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Versions is the essential guide to virtual reality and beyond. It investigates the rapidly deteriorating boundary between the real world and the one behind the screen. Versions launched in 2016 at the eponymous conference dedicated to creativity and VR with the New Museum’s incubator NEW INC.

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The strangely convincing act of headbutting a ball in VR

Headmaster_E3_Screen_7
The strangely convincing act of headbutting a ball in VR

Headmaster begins in the dark. Then a floodlight blinds you, illuminating an emptied soccer field. There’s green grass, white lines, big nets, and a large scoreboard, but the shadows along the perimeter belong to a prison camp, with watchtowers and barbed wire. A speaker audibly clicks on, a voice telling you that you have been sent here by your club for poor performance—this is bad. And, because you’re so shoddy at punting balls with your head, you are now indefinitely in The Football Improvement Center.

The majority of VR games are based upon spatial considerations; the exploration of a world wrapped around you. But with Headmaster, creator Ben Throop has you stand in one place, risking the appeal of the entire experience on a single moment: an interaction and its reaction. Simply put, it tasks you with headbutting a virtual ball so that it collides with targets of the traditional kind, as well as pinatas of the candy-filled kind.

Headmaster began life in mid-2014 at the Boston VR Bender; a game jam run by Alex Schwartz and Devin Reimer of Owlchemy Labs, and the creators of the VR game Job Simulator. The first version of Headmaster came together in the span of an hour. The subsequent delay was caused by Throop’s child being born. And then the idea didn’t find its current confidence in VR until it encountered the Oculus DK2.

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Throop’s main challenge in creating Headmaster was to somehow convince players that they were actually making contact with a virtual object. My idea, which I pitched to him repeatedly, was to ship a living human being with the game whose sole purpose is bop you on the skull with a rolled up newspaper every time you hit a ball. “I am open to all conversations with any partners who would like to make that happen,” said Throop. “A first of its kind.”.

But here’s the thing: Headmaster, and its idea hinged on thwacking a ball that is not there, “just kind of works,” as I told Throop after giving it a go. His surprise in hearing this seemed to match my own upon making the discovery. Throop had before added sparks and lighting to the game in a hope to help players achieve the impression of a ball landing on your head, but it turns out that it sticks better with less garnish. Anything added to the barebones activity proves too distracting.

breaking the golden rule of VR

Having found this through playtesting, and now seeing it work through my own interaction with the game, Throop is now disappointed in himself for ever considering breaking the golden rule of VR—shaking the player’s perspective. According to him, Headmaster makes its phantom shots work through consequence, not decoration. Seeing a garbage pail 20 feet away, and then headbutting a virtual ball so that it lands in it, provides enough feedback and reward for the experience to be a success.

Throop believes that enacting a gesture in VR flexes the same muscles as doing it in actuality. His logic being that your brain can’t tell the difference between a ball being there or not if it’s still working towards the goal of striking it into the net. The videogame potential of this effect draws parallels to what Nintendo must have saw while dreaming up Wii Sports (2006), which sold players on the illusions of bowling and boxing without ever touching gloves and finger holes.

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“It surprises you a lot,” said Throop. “You make a physical connection with the ball. There is no haptic feedback to bump your head, but you make this connection with it, the ball out into the world.” Most significantly, for a medium that’s still trying to prove the worth of its existence, Throop notes that when the ball interacts with objects in its virtual world after you’ve headbutted it,  the accomplishment feels different than it would with a controller-based game. “It’s like the way you made the interaction is very 1-to-1 to what your expectations would be,” he said. His point is that there seems to be room for virtual reality experiences to better explore and capitalize on this effect.

Headmaster will be coming out for PlayStation VR later this year. It won’t be long until you can see for yourself if the game can fool your noggin. If it does, any whiplash is your own problem—it wouldn’t be the first VR game to cause people physical injury.

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