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What Epic Games learned by making a tech demo for Google's VR platform

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The secret is in the controls

The motion controller that comes with Google's Daydream virtual reality platform offers three degrees of freedom: yaw, pitch and roll. These make Daydream controls much more expressive than what we're used to from the touchpad on the Gear VR, but less powerful than the HTC Vive's controllers, which are fully mapped in 3D space.

"I was a little bit skeptical," Epic Games' technical director Nick Whiting told Polygon. "But when you play with simulating the elbow and the arm of the player it’s amazing how good it feels. Your mind is really good at remapping input when it’s consistent."

Epic is bringing Unreal Engine 4 support to Daydream, and the company showed off a tech demo called "Dungeon" onstage at Google's developer showcase today.

"You’re rotating this magic wand through the environment, and it’s not positionally tracking through the real world, but your mind learns to control your arm in a way that the visual response you’re getting and the physical input that you’re giving it correspond one to one," Whiting explained. "It’s amazing how natural it feels and how quickly your brain remaps it."

So by moving the controller you can kind of cheat your way into natural interactions like drinking a potion:

potion drink gif

Interacting with a menu:

menu gif

Or aiming a spell:

spell aim

One of the interesting aspects of Google's approach to VR is that smartphones will be responsible for so much of the experience. Gear VR as a platform uses sensors that are more sensitive than those in compatible phones, hence the $100 price for what many people assume is just plastic and lenses. Daydream's specifications require much more of the heavy lifting to be done by the phone, which has to fulfill a number of requirements for it to be considered Daydream-compatible.

"The reference headset is just kind of the plastic shell and the lenses, you have to have a Daydream-certified phone to get the latency that low," Whiting explained. While Gear VR support is only offered on Samsung phones, Daydream democratizes mobile VR by allowing any company to release a compatible phone for the platform.

"It’s all based in the Android stuff," Whiting said. "A lot of the stuff that happens in the Gear VR, they have to make software modifications to Samsung’s particular flavor of Android to get the low level scan line racing and lower latency stuff. What Daydream does is build that functionality into Android devices that support it."

Epic first saw Daydream and received details about the VR mode in January of this year, and have been working on support since then. The company made sure porting your games to the platform is simple.

"If you have something that’s already moving and performing on mobile-class VR hardware, it should be absolutely trivial to do it," Whiting said. "All the systems that UE4 work with VR out of the box work with Daydream. … The big thing is you just have to make sure you content is aimed at a mobile device, so you’re not going to take something like Bullet Train and run it on Daydream out of the box."

How easy will the process be?

"Click enable on the Google plugin. We’re releasing a document tomorrow telling you how to turn on the advanced features … but they’re basically just checkboxes you do when you deploy your app," Whiting explained.

The secret is the controls

Daydream will have many advantages in the VR market, including the fact it's portable, will be simple for anyone with a compatible phone to set up, and brings with it the considerable power of Google to deliver content. And the fact that the motion controller is a standard part of the platform helps it stand apart from Gear VR, its closest competitor.

"In terms of class of performance, at least with the references we’ve seen, it’s pretty darn close [to Gear VR]. The major difference is actually the interaction." Whiting said, pointing to the high number of things like turret shooters on Gear VR where you aim by moving your head and tap the side of the headset to fire.

"Having the motion controller standard with every Daydream headset, it lets us venture out a little more, I think the exciting jump for this from other mobile platforms is you’re guaranteed at least three degrees of freedom tracking and the trackpad in the more natural head position rather than reaching up and tapping your face," he explained.

The release of Daydream will also mean that you'll have more options in terms of which phone you can buy if you're interested in mobile VR, and the fact the phone hardware and Android software does so much of the work means that the price of the headset and motion controller itself will likely be affordable. That means that, ideally, more people will be able to try a high quality of virtual reality than what Cardboard can provide.

"This is kind of upping the level of experience people will get with their first contact with VR, which I think is a really good thing for VR in general," Whiting said. "If you see crappy VR at the outset, it’s not good, and it turns people off. With Daydream, especially with the addition of the motion controller and having that level of interactivity, it’s going to make people’s first contact with VR a lot higher quality. It might get more people excited about it and help it grow faster."