Earlier this week, I stepped into the single most realistic virtual reality game I’ve ever played. That game was … whack-a-mole.
Okay, it wasn’t just whack-a-mole. The game is actually called Nvidia’s VR Funhouse and it’s essentially meant to act as a demonstration of what future VR games will offer ranging from life-like graphics to realistic physics.
See, virtual reality games are designed to drop you into worlds and situations you’d never dream possible in your ordinary life. I’m talking about experiences like piloting space fighters, painting the sky above your head or building machines with your bare hands.
There’s just one problem with most of these games: they don’t look all that great. Don’t get me wrong; the graphics for the vast majority of these games offer attractive visuals. But compared to your today’s biggest games, VR’s graphics just don’t cut it. Polygons (square edges) are often visible, and textures that make surfaces appear more realistic are often flat.
The problem with this kind of lack of detail is that it ultimately reminds you that you’re playing a game and can ruin the immersion of the VR experience.
Graphics card maker Nvidia decided it wanted to address this by creating what it calls VRWorks, a software development kit (SDK) that it’s offering to video game developers.
VRWorks takes pieces of Nvidia’s previous GameWorks SDK, which enabled realistic lighting and effects in standard games, blends it with some special sauce and voilà: you’ve got an incredibly realistic virtual reality experience.
So what does this kind technology look like in practice? In a word: real. I played Nvidia’s VR Funhouse and was absolutely floored by how incredibly realistic the environment it created felt.
The hair up there
In that whack-a-mole game, the hair on the heads of the moles looked as if I could reach out and touch it. Not only that, it reacted as it would in the real world. That’s because a big part of Nvidia’s VRWorks includes the introduction of realistic physics.
So when I slapped the moles, they reacted as you’d expect them to in the real world. In the Balloon Knight mini game, you’re given a pair of swords that you use to pop a bunch of balloons in a set amount of time. What’s amazing though is how the swords interacted with the balloons.
When I poked them, the balloons deformed ever so slightly before popping. And if you’re careful enough, you can push the balloons into each other with the broad side of the sword.
When a balloon popped it spewed confetti, which flitted and floated to the ground. When I waved my sword in a circle, though, the confetti began to twist and twirl in the air just as it should.
Water, water everywhere
The most impressive bit of physics the game offered, though, was how it handled water. In Clown Painter, which is basically one of those games where you shoot water into a clown’s mouth to fill and pop a balloon, you’re given two squirt guns filled with green water.
Sure filling the balloon is the objective of the game, but it’s way more fun to just spray the water all over the place like a maniac. So that’s what I did. But unlike most VR games, where you’d expect the water to limply fall to the ground, the water in Clown Painter seemed to come to life. Spraying the ground with the squirt guns caused water to pool and slightly buildup before washing away.
Nvidia says it programmed the water from the molecular level, so when you cross the squirt guns’ streams you can see the surface tension holding them together for a second then falling apart.
Sound and touch
The final elements that make VRWorks … work … are sound and haptic feedback. Nvidia said it has gone out of its way to make every element in its VR Funhouse sound as though it would in real life. And to make the gaming experience feel realistic, the company has integrated more nuanced haptic feedback. As a result, you’ll actually be able to feel items in the game world.
In one game, for example, I placed an arrow in a bow and could feel it rubbing against the bow’s notch and the tension in the string. Sure you can’t feel the heft of objects, so things like large guns and mallets are oddly lightweight, but being able to interact with them and get some sense of realistic sensation helps keep your brain in the game world.
For the hardcore
Naturally, only the most hardcore of hardcore PCs will be able to handle this kind of VR technology. That’s because when a computer renders a VR game it has to create two images: one for each eye.
But Nvidia VRWorks takes that to another level. The system I played on was running two of the company’s most powerful graphics cards — the $600 GTX 1080, only one of which was dedicated to generating the on-screen graphics. The other card was dedicated solely to computing the game’s physics.
To put that in perspective, a newer game like “The Witcher 3” which offers incredibly beautiful graphics runs buttery smooth on my PC which has an older graphics card. But if I tried to run Nvidia’s VR Funhouse my computer would either spontaneously combust or begin audibly weeping.
But Nvidia isn’t worried about that. The company is specifically gearing this toward gamers looking for a high-end VR experience. And while the company’s GTX 1080 is $600 now, it’ll drop in price in the coming months — putting this kind of VR in the hands of even more consumers.
So buckle up, because if game developers start building VR games worlds based on VRWorks, you might never want to leave.