9 Years of VR — Ruminations & Snippets Pt.6/9

Be sure to read Pt.1, Pt.2, Pt.3, Pt.4 & Pt.5 first…

Fun & Serious Games (continued)

I can continue to talk about some of the other gaming and LBE things we’ve made over the years that have been great fun to work on. One of them being the multiplayer competitive potato harvesting VR game we made for McDonald’s. Yep you heard me.

The VR Truck all setup for the first time for the media day event

Late-2015 we were approached by a creative marketing agency working with McDonald’s UK for a new campaign that would launch in 2016 to promote and raise awareness of their young farmer training programmes, “Follow Our Foodsteps”. They wanted a series of immersive experiences to be installed into a truck that would drive around the various agricultural and countryside shows across the UK, promoting 100% British beef, organic milk and free-range eggs, as well as the need to encourage and enable more young people into farming to make up the 120,000-person deficit needed to keep supplies growing and delivered to restaurants (bearing in mind this was BEFORE Brexit, COVID and 2022 Tory party collapse v4).

We agreed upon a series of simple touchscreen quizzes, some 360º video footage to be shown on GearVR and a hero VR experience, using Oculus Rift. We had access to the DVTs, EVTs and PVTs prototypes and dev kits but the launch of the CV1 Rift was a bit unclear in terms of exact date and availability in relation to when this campaign was going to launch. But time was tight and dev on we must.

A project this size had a number of parties involved, from the distribution firm who provided the 14m truck, to the fit-out crew, the creative designers, PMs, event crew and us, building the digital content. At the time dedicated 360º cameras weren’t really a thing so two 180º cameras were strapped back-to-back and stuck on poles around dairy, pig and chicken farms and McNugget factories. Thanks to Tim at what would become FutureVisual for the assistance.

The biggest challenge here after post-processing a few things out was actually keeping the Samsung Galaxy phones cool enough on a hot British Summers day during the events so they didn’t shutdown or kill the batteries. Oh and reminding the event staff not to hold the GearVR headsets by the straps with the lenses pointing up, towards the unrelenting sunshine which would happily burn a mobile phone screen in seconds if given half the chance.

The hero VR experience, “Top of the Crop”, was where most of the effort went though. Turns out driving a virtual tractor in a straight line following a virtual harvester along a path at a constant velocity was actually quite hard to do. Harder still was ensuring 3 high-end gaming PCs would operate stably off a generator power supply in the middle of a field. Thankfully we only had to rely on that once as turns out most of the sites had decent power provided to exhibition plots.

In-game screenshot from inside the virtual tractor cab

The other main challenge was determining how we would get the Oculus Rift and sensor extended 10–15m from inside the truck where the gaming PCs were in the tech room, to the physical mock-tractors the users sat on to play, located outside the truck, in the sun commonly. We must have tested nearly every USB3 and HDMI extension cable to find a handful of makes that would actively extend the signals in a way that the Rift and PC were happy with to work as normal.

The rest of the mock tractor comprised of a real tractor seat and the official steering wheel and pedals from Farming Simulator. The units were made of wood, with the seat and everything else, weighed a lot, taking four people to lift them out and in every morning and evening to setup and pack down the “booth”. Gaming steering wheels and especially the pedals are designed to be used at home, not in a field by excited farmer kids and adults, with muddy boots and wellies on. We learned a lot about the importance of spares and how to replace things efficiently so as to reduce downtime as much as possible during the live shows.

The final challenge was the headsets themselves. Although the Rift launched in March 2016, we can all agree the pre-ordering and shipping was a bit of a clusterfuck at the time. We had units ordered but no way to boost them up the queue or even a real sense of when they would arrive. Thankfully we were able to swing 6 sets of PVTs just before the media day and had special permission to be able to use them as the consumer units hadn’t been delivered yet. It does mean many photos have “engineering sample” on the headsets visible but thankfully it’s faint and wasn’t that obvious.

I think this was the only time we really used the Oculus Rift remote control for anything but we put it to good use as an easy event booth operators tool. The central button started/stopped/reset the VR game. Pressing left or right would swap the gender of the farmer avatar you saw for each player, and pressing up or down would realign the VR camera for each player. Everything needed to smoothly run the experience was controlled from that one little puck. Of course, there were plenty of spares of those too. We’ve had so many Rifts over the years I think I cleared about 50 of these remotes out of a drawer when we moved the studio one time. Only the OGs know what I’m talking about ;)

The 2nd iteration of ‘Reactor Runner’ in the upright cabinet form

Many of the other serious games projects involved physical elements too. Mentioned earlier, the ‘Reactor Runner” game for EDF Energy was adapted from a team-communications game on tablet into an amazing single player physical arcade cabinet, first in a pinball-style table for Glasgow Science Centre, then as an upright cabinet to go into the staff room at Cannington Court. The game itself was re-styled and refactored to gradually introduce the three roles before allowing the player to be the super-operator for the power station. This served its time for 5 years at GSC without fault as far as aware. Must have been those robust ‘Hard Drivin’’ gear selectors we used from the original arcade cabinets as control rod levers.

We also took on a few projects to port titles from one platform to another, for other studios on titles that weren’t our own IP. Two of these titles is the early VR experience ‘Apollo 11’ from PC to Samsung GearVR and Google DayDream, and the follow up experience ‘Titanic VR’, again from PC but this time to Sony PlayStation VR. We’re proud of the considerable optimisations undertaken by the team to get these titles working on far less-powerful hardware, requiring far more efficient development approaches to do so.

Having started as a project manager, over time as my role morphed freeform into whatever it became at the end as Immersive Partnerships Director, (a title we made up to look good when I did talks,) I became less and less involved with day-to-day production of content and projects. We also grew and brought in far more skilled and dedicated professionals for production and project management but it did mean I was sometimes a little disconnected from what the studio was working on, once the biz dev aspect was done.

Promotional photo for ‘Chaos Karts’ when it opened in 2021, London, UK

My biggest regret is not having more to do with the most recent LBE deployment the studio did, which took the form of the awesome Chaos Karts. Simply (?) put, it involves a big empty space, a networked array of projectors, electric go-karts, a tracking system and a Unity-based game running everything under the hood. It’s far more complex than that of course and it’s an impressive tech stack that takes customers from booking to personalisation of their karts, speed ups, weapons, slow downs when they get hit (or try cheating by cutting virtual corners) and scoring. Am just gutted that thanks to COVID and lockdowns and timing, only two people from the studio have gotten to play the finished thing during install and until a new venue is found, will have to wait until my turn to try it.

Onwards to the next part >>>

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Sam Watts

Content Partnerships Lead at HTC Vive // Viveport, living the xR life — follow me on Twitter @vr_sam