Versions is the essential guide to virtual reality and beyond. It investigates the rapidly deteriorating boundary between the real world and the one behind the screen. Versions launched in 2016 at the eponymous conference dedicated to creativity and VR with the New Museum’s incubator NEW INC.

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Smartphones brought us touch and drag. VR will make us rethink “gaze”

Swing Star
Smartphones brought us touch and drag. VR will make us rethink “gaze”

Andrew Garrahan discovered that some of the design issues of the newest frontier are identical to issues of bygone frontiers. Over Skype he compared an initial prototype of his game Swing Star VR to Jumping Flash! (1995)An early PlayStation game, Jumping Flash! is considered by some critics as the first 3D platformer, though holding no shred of lasting influence compared to Super Mario 64, which released about a year later with the Nintendo 64.

“You’re jumping up, and coming down,” said Garrahan about Jumping Flash! “Even in that game you have a hard time understanding where you are in space. It’s simply because you can’t see the guy.”

Jumping Flash
The giant hops of Jumping Flash! used an awkward first-person view

His small NY-based crew at Computer Lunch considered making Swing Star VR first-person, a fact he admits with a chuckle, as if recalling a party foul. “Thinking back I don’t even remember if we ended up doing first person,” said Garrahan. “I think we tried it, and you just don’t really notice the motion.” A platformer like Swing Star relies on depth and motion within the cartoon world that the game revolves around, climbing upwards and around obstacles. Seeing his star in the third person, and interacting in that space, solved the issue, and made “the sense of speed feel a lot more powerful.”

Swing Star VR stars a boy in a white shirt and a red helmet; he resembles a hybrid between Mighty Max and Commander Keen. Waggling on the crown of his helmet is a big yellow four-fingered glove, which can lash and extend forward, grabbing onto objects like it was summoned with a shout of “Go Go Gadget!”

You use your head, you use your eyes

Even without being outfitted in first person, navigating the vertical and horizontal world of Swing Star still relies on your gaze: To grab a block, look and reach. To grab a bar, look and reach. Levels conclude when you grab, dangle, and ring a bell, which opens a portal into the next stage. “It’s a little like jumping off of a swing,” said Garrahan. “There’s a moment of urgency. A skill shot.”

Swing Star, in full swing

The Gear VR, the peripheral which Swing Star is being made for, only has one button, which at first was an intimidating hurdle, but eventually became nothing to fret about. In fact, Garrahan said he thinks they could make a version of Swing Star that doesn’t require any buttons at all: you’d just stare down the objects you want to swack. But the timing would need to be fairly precise, and Swing Star works fine as is.

Virtual reality is an exciting field, and a lot of people are cautiously giddy about tinkering with programs for these new gizmos. And as engrossing as the potential is, VR’s mutant power, its version of what “touch” and “drag” were to smartphones and tablets, is gaze. You use your head, you use your eyes. In Garrahan’s eight-week workshop for Playcrafting, an education collective based in several cities, which will focus on designing with VR in mind, he’ll assign projects centered around flying and swooping through spaces by using your noggin for direction. It reminded me of a prototype called Eye Pilot, designed by a team including The Yawhg’s (2013) Damian Sommer and Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery’s (2011) Craig D. Adams, which used an eye-tracking peripheral to float through the air, but also threw distractions at you from your peripheral vision to jinx you into crashing.

Swing Star

Gaze is the function that Garrahan seems to perceive as the real hook for VR, where motion, touch, and scrolling may have been in previous generations. It’s easy to be dazzled by the notion of worlds that cocoon you, but there’s potential for more; imagine using your eyes like Superman’s Swiss Army knife of “visions.” Before Swing Star, Garrahan considered making a Sherlock Holmes adventure, in which players would stare down evidence in the room, but it would have required stronger art skills. Moving down the pop culture lineage, he next considered something based around Spider-Man, and the swinging sensation also proved very pleasant with the literal headspace of perspective-based navigation.

“With any new control paradigm, whether or not it’s touch or the mouse, it’s very exciting for the game designer to see what the new genre or the new way to control [is],” said Garrahan. “For me, it feels like what will replace the mouse or your touch is the gaze. Wherever you’re looking in this space, that’s your most powerful input. Trying to [incorporate] that core mechanic into it.

Though Garrahan will be teaching on the matter, designing for VR is relatively new to all. His own process is his own discoveries to learn from. He’s looking to create in this new and vast possibility space as fast as possible, allured by what he calls “the excitement of new genres.”

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