Building a VR Cockpit: What We Learned


Introduction

I once heard another VR creator say, "Building content for VR is a bit like skydiving and constructing the parachute on the way down." There are so many fundamentals that have yet to be figured out- so you can rest assured that if you're building in VR, you're likely doing something new. There just hasn't been enough content created for 'copycats' to pop up. A Carl Sagan quote comes to mind:

Inventing the universe in this case can mean 'simple' things like locomotion and interface design. But these things have proven to be far from simple- requiring lots and lots of testing, research and iteration.

Our studio is called Block Interval- and we have been working on a story game called Life of Lon since August of 2014. Originally the game was planned as a minimalistic story sidescroller- inspired by the stylistic approaches of games like Another World, Journey and Limbo

The original crash site sidescroller test.


The original crash site sidescroller test.

Another test we built to experiment with movement in space.


Another test we built to experiment with movement in space.

We spent 4 months building this version of Life of Lon. Unfortunately, we had to scrap all of our dev work to make the transition to virtual reality- a painful decision to make when you're bootstrapped. But we have since discovered that it was the right decision. Life of Lon is much more dynamic and immersive in this new medium, and because we had planned for a silent protagonist- the story still works (with the player as the stand in for Lon).

So about that Ship...

Before we get into the cockpit itself, let's talk about the ship. Lon's ship started out with just some rough sketches to get a feel for a general shape. I knew that we needed a portal and some legs but beyond that, I wasn't sure where it should go. Here are the first sketches of the ship.

The first ship in the above picture (ship A) really intrigued me because it reminded me somewhat of the tripod ships from the 1980's UK sci-fi show. This seemed like a good direction to head in, so we iterated more with that idea. 

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More iterations trying different ideas related to how Lon would exit the ship and how it could take off and land.

At this point, the overall shape of the ship began to take shape. I left in some of my notes to Claudio and Matt so you can see the thought process behind getting the shape right.

A very nice render. We ultimately ended up pretty close to this except for the bubble instead of banded window.

More thought was given to how Lon might get in and out.

One idea we talked about was making Lon's ship feel 'lived in' with traces of his personality spread around. This concept of the cockpit was unique in that it just had a flat window at a desk.

Remember that this was still when we were planning Life of Lon as a sidescroller. We pursued this idea where the interior of the ship would rotate around Lon as he 'swam' through space horizontally. Would have really liked to see this come to fruition- but so it goes.

A very nice render of the above schematic.

At this point, we really began to understand what Lon's ship needed to look like. Everything from here on out is just variations on this design.

Another really nice render that is pretty close to what we have right now.

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This is the first concept after the switch to VR. As you can see, we still maintained a lot of momentum from the previous work. Our goal was to figure out how to make this type of cockpit feel comfortable in VR. Unfortunately, we found ourselves getting sick with an outward facing cockpit no matter what we did.

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Concept of what it would look like falling towards the water in VR.

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Our early VR cockpit prototypes where enclosed spheres that would protrude from the ship. It was our tests into comfort that forced us to change the plan a little later.

Another nice render showing what the ship might look like once it had crashed to the bottom of the ocean.

Our original crash site was right inside of an alien agricultural dome. You can see a basic model of the ship that we used for placeholder purposes. You can also see an early model of Yep on the left.

Our second model of the ship's hull. The final version we ended up with had much longer legs and is more of a charcoal color/texture. 

We were still convinced we could do the cockpit in a glass sphere but we hadn't solved nausea yet.

At this point we started to work on locomotion. How would it work? We settled on the player sitting on top of a submersible that could detach from the cockpit (Meaning the player never leaves their seat throughout the game). We wanted to do something that was a mixture of biological and technological- so you will see that theme reappearing throughout further iterations.

We found ourselves having to create rough models to determine the visual footprint a design would have. This can be a very time consuming process.

An early UI approach- bio-mechanical tendrils that would project holograms important to the gameplay. We had to kill the idea because of how expensive it would be to build/animate the tendrils. Would have been really cool though!

We shifted gears to a more hard shelled anemone shape.

An early model based on this idea that we tested.

This was our breakthrough moment. We discovered that if we tilted the player on her side, motion sickness was all but eliminated. In our previous cockpit designs- the player faced forward towards the bubble, but when we put the bubble overhead, nausea was completely eliminated. We speculate that this is because the player has a consistent horizon line around her- making the cockpit feel more stable and anchored. This was a really key learning that we hope to carry throughout the rest of the game.

An early model of the more minimal cockpit. We were enamored by how it looked kind of like an eye (lens, iris, etc). 

The new test cockpit sitting in a further along version of the ship.

In VR it felt pretty good. Wide open view of space in full 360 (as well as up). Not being able to look down didn't seem to detract from the experience.

Early models of the gems that power the ship.

With our R&D completed, we began work on the final renders of the cockpit. This would be the design that we would shoot for in the production build of the game. Much more attention being paid to the details- but still attempting to keep it on the minimal side.

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Throughout most of the development of the cockpit in VR, we knew we wanted to build holographic UI- we just weren't sure how to execute since there is very little precedent. My hope was that the holograms would look beautiful and simple, not slapped together or cluttered.

A concept that shows how the pod Lon sits in could detach and move into sockets inside the ship. We're not sure if we'll end up showing this part of the ship during the game- but if we have time, we'd like to!

A concept we are testing based on what we learned with eliminating nausea in the cockpit- putting a horizon around the player to make them feel anchored as they move.

An unpainted model of the final cockpit design.

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A test involving spraying water against the glass. The effect is really impressive.

All of our hard work is paying off. The cockpit is becoming more of a dramatic stage where things can play out in a memorable and unique way.

To be Continued...

Want to try out our demo and sit in this cockpit? You can! We're going to be exhibiting a demo of Life of Lon at the VR World Congress in Bristol UK this coming April! If you plan on attending, make sure to stop by and say hi. We'd also love it if you could give our Twitter a follow or like us on Facebook! Stay on top of all the new behind the scenes info as we bring Life of Lon to a VR headset near you.

Daniel Allen is the co-founder of Block Interval and co-creator of the in-development VR game Life of Lon. For more information about the project, check out lifeoflon.com or the VR announcement.

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