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Immersing Into Virtual Reality: DigiPen (Singapore) Provides VR Elective

The meteoric rise of virtual reality (VR) has seen many companies scrambling to take advantage of the new technology — from major hardware developers to small, independent game studios and more.

Earlier this year, Sony released their VR headset for the PlayStation 4 in October, bringing a blend of immersive VR games directly to home consoles. The indie game studio Gattai Games, founded by a group of DigiPen (Singapore) alumni, is working to bring their horror game Stifled to VR platforms in 2017, and there has been a rise of other Singapore game startups that are specializing in VR, including IgniteVR, Kaiju Den, and Actually Sane Studios.

While the market for VR is only beginning to emerge, the demands for VR content is high, especially in China where arcades dedicated to providing virtual experiences to their consumers are rising in numbers. These demands are expected to increase in the coming years as the technology expands to address the needs of consumers outside of the digital entertainment market. As such, DigiPen (Singapore) is working to prepare students to enter the VR industry through the GAT401 elective.

The students in this class are tasked to create at least one project for the HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift. These two devices are dedicated VR headsets that were designed to fully immerse the player into a virtual world. Their main difference is that the Vive is a room-based VR system that tracks a user’s movement through a small physical area using sensors and specialized controllers, whereas the Oculus is a sit-down VR system that does not require a large space to experience a game.

“It’s great that the students are pushed to create game projects that are up to industry standards.”

Joe McGinn, Department Chair of Game Software Design and Production and the lecturer for the GAT401 elective, says he challenges students to approach their projects as if they were developing a professional product. One such benchmark for commercial VR titles, he said, is that the game has to remain above 90 frames per second (FPS) at all times. “One of the reasons why we have to keep the game running above 90 FPS is because people will get motion sickness from the lag,” he explained. “When the player’s movement does not match what the eye sees, the brain interprets that as the body being poisoned, and that’s why players will feel dizzy.”

In addition to creating their VR prototypes, students in the GAT401 elective also get to hear from invited guest speakers who come to class and talk about their involvement in the industry — as well as their predictions about where they think VR is headed. Representatives from one of the invited companies, IgniteVR, recently shared their insights into the production of their first game, 9 Grids, describing how the introduction of the HTC Vive had given them the boost they needed to launch on Steam. They even stayed back at the end of the class to take questions and give advice to the students who are looking to develop VR games.

Roy Koo, the founder of IgniteVR, shared his excitement about DigiPen (Singapore)’s efforts in being at the forefront of VR development. “It’s great that the students are pushed to create game projects that are up to industry standards,” said Roy, who saw some students’ prototypes during the DigiPen (Singapore) Career Fair. “There are bound to be really original ideas that they’ll come up with, and it’s good that they are exploring the possibilities of VR through this course.”

DigiPen (Singapore) also partnered with HTC Vive to host their VR Bootcamp event last November. The event was open to the public, so VR developers and enthusiasts were able to learn what it takes to develop games and simulations fitted for VR. In addition to other presenters — including professor McGinn, who shared about his own experience in working with VR — developers from NVidia and Unity spoke about the tools they are providing to help other VR developers with their design processes.

Games aren’t the only future application for VR technology. Those interested in pursuing VR development after GAT401 will see demands rising in other types of interactive experiences, such as serious and virtual training exercises in fields like medicine, national defense, and more.