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Virtual reality gaming and the pursuit of ‘flow state’ – TechCrunch

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You need to stop procrastinating. Maybe it’s time for some…

Bulletproof Coffee, Modafinil, nootropics, microdoses of acid, caffeine from coffee, caffeine from bracelets, aromatherapy, noise-canceling headphones, meditation, custom co-working spaces or productivity apps?

Whatever your choice, workers today (especially in the tech industry) will do just about anything to be more productive.

What we seek is that elusive, perfect focus — or flow state. According to researchers, someone in flow will experience a lack of sense of self, a decline in fear and time distortion. It is peak performance coupled with a euphoric high. All your happy neurotransmitters fire, and your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex performs differently — you do not second-guess yourself, you quite simply just flow into the next stages of the activity at hand. And you happen to be performing at the highest level possible. Sounds amazing, right?

But how do we invite this state in? A detailed piece in Fast Company outlines how extreme sports (professional surfing, steep incline skiing, skydiving, etc.) are the quickest way we’ve found to tap into human flow. Yet, these hobbies are just that — extreme. They require a large amount of skill and can be dangerous. For example, Steven Kotler, a pioneer in flow state research, broke almost 100 bones as a journalist researching the topic.

It all leads back to our collective (and very American) obsession with input versus output — are we achieving the most possible with the energy we put in? For all the bells and whistles at our disposal, we as a society are steadily declining in productivity as time goes on.

In 2014, a Gallup Poll found that the average American worker only spends a depressing 5 percent of their day in flow. A 2016 Atlantic article hypothesized that the main reason we’re decreasing in productivity as a workforce is that we’re not introducing new technologies quickly enough. Tech like robotics and smartphones could add a productivity push, but aren’t being integrated into the workplace. Business models are for the large part not that different from 10 years ago. In essence, we’re bored — we’re not being challenged in an engaging way, so we’re working harder than ever but achieving less.

But what if getting into flow state could be as easy as playing a video game?

Gameplay in RaveRunner

I first met Job Stauffer, co-founder and CCO at Orpheus Self-Care Entertainment, when I was, in fact, procrastinating from work. I was scrolling through Instagram and saw a clip of Job playing RaveRunner. As I love rhythm games, I immediately requested a build. Yet, I’d soon learn that this wasn’t just a simple VR experience.

RaveRunner was built for Vive, but easily ran on my Rift. When I first stepped into the game, I felt a bit overwhelmed — there was a lot of dark empty space; almost like something out of TRON. It was a little scary, which is actually very helpful for entering flow state. However, my fear soon dissipated as before me was a transparent yellow lady (Job calls her “Goldie”) dancing with the beat — providing a moving demo for gameplay. Unlike the hacking nature of Beat Saber, where you smash blocks with lightsabers, in RaveRunner you touch blue and orange glowing circles with your controllers, and move your whole body to the rhythm of the music.

There’s a softer, feminine touch to RaveRunner, and it wasn’t just Goldie. Behind the design of this game is a woman, Ashley Cooper, who is the developer responsible for the gameplay mechanics that can help a player attain flow. “Being in the flow state is incredibly rewarding and we strive to help people reach it by creating experiences like RaveRunner,” says Cooper. RaveRunner is a game you can get lost in, and by stimulating so many senses it allows you to let your higher level thoughts slip away — you become purely reactionary and non-judgmental.

In essence — flow.

After playing in this world for an hour, I called Job and learned more about his company. Apart from RaveRunner, Orpheus has also rolled out two other experiences — MicrodoseVR and SoundSelf. I got my first hands-on demo of all three products in one sitting at a cannabis technology event in Los Angeles, Grassfed LA. Grassfed is specifically geared toward higher-brow, hip tech enthusiasts; and the Orpheus suite of products fit right in.

As I lay in a dome with meditative lighting, a subwoofer purring below me, SoundSelf gave me one of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had in VR. I chanted into a microphone and my voice directly influenced the visuals before me. It felt like my spirit, the God particle, whatever you want to call it, was being stimulated from all these sensations. It was such a beautiful experience, but also was pure flow. I felt two minutes pass in the experience. I would have bet a hundred dollars on this. But I was inside for 10. Time didn’t make sense — a key indicator of flow state.

Next up was Microdose VR. I first tried Microdose VR in 2016 at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. Esalen is the birthplace of the human potential movement, and so it was fitting that it was there, where I initially grasped the potential of VR for transformational experiences. Every other experience I had tried up to that point had been First Person Shooters or 360-video marketing pieces. And not to slight those experiences, but I felt that VR must be able to do MORE. Android Jones’ Microdose blew my mind. Like with SoundSelf, I completely lost track of time. I was directly impacting visuals with my body movements, and sound was a big factor as well. It was the first time I could easily imagine staying in VR for hours. Most of all, it was an experience that was only possible within VR. The game was the biggest euphoric rush I’ve felt in VR, and that feeling occurred again at this event.

We have the power as consumers to play games that tie in intrinsically with self-care but often don’t have options available. Job was propelled down this path when he asked himself “if I invest one hour of my time per day into playing a video game, what will I personally gain from that time invested, and will I even have time left over to do genuinely good things for myself?”

