I’m standing in front of a table in a rustic old tavern, a picture of a dragon on the wall behind me, a fireplace off the side, and battle music setting the tone as I prepare to roll a 20-sided die.
Gathering friends together for long nights of Dungeons & Dragons has been a rite of passage for some since the mid-’70s, when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson unleashed their role-playing game on the world–but the experience usually takes place around a beat-up old table, and the gathered friends need to utilize their mind’s eye to visualize the environment that’s at the heart of the campaign they’re running. But are they doomed to never actually see the murky dungeons they’re descending into?
Not if the folks at AltspaceVR have anything to say about it.
AltspaceVR is a Silicon Valley startup that’s building shared spaces in virtual reality. Already it’s demonstrated how its technology could be useful for watching the Super Bowl, and they also think people with VR setups like an Oculus Rift will enjoy it for playing card games, or other competitions.
To date, the company has thousands of users–notable given that there are just 120,000 working Oculus systems in the world today–who spend an average of about 25 minutes per session. The more different kinds of experiences Altspace can offer, the more people will want to spend time there.
That’s just where D&D fits into the picture.
“We’re looking for apps that are going to be unique in the way they are implemented in VR,” says Bruce Wooden, Altspace’s head of developer and community relations. “Either in the way you interact with them, or that don’t have any straight analog in any other medium. Or that are just fun to be social over.”
D&D is a passion at Altspace, and that’s why the team decided to work on implementing the game as its latest showpiece for demonstrating how customers might like to use its VR environments for their own needs. After all, in virtual reality, players can be at that table together, inside that old tavern, no matter where they are in the real world. And they can see it all right there in front of them.
At the center of the Altspace D&D experience is a tabletop with a glowing battle grid on it. The grid is used to show where characters are, as well as distances for casting spells or attacking enemies.
“You could do ‘theater of the mind,’ Wooden says, “but this actually allows you to show that.”
Altspace has built its VR environments to mimic many of the realities of the natural world. What if a dungeon master needs to impart information to only one player, in secret? Software engineer Kevin Lee’s answer is simple: “Go over to that corner and whisper it to them.”
It might be counterintuitive, but in an Altspace environment, sound is directional, and people can only hear what’s being said near them–just like in real life. So if two people want to talk privately, they can just move away from a group and talk.
On the other hand, VR also allows for things like having a “mysterious person” materialize behind the tavern bar on command and then leave. “It’s quite ridiculous when you start to think of them,” Wooden says. “It’s these little touches that add a lot to the experience.”
Another thing that adds to the experience is the dice. D&D can call for many different kinds of dice, and the Altspace team wanted to make them available, but in a visceral way. So they float over the gaming table in the tavern, and when you want to roll one, you tap on it, and it falls to the table, rolling briefly. Voilà!
“We wanted to go through the effort to preserve some of the physicality of it,” says Wooden, “so having actual dice fall to the table and roll is something we wanted.”
What about spells, another D&D staple?
According to Lee, the plan–not yet realized–would be to let players cast a spell, and “all of a sudden, a flash of fire explodes in your face.”
To be sure, not every Altspace user is going to want to play D&D, but the company thinks that the demonstration shows just how its shared spaces can be used to make meeting up in VR tangible, meaningful, and fun. It also hopes it will inspire third-party developers to create other experiences for their own needs, and those of the larger Altspace community.
One of the benefits of Altspace is that it incorporates web technology, allowing people to pipe things like art, YouTube videos, or specific audio into the virtual-reality environment. So that dragon on the wall? “That’s just from Google results for D&D monsters,” Wooden says.
“I picked that one,” he adds, “and put it on the screen. It becomes that easy. You have access to the Web at your fingertips.”