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What two years of VR development taught the studio behind Job Simulator

'You want to be having fun.'

Before the Oculus Rift, game studio Owlchemy Labs was possibly best known as the creator of Smuggle Truck (the rejected iOS physics game about undocumented immigrants) and Snuggle Truck (the accepted iOS physics game about stuffed animals.) But in 2013, the studio released Aaaaaculus!, a virtual reality adaptation of a skydiving game it created with Dejobaan Games in 2011. Coming at a point when virtual reality experiences tended towards small tech demos and ports of first-person shooters, Aaaaaculus! made Owlchemy one of the first serious developers for the Oculus Rift.

Now, the studio is preparing for the release of Job Simulator, an offbeat virtual reality toybox about (usually badly) performing jobs like cooking and convenience store management. Job Simulator has been touring with Valve and HTC's Vive headset, but at Oculus Connect, Owlchemy has announced that it's also going to support the Oculus Touch motion controllers. That officially puts the game on both PC virtual reality headsets, set for release whenever the Vive and Rift end up going on sale. They've also got a new job to announce — office worker — and a Connect session about making standing, room-scale games. Before the announcement, I got to ask Owlchemy "chief scientist" Alex Schwartz a few questions about the state of virtual reality.

Owlchemy Labs Alex Schwartz

Interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Adi Robertson: So, you have basically been in VR longer than most companies in the modern wave.

Alex Schwartz: Yes. Aaaaaculus! was the first game on Steam that had VR support that was not made by Valve. But it's two years. It's been so short, it's hilarious to say. So never brand us as like, "They're the veterans of VR development!" We've seen and worked with a lot of hardware, and we feel like we're starting to get a sense of what the space feels like and what it's like to develop for it.

I'm curious how this has turned out compared to your expectations in 2013.

Oh yeah, I mean, things change so fast. It's funny now, if I see someone with a DK1 [first-generation Rift] on their head, I'm like "No! It's going to make you sick! Take it off! That's terrible!" Yet that was the thing that sold me on the future of VR, right? So we've gone from "This is a bite-sized vision of what the future is" to "Nah, it's old crap, don't touch it." You know? We've gone from just being able to look around, to positional tracking, to being able to stand up and move around a room. From no controller to having some input to having fully tracked, one-to-one absolute tracking.

"We've gone from 'This is a bite-sized vision of what the future is' to 'Nah, it's old crap, don't touch it.'"

How far is the endgame for your ideal VR, besides something like the Matrix? When will you look at a headset and say "This does everything I want"?

There will never be a time. [Oculus chief scientist] Michael Abrash's talks are always about where we need to be to hit it, from a very scientific angle. Like our eyes have 16K resolution per eye, and that's where we can actually start — we can't see any smaller of a detail when I look at a single hair of your head. And it's like okay, we're 10 years out from that. But there's good enough, and it's always a compromise.

What's good enough?

Two years ago, Abrash gave a talk saying, here's what's good enough for VR to really take off. And it was like, over 1K per eye at 90Hz. Those were the big stats. And the Rift and the Vive both have that.

Is that it? I can think of things, like wireless, that I feel like I need.

I've never had a time when the tether caused me to be unable to experience the content. There's definitely some percentage of a decrease in presence. I think it's just a necessary vestige of where we are, and it's obvious that mobile VR is totally the future.

But for now, I think we have to hit that quality VR experience to sell people, because I'm not a fan of having an experience that doesn't quite sell people as their first experience. You don't want to have someone's first experience be "Oh, it's a little laggy."

So you don't buy the "gateway drug" theory?

I do not. And that's why we're not building for mobile VR right now. Because mobile VR will be so much better very, very soon. It's almost like leading the target in an FPS — you aim ahead, and by the time tech catches up to it, you'll have content that works really well with being able to use your hands and stuff like that.

How physical do you think we actually want to be? In theory, the Kinect could be the best thing ever — but we don't want to move all the time.

So that's a perfect parallel. When the Wii came out, everyone loved to play Wii Bowling. They'd get really into it and actually do the whole gesture. But then there's this laziness curve that happens, and you're sitting there like three hours into bowling, and you just go like "Meh." You could reduce the amount to trick the game into thinking that you did the operation property. The thing is, you can't do that in standing VR with absolute controls. Because there's no shorthand for being able to reach out and grab a thing.

We’ve been thinking about ergonomics a lot, and just like a product designer or an interior decorator, you wouldn't want to put lots of shelves in your home that are very high-use very high up. You wouldn't want your plates or your silverware to be at the top level. Because humans just are not that great at putting their hands up over their head for long periods of time. It's almost like we're building games in a way that you would design real life, for ergonomic reasons and fatigue and tiring. You want to be having fun.

Where do you see VR games fitting into games as a whole?

Will all gaming go and be VR? No. It's kind of like when people said, "Oh, will mobile games completely eradicate other gaming?" It's just another form factor — the best games in VR are going to be the ones you can't do anywhere else. That's kind of what happened with mobile ... the best things that ended up standing out on the platform were the ones where you had to have touch.

The mobile analogy is so omnipresent in VR that I wonder if you think there are points where it breaks. What are the differences between this and the mobile shift?

I think the thing that's different between mobile and what's happening here with VR is that the scale between shitty mobile and the best mobile experience is like — how good can this mobile experience be? I'm still having it out in front of my face on a screen.

It's like the same argument you'd use against ‘Why were 3D TVs a failure?' Because it only gave like a 2 percent increment over what could have been better about your TV viewing experience. The delta between playing games on my PC and doing a VR experience is so incredibly big. It's to the point where people come out and say, "That was a religious experience. I've never tried anything like that."

"It's to the point where people come out and say, 'That was a religious experience. I've never tried anything like that.'"

What do you think about augmented reality?

We are further away from having good AR than most people think — or that marketing departments of various AR companies want you to think. It's totally a thing, it'll definitely happen. But our computer vision of understanding the world and being able to map spaces and properly and know where geometry is is just not quite there. With the limited set of things you can do with that tech, I don't know that it will live up to people's vision of what they hoped AR would be in the next year.

But I think VR is blowing people away as to what their expectations are, or thought they would be. Because we've hit that Holodeck level. And when you can live up to the expectations of Star Trek, that's pretty crazy.

Okay. Wait. How have we hit the Holodeck level?

We have totally hit the Holodeck level — you're in a white box that is 10 x 10, and now you're in a totally different world, and you can walk on the surface of the moon, or you could explore an entirely new virtual world and feel like those objects are actually solid. People get so caught up in Job Simulator that some people lean on the table, and try to put their weight on it, and there's nothing there.

So that's why it's not the Holodeck experience, though. The Holodeck-produced matter.

Okay. Well, most of the Holodeck's vision was "you're in a white room, now you're in a new world." And I think we did that.

But you can't, say, throw snowballs in the room.

No. You have some intricacies of the Holodeck that we couldn't have incorporated. But to most people, I think it distills to "Woah. Holodeck-level shit is actually happening." It's enough to impress people that I haven't seen anyone come out of an Oculus Touch demo or a Vive demo and say "Meh." It's a good sign.