Orpheus is pioneering the fusion of game design with traditional self-care practices like meditation, dance/exercise, listening to music and creating art: “In short, we simply want players to feel amazing and have zero regrets about their time spent playing our games, allowing them to walk away knowing they have leveled up themselves, instead of their in-game avatars alone.”

One thing that will make it easier for people to try these experiences are portable headsets such as the ViveFocus and the Oculus Quest. Being untethered will allow people to travel with VR wherever they may go. Job sees this fundamental shift right ahead of us, as “video games and self-care are about to become one in the same. A paradigm shift. This is why all immersive Orpheus Self-Care Entertainment projects will be engineered for this critically important wave of VR.”

Orpheus is not a VR-only company, although their first three experiences are indeed for VR. As they expand, they hope to open up to a variety of types of immersive experiences, and are continually looking for projects that align with their holistic mission.

At the end of the day, I love that Orpheus is attempting to tap into a part of the market that so desperately needs their attention. If we don’t make self-care a major part of VR today, then we’ll continue to use VR as a distraction from, as opposed as a tool to enhance, our daily lives.

As for me, along with the peppermint tea, grapefruit candle and music that make my focus possible, I’ll now be adding some Orpheus games into my flow repertoire.

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Internal Activision Blizzard petition rebukes “abhorrent, insulting” leadership

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In the wake of a sexual harassment and pay-disparity lawsuit filed against Activision Blizzard, an internal petition has begun circulating at the gaming company. Its text, as independently verified by multiple outlets, comes down against leadership’s public and private response to the suit’s allegations.

Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier and Kotaku’s Ethan Gach reprinted content from the same petition, and both reporters claim that the petition has racked up “over 1,000 signatures” from current and former Activision Blizzard staffers as of press time. The petition begins by describing a public company statement offered in the wake of July 20’s lawsuit, and a private, staffwide memo sent by Activision executive vice president Frances Townsend, as “abhorrent and insulting to all that we believe our company should stand for.”

“We will not be silenced”

Activision Blizzard’s statements from lawyers and executives last week alleged that the California State’s lawsuit’s allegations were “distorted, and in many cases false,” and the petition aims its words squarely at that characterization. The letter argues that such a corporate response “creates a company atmosphere that disbelieves victims” and “casts doubt on our organizations’ ability to hold abusers accountable for their actions and foster a safe environment for victims to come forward in the future.”

The petition continues:

Our company executives have claimed that actions will be taken to protect us, but in the face of legal action—and the troubling official responses that followed—we no longer trust that our leaders will place employee safety above their own interests. To claim this is a “truly meritless and irresponsible lawsuit,” while seeing so many current and former employees speak out about their own experiences regarding harassment and abuse, is simply unacceptable.

It concludes with a call for the company to make public statements that acknowledge “the seriousness of these allegations” and for Townsend to “step down” from her position at the Activision Blizzard King Employee Women’s Network. “We will not be silenced, we will not stand aside, and we will not give up until the company we love is a workplace we can all feel proud to be a part of again,” the petition adds in closing. “We will be the change.”

After the lawsuit was filed, many former Activision Blizzard staffers used social media to add their own allegations to the public record and confirm their individual contributions to the California State investigation. In one of the longest and most detailed lists of recent public allegations, a former Blizzard staffer (and creator of the company’s first internal “Women@Blizzard” mailing list) alleged the following:

  • A repeated experiment proved that a project director would turn down ideas proposed by a woman, then would approve the same ideas as offered by male colleagues days later.
  • A senior white male engineer had a reputation for unsnapping women’s undergarments through their shirts at the workplace, and concerned staffers were told to “get over it” as they watched said engineer get “repeatedly promoted and rewarded.”
  • Leadership refused a staffer’s use of Blizzard branding to create an “It Gets Better” video that supported LGBTQIA youth—and was told “We won’t be doing that, here.”

“You told me to stick to what I’m good at”

The linked thread points to other public allegations made by former staffers, which range from individual allegations to larger complaints about staffwide culture at Blizzard and Activision. One of these is a reply to former Blizzard executive Chris Metzen, who used Twitter to distance himself from Alex Afrasiabi—himself a former leader of the World of Warcraft team, who is named in the California State lawsuit as an alleged perpetrator of sexual harassment and assault. The reply to Metzen, from ex-Blizzard staffer Connie Griffith, alleged that “you are the one who told me I should stick to what I’m good at, which was apparently taking notes and organizing meetings. Way to mentor junior female talent.”

Speaking of Afrasiabi, an unearthed video from BlizzCon 2010 began circulating shortly after the lawsuit was filed. It showed Afrasiabi, current Blizzard President J. Allen Brack, and other WoW leadership responding to a woman’s question about wanting characters in the game that “don’t look like they stepped out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog.” The all-male panel responded with multiple jokes disparaging the question, with one in particular asking, “which catalog would you like them to step out of?”

