Pretend you're in 'The Martian' with this new virtual reality journey to Mars

MarsOdyssey_VikingLander.png (1919×959)

Screengrab via Steel Wool Games/YouTube

Martian dust storms are not to be trifled with.

The computer told me I had nothing to fear from the huge dust storm bearing down on me, but I was directly in its path and freaking out anyway.

From its description I had figured that Mars Odyssey, a virtual reality experience designed for the HTC Vive, would be sedate and educational. Developer Steel Wool Games used engineering schematics, and topographical information from NASA, to create a VR experience where you would need to repair four vehicles that actually landed on Mars in real life. 

I figured on a tour of the landing sites for the Viking, Pathfinder, Curiosity, and Opportunity missions, and realistic reconstructions of what the four vehicles looked like. For the most part, that’s precisely what I got.

Learning about the probe and its key components in VR was much more effective in holding my interest than reading about the same information in a book. Mars Odyssey is a wonderful example of the way virtual reality can be used for educational purposes.

When I finished repairing Viking 2 and went on to my next mission to Pathfinder, I figured on another set of relaxing, educational repairs on broken machinery. Instead, the mission was to save Sojourner—the tiny Mars rover that landed with Pathfinder—from the damage Sojourner would take from a dust storm.

As I tried to learn how to handle the imprecise controls and not to run Sojourner into the piles of rock that acted as an impromptu parking garage, I tried and failed to pay no attention to the massive dust storm rolling across the planet. All I wanted was to get back to the safety of the transport pod that had delivered me to the Pathfinder site. Mars Odyssey had for a few minutes transcended from being a piece of educational software to an adventure. 

Earlier in the day I’d been playing a Vive game called Raw Data where you have to fend off waves of humanoid robots that mercilessly shamble in your direction like a horde of zombies. When I frantically tried to reload my pistol, I wasn’t thinking “Oh, it doesn’t matter if I screw this up, because nothing bad is actually going to happen to me.”

What surprised me is that Mars Odyssey managed to invoke the same, basic reaction, albeit to a lesser degree. It was a poignant lesson in how even developers of educational software in VR have to remember that the most innocent of experiences could still be scary, if the developer succeeds in making the simulation feel real.

I spoke with Josh Qualtieri, co-founder of Steel Wool Studios, about how the company moved from making more traditional games to developing for VR, and the difference between developing games, and developing "experiences" for virtual reality. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When Steel Wool was founded, was the intent from the beginning to make VR games, or is that something the studio decided upon after it got the ball rolling on its first projects?

When we founded Steel Wool Studios, we started developing mobile games. At the time, the whole company was a side project in addition to our day jobs. Soon after we released our first mobile game, Flyhunter: Origins, we were able to meet with HTC and saw very early versions of the Vive HMD prototype. From that instance, we were hooked on VR.

Personally, I had been involved with VR from the 90’s with the Virtual i-O Glasses, but our experience with the Vive was the first time that we thought to ourselves ‘Here’s our moment’. We left that HTC meeting as a VR studio. 

Did Steel Wool imagine an ideal audience for Mars Odyssey?

Jason Topolski, a Steel Wool Studios co-founder, and I are both teachers in addition to game developers, so education has always been important and interesting to us. Mars Odyssey was designed to be an educational experience from the beginning, and VR gives developers a lot of opportunity to work around educational constructs and how people learn.

VR allows developers to decide how to convey information, in ways that we’re not accustomed to. Kids, for example, tend to be visual learners and we think that VR, based on its immersive qualities and exciting applications, is the future of education - for everyone.

We didn’t necessarily set out to create Mars Odyssey with a target audience in mind; everybody loves Mars and seems interested in the Rovers that NASA has sent to the red planet. We’ve seen pictures on the internet and on TV, but we’ve never been able to stand next to one on another planet and get a real sense of it. I think that that’s one of the really cool things about VR - picking new places that you couldn’t otherwise go, with applications beyond just gaming. 

Is it easier to explain Quar [the previous game published by Steel Wool Studios, a turn-based strategy game presented in VR]  to a potential player, than to explain what Mars Odyssey is

Mars Odyssey is definitely easier to explain to a potential player than Quar. The cool thing about a simulation like Mars Odyssey is that you just ‘do it’. Walking around the environment, using your hands - it’s very much intuitive, with minor guidance by the narrator, for players to be able to experience.

The interesting thing about these immersive VR experiences is that they just work. Sometimes adults will have a little trouble due to built-in biases - we might not want to walk around in VR and need to be prompted. In contrast, if you put the headset on a younger kid, you’ll see them running all around the room, looking under things - they just intuitively seem to understand it right off the bat.

Moving forward, does Steel Wool intend to focus on a specific category of software for VR, i.e. traditional games like Quar, or software like Mars Odyssey that might be most appropriate categorized as "an experience?"

We’re going to create both traditional games and experiences within the realm of VR content. I think games are our first love, and with VR there are so many things we could never do before in game development.

Experiences, on the other hand, are also core to our narrative roots as storytellers and as a studio formed by creative veterans of Pixar Animation Studios, Lucasfilm, and Telltale Games. A VR experience doesn’t have to last 10 or 20 hours like a game - it can be a 20 minute or 1 hour long snapshot that can offer a similarly memorable and enjoyable time as a game would, and lets us experiment more freely. 

Does that distinction even mean anything to you, as creatives?Yes - the distinction between VR games and experiences is definitely important to us. Experiences allow us to stretch our legs creatively and push the medium of VR however we see fit. VR is so new that there’s a whole new vocabulary that has to be developed around it, especially with storytelling and interactive experiences. We’ve been developing for VR for a long time, but still haven’t got it fully figured out.

These smaller experiences, like Mars Odyssey, allow us to take to take a particular thing we’re interested in and create it from scratch. Pixar used to do short films to test out new technology, and our narrative experiences are created partly for the same purpose - to test out new technology and UI or UX changes in a smaller setting.

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