Virtual Reality: creating virtual worlds through Unity
21 June 2017
Virtual reality is back! It firstly appeared in the 1990s, also driven by the cyberpunk fashion that, at that time, became famous among the general public thanks to W.Gibson’s novels or films, as “The Lawnmower Man” (1992), Strange Days (1995) and others. However, virtual reality disappeared very quickly and without great regrets. For a couple of years now, though, new headsets and renewed promises of revolutionary experiences has forcefully come back in the market. Will this be the right time?
The flop at the end of the millennium is very easily explained. It was clear, after several attempts, that, back then, the technology was not yet ready to create an acceptable and cheap experience at the same time. In order to give a plausible experience, the headset must show a complex universe, and that universe must rapidly respond to the interactions and movements of the cybernaut. The computers, at that time, simply could not do it. Moreover, the production of a helmet equipped with gyros, high resolution screens and easily wearable was not conceivable. The suggestions of books and films crumbled before the poverty of what the market offered. The Virtual Boy project, console produced by Nintendo, is representative, as up to date it represents one of the biggest failures in the Japanese company’s history.
Over the last two years the theme has come back in the spotlight, thanks to the technological evolution that, albeit with some limit, allows interesting solutions under 1000 euros, but especially thanks to the interest of some market leaders like Sony or HTC. They have presented their solutions for the customer market, that can finally provide a fairly convincing experience.
At the moment, it is still unclear whether the virtual reality will eventually be successful. The price, however, is still not affordable for everyone. Moreover, these devices will have to deliver quality content that can convince the general public, in order to achieve success. Device technology is not as important as the quality and quantity of experience that this device can offer. This has given rise to the need to create tools that enable software developers to make virtual representations in a simple and standardized way, reducing production costs without affecting the quality of the final product.
Virtual reality relies entirely on the science of three-dimensional representation. In order to give the impression of spatiality, the headset must reproduce two slightly different three-dimensional images, that are sent to one eye respectively. This process must be repeated at least sixty times per second to create a credible experience. In addition, the device must react to the head (and body) movements to consistently update the eye view.
Compared with what was happening more than twenty years ago, today’s video cards on our computers have powerful features for three-dimensional representation. The development of this technology has had an exponential explosion thanks to the video game market that now uses 3D as the standard for rendering game environments.
Along with the hardware development, the videogame world has also led to the emergence of several software solutions that help and greatly simplify content development. It is not surprising, then, that the same tools are now the standard for creating worlds for virtual reality. In fact, several video game producers are experimenting VR within their titles.
There are several products on the market (which are called motors), some of them are paid, others are free. The most notable ones are Unreal Engine, Cry Engine, Unity, Source, and each one of them has now introduced compatibility with the virtual reality and the headsetss that are now available on the market.
In this article we will briefly illustrate the Unity motor, which has become, over time, the reference to all “indie” productions (small development groups without a big publisher behind it) due to its really small price. Unity, in fact, is totally free, even if it is used for commercial purposes until the titles created create earnings equal to or more than one hundred thousand dollars.
Unity is a multi-platform development environment: content can be created using a PC with Windows or Mac, but can be installed on any device available on the market: computers, tablets (Android or iOS), consoles, etc.
The installation procedure is very simple even though it is particularly long. Once finished, you will need to start the program and the following home page will appear.
From this point, just press “NEW”, give a name to the project you want to create, leaving the “3D” option on, and press on “Create project”.
Once it is done, you will finally see the work environment you can create everything you want from.
Personally, I strongly suggest you try at least two of them:
Roll-a-ball tutorial: an introduction to the very simple environment that is useful to gain confidence with the tool. It is, although, also showing its strengths as the physical engine.
Space Shooter tutorial: An interesting project that will allow you to make a real video game and deepen some of the crucial aspects of Unity. At the end of this tutorial, you’ll be able to begin creating your own content.
While being a complete and mature suite, you will need at least two other tools to create quality content:
a three-dimensional modeler, to create the geometry of your world,
a two-dimensional editor for geometry texture.
Unity provides a set of pre-packaged simple objects (cubes, spheres, cylinders and others) that are clearly not enough to create a credible universe. Two great tools that can be used, and completely free of charge, are:
Blender use is not really simple and would require only a series of insights to unleash and exploit its entire potential. Fortunately there are also an infinite number of videos, courses, and totally free documentation for it. Alternatively, Unity offers a shop where you can buy a whole range of articles created by artists and developers, including 3d models, textures and more. Some of them are even available free of charge.
And of course, you need a virtual reality headset …