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How Cloudhead Games 'fixed' VR movement, and created an adjustable-sized holodeck

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Cloudhead Games has been working on The Gallery: Six Elements since 2013. The idea of working on a game built for virtual reality where you stood up and interacted with the world using your hands was certainly interested, but the company was investing in a future they were never sure was possible.

"The hardware at that time didn’t really support [The Gallery] but we had this weird developmental stubbornness that 'VR would get there!'" Denny Unger, Cloudhead CEO and creative director told Polygon. "And it did, thank God"

The team began work on solving problems without the hardware needed to execute their vision, but that headstart and faith in the technology has led to something very interesting: A working solution for movement in virtual reality that doesn't make the player sick. The solution works in any sized room,

"We are certainly not taking all the credit here, Valve and a number of other developers are working on teleportation solutions but some questions hadn’t even been asked yet," Unger explained. "Once we had solved for the major issues, and created a holistic system, the team felt confident that BLINK had enough of the right things going for it to succeed."

So how does this work?

Virtual reality is hard enough to describe, so trying to nail down what exactly makes a method of locomotion in a virtual world so special may be near impossible. The best thing to do for now is to watch the embedded video above to get a sense for how it all works.

"We threw every idea imaginable against the wall to see what would stick," Unger told Polygon. "In the end it was always the unexpected things that tended to work best. More and more we’re finding that as the fidelity and capabilities of the hardware improve, the more you tend to hinge on real-life corollaries. So when we created 'VR Comfort Mode' we referenced dancers spinning and locking eyes on a distant fixed point, to prevent dizziness. None of us thought it would work but it’s now a commonly used movement strategy in seated VR FPS experiences."

The game is launching on the HTC Vive, the hardware that allows you to turn an entire room into a virtual space. But not every player will have an entire room to give over to the technology. That presents a problem.

"With full volumetric or roomscale tracking we had to go back to the drawing board and consider new strategies," Unger said. "What happens when a person only has the space in front of their desk, or what if they have a warehouse? What happens when a player tries to walk through a virtual wall? How do you redirect physical walking without making it feel uncomfortable? How do you present projection deep into a virtual space without that action taking you out of the experience? Distilling down the big questions was as important as finding solutions."

Once they knew what questions to ask, they were able to get to work. After that it was just a matter of testing; if it felt organic in the virtual world, they knew they were on the right track.

"We went to work on what we call an 'elastic play space' which is a fancy way of saying, make the locomotion system scale to any play space, whether that’s in front of your desk, on a carpet in front of your TV, in your garage, in an airplane hanger," Unger said. "Once you let go of the idea that you can constrain a user's play space, you can open yourself back up to larger game environments."

You can see in the video that you'll be able to move in the environment and explore a space of your choosing. So if you have an entire room, walking around will be a bit easier. If you have a small area in front of your desk? That will work as well, along with every size in between.

These solutions also allow anyone to move in virtual without getting ill, an important detail as virtual reality aims for widespread adoption.

Cloudhead Games is working on what amounts to a holodeck: A way to create large-scale environments you can explore in virtual reality, no matter the size of your home office or space around the computer. By making the rather risky bet that virtual reality hardware would catch up to their ambitions they were able to secure a headstart on these techniques and more robust solutions than the competition. Welcome to the future.