Schell: VR faces 'serious obstacles to growth' | Crain's Pittsburgh

Schell: VR faces 'serious obstacles to growth'

A screen shot of the Schell Games VR game "I Expect You to Die." | Photo courtesy of Schell Games.

Jesse Schell, founder and CEO of Schell Games in Pittsburgh, has some predictions about the future of virtual reality and augmented reality that buck the conventional wisdom.

Schell told an audience at the Augmented World Expo in this month that handheld controllers will be the norm, so-called parasite VR systems (where the VR device is powered by a smartphone or a computer) will be in the minority, and growth won’t be as swift as expected unless some of the technology’s inherent problems are fixed.

While VR could become a $22.5 billion industry by the year 2025, it faces some serious obstacles to growth. Most of them have to do with technology that’s not quite ready, including cumbersome headsets, Schell said.

“A lot of the technical obstacles will be overcome” by the year 2035, Schell said. if the industry can wrap its head around designing for user experience, like children, rather than designing for abstract ideas. “We’re not just designing for some gadget for the next generation of techno-literati people. We’re designing the eyes of the next generation,” Schell told the conference.  

Schell Games started in 2002 as a game design and development company. Schell’s background includes seven years working for Walt Disney Imagineering. He teaches at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center, where he works with student teams developing virtual worlds. Schell’s experiences put the company in a good place when the Oculus came out, and it started to seem like there was going to be a viable home VR path, said the company vice president of design Harley Baldwin.

“We had a lot of advantages because Jesse had been working with so many teams doing innovative things in VR,” Baldwin said. “Not all of the work [at CMU] is VR but it’s work that’s very much out on the bleeding edge. So we had the ability to leapfrog a lot of the early problems that other studios walked right into.”

The studio’s best-known game is "I Expect You to Die," one of the most popular VR games on the market. The first-person game that requires players to figure out how to escape a villain’s death traps has won rave reviews.

User experience

Most of the problems VR game companies are dealing with involve creating a realistic user experience, but when Schell Games created "I Expect You to Die," that user experience was central to the design process. The company puts a big emphasis on user testing for its games, and started doing prototypes to see what worked and what didn’t.

“We have a process that is structured to try to help our games grow naturally,” Baldwin said. “We build these things slowly, over time.”

Like most design studios, Schell Games was tackling issues with the VR experience like embodiment, which is the sense the player feels of really being in the game. Some games go about it by making the player feel slightly nauseous, and many struggle to create an experience where a player really feels like they’re moving around.

“The question we were trying to figure out was how can we make it feel like they aren’t missing something by not moving around?”

It dawned on the team at Schell Games that super spies are always getting tied to a chair by the villain, who then gives them a big speech before leaving the hero to his or her death. So "I Expect You to Die" casts the player as a hero trying to use a gadget to escape the trap.

The key to success with VR games is to know the audience, Baldwin says, which is why Schell Games places such a high priority on play testing.

“It exposes the team to where players do and do not understand the game,” she said.

Going old-school

Having users talk about what they would like to experience is better than even old-school market research, Baldwin added. “We are taking them on a trip into unknown lands, so they should have an opportunity to decide which of those unknown lands they want to explore.”

As far as Schell’s remarks at the Augmented World Expo, Baldwin said she viewed it as a call to action, a kind of challenge to the rest of the industry to try to solve some of these problems and create better user experiences.

“The main thing I get from his talk is that he wants to see these problems solved faster, and he was speaking to the people who will be able to meet that challenge,” Baldwin said. “We are at the very beginning of what VR can and will become.”  

June 18, 2017 - 4:26pm