LucasArts, where he was deskmates with Sam & Max creator Steve Purcell. You can also see a detailed interview summary from Vitillo on The Ghost Howls.
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Solaris: Offworld Combat is coming to PSVR this June with a physical release from Perp Games. According to a First Contact Entertainment representative, the digital version is planned to release a month earlier in May.
Perp Games on Twitter: “We’re not finished just yet. Solaris Offworld Combat is the next game to be getting a physical box release. Coming in June to global markets! Will you be buying it? https://t.co/5sphrqsh10” / Twitter
Solaris: Offworld Combat on PSVR
Originally, Solaris was coming to PSVR late last year around the same time as the Quest and PC VR version of the game but got delayed. Now, it’s slated for release in just a couple of months.
The latest VR shooter from First Contact Entertainment (creators of Firewall Zero Hour) is a sci-fi competitive VR shooter that feels a bit like Quake in VR due to its speed and intense arena levels. It’s a very breezy, fast-paced game that’s accessible and easy to quickly jump in and out of. The closest comparison is probably Hyper Dash.
Soalris is a notable release because other than Firewall Zero Hour, there really haven’t been many options for shooter fans on PSVR. Alvo is coming soon too, but the headset is on its last legs at this point.
The PS Aim Controller continues to be one of the best things about the PSVR platform, so I’m all for seeing more games support it, but it’s a shame games like this didn’t hit PSVR earlier in its life cycle. Hopefully PSVR 2 on PS5 is backwards compatible and it can give late-life cycle games like this one new life when it releases.
Solaris is coming to PSVR very soon with a planned digital release in May and physical release from Perp Games in June. For more on this game make sure and read our Solaris: Offworld Combat review and stay tuned for all the latest in VR.
The VR fitness genre is still relatively new, all things considered. Even though the space is still somewhat niche, it’s absolutely growing at a fast pace as seen by the number of games and players that continue to spring up. How did we get to this point though, you might ask?
Microsoft won a large US Army contract to supply advanced AR headsets for frontline soldiers, based on the HoloLens platform.
The US Army’s Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) program aims to equip infantry with AR helmets for situational awareness and convenient display of sensor outputs.
The contract is worth up to $21.88 billion over 5-10 years. While the order has been widely reported as 120,000 units, a US Army statement to Breaking Defence suggests that is the maximum, not a fixed quantity.
Early evaluation units based on HoloLens 2
In 2018 Microsoft won the $480 million evaluation contract for just over 2500 units, based on HoloLens 2 with some modifications and an extra sensor.
The current, ruggedized, upgraded IVAS
The evaluation found the hardware not rugged enough for military use, and identified problems with the sensors at night. Since then the hardware has been significantly upgraded. It’s more ruggedized and houses many more sensors.
The field of view has been significantly increased from roughly 40°x30° to 80°x40°. That’s significantly wider than any other see-through AR headset on the market.
Reported use cases for the headset include:
overlaying icons on friendly units, objectives, threats, and points of interest
built-in night vision & thermal view modes
live picture-in-picture feeds from drones, including the Soldier Borne Sensors (SBS) personal drone
simulated weapons & enemies for training exercises
scanning nearby people for high temperature (COVID-19)
facial recognition for hostage rescue situations
The Army is also testing integrations with vehicles, such as soldiers being able to see-through the walls of the armored vehicle carrying them. That means on dismounting they’ll be situationally aware.
Some Microsoft employees have protested providing technology for the military, but that’s unlikely to have any effect given the enormous potential value of the contract.
IVAS is still in the late testing & evaluation stage, and the scale of deployment will depend on future budgets. But if things go to plan, frontline soldiers could be equipped with these game-changing AR capabilities by the end of the decade.