As of today, designing a virtual reality game consists of coding on the flat screen of a computer terminal, and then putting on a VR headset to test the results. This workflow leaves a gap—an inherent disconnect between the 2-D box of a computer monitor and the 3-D immersion of a VR headset.
That gap may soon be eliminated, thanks to work by developers like Epic Games. In this clip, the company shows its Unreal Engine—one of the most popularly licensed software platforms on which developers build their own games—editing a game in VR. This means a game designer could craft massive environments while experiencing the immersion of standing in them.
Wearing an HTC Vive headset and donning motion controllers from Oculus, the operator wields two laser hands, beaming across the world to grasp and manipulate any object they choose. Anyone who’s played Elebits on the Nintendo Wii will find this approach familiar, in which giant hunks of stone float across the air like you’re a god wielding a zero-gravity remote.
Halfway into the clip, you’ll notice another neat UI trick, in which the editor’s browser window appears like an iPad, or painting palette, in the designer’s left hand. It’s a clever solution to bring the Unreal Editor’s existing 2-D menus into this new world. The old desktop user interface paradigm doesn’t disappear, the desktop just becomes an object in virtual reality.
But as impressive as this demo may be, I’m not sure anything here is being done faster than working at a keyboard and mouse desktop. In fact, it’s easy to imagine this on-the-ground immersion of VR as being a distraction, unless it allows you to zoom out, get a bird’s eye view, and generally change your perspective as easily as you can in any modern 3-D editor (without vomiting, because VR could make these zooming views feel like you parachuted out of a plane). Plus, all of our desktop efficiencies, like keystroke macros and tiny mouse swipes, are always going to be faster than picking up a marble column and dragging it 180 degrees around in real space.
So while Epic is going to show off more of its VR development engine later this month, don’t be surprised if VR development itself looks a lot different within just a few years. I suspect we’ll find a happy medium between the lazy efficiency of a desktop and the 360-degree immersion of virtual reality. Because while Glen Keane can paint beautifully in midair, nobody wants to lift marble columns all day—even if they’re technically weightless.