This video’s recirculation prompted one of the panel’s members, former WoW lead designer Greg Street, to acknowledge the video on Twitter and reply flatly, “Look, it was a shitty answer at the time, and it certainly hasn’t aged well. I wish I had said something better back then.” He proceeded to insist that, “no doubt, that won’t be my last shitty answer,” then doubled down and claimed that “the only way to get better is to [talk to players] a lot,” without acknowledging one key allegation brought up again and again in the wake of the Golden State lawsuit: that Blizzard leadership often failed to listen to, acknowledge, and make space for women’s concerns—and even retaliated against those who did so.

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Valve promises Steam Deck will run “the entire Steam library” at 30+ fps

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Valve expects that its recently announced Steam Deck portable gaming console will be able to run “really the entire Steam library” on its 1280×800 LCD screen at frame rates of 30 fps or higher.

That’s according to a recent IGN video interview in which Valve Hardware Engineer Yazan Aldehayyat said that “all the games that we wanted to be playable had really good [performance], a really good experience” in Steam Deck testing. Valve developer Pierre-Loup Griffais expanded on that by saying that “all the games that we wanted to be playable” means “really the entire Steam library. We haven’t really found something we could throw at this device that it couldn’t handle yet.”

Griffais said initial prototype testing for the Steam Deck focused on older games in the Steam catalog and that there were “games that were coming out last year that just couldn’t really run very well on the previous types of prototypes and architectures we were testing.” On the finalized version of the hardware, though, he said the company has “achieved the level of performance that is required to run the latest generation of games without a problem.”

“The entire Steam catalog is available to people who have this device,” Aldehayyat added. “That’s where we knew we had a product that was going to deliver the experience we were looking for.”

Aldehayyat attributed Steam Deck’s wide compatibility in part to “future-proofing” internals that include a custom APU incorporating AMD’s latest generation of GPU and CPU technology, as well as 16GB of LPDDR5 RAM. Griffais added that the extreme performance scalability of modern PC games also helps Steam Deck achieve a playable frame rate at its native 800p resolution (which is relatively low compared to desktop gaming PCs).

“If people are still valuing high frame rates and high resolutions on different platforms, I think that content will scale down to our 800p, 30Hz target very well,” he said. “If people start heavily favoring image quality, we might be in a position where we might have tradeoffs, but we’re not in a position where we really see that yet.”

In a follow-up tweet late last week, Griffais clarified that the 30 fps target is the “floor” for what Valve considers playable: “games we’ve tested and shown have consistently met and exceeded that bar so far. There will also be an optional built-in FPS limiter to fine-tune perf[ormance] vs. battery life.”

Steam Deck will come preinstalled with Valve’s Linux-based SteamOS, which can run native Linux games as well as thousands of Windows-based games through a Proton-powered compatibility layer. Steam Deck owners will also be able to install their own OS on the device, including Windows.

Elsewhere in the interview, Aldehayyat said Valve spent a lot of time optimizing Steam Deck’s SD card connection so that games stored there should be “comparable” to those stored on the internal SSD storage. He added that the NVMe storage was connected in a separate module and not directly on the motherboard, which could suggest it will be possible to replace as time goes on.

Listing image by Valve

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MS Flight Simulator on consoles: Finally, a next-gen game for Xbox Series X/S

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When I think of the history of game consoles, I think of flight simulators.

Nintendo in particular has leveraged the “Pilotwings” name not once, not twice, but thrice to show off brand-new tech over various generations. I have long loved that approach. Pilotwings games err on the side of minimal challenge and maximum relaxation, arguably to let players calmly absorb the newest 3D-rendering tricks of each era.

I think about that strategy now because Microsoft Flight Simulator is launching on Xbox Series X/S this week. Since it’s roughly eight months out from those consoles’ launches, it doesn’t count as a “launch” game. But Microsoft Flight Simulator is honestly the first true “next-gen” first-party console game in Xbox’s latest era. Part of that next-gen quality is because this game, unlike other first-party fare, has no “backwards compatibility” path to the older Xbox One family.

It doesn’t take long to realize why. After a tremendous launch on PCs last year, MSFS has now emerged as a living room game with an emphasis on relaxed, Pilotwings-like trips across the entire globe. In good news, it sets a new bar for 3D rendering performance on consoles, and it stands head and shoulders above all other console games at this time. But its PC heritage lingers in the form of some clunkiness. Flight-sim novices—particularly those who claim the game as part of their Game Pass subscriptions—should brace themselves for control- and interface-related turbulence.

Getting up to speed—and that’s a lot of knots

If you’re unfamiliar with MSFS‘s latest incarnation, my report on its reveal nearly two years ago is a good starting point. Much of what I said then (and what I said in a follow-up look at its 2020 beta) is still true. MSFS 2020 combines Bing’s world-mapping data, Azure’s data-processing centers, and some fantastic rendering engine technology to open the entire Earth to unfettered flight. That dev team, lead by the French studio Asobo, employs a lot of clever procedural generation to turn blurry map data into convincing cities, forests, oceans, and valleys for you to fly over.

Since the game’s launch on PC, Asobo has been vocal and transparent about its efforts to spruce up and fine-tune its plane physics simulations, which account for air pressure, heat, and other weather variables. The results have been generally well received by the flight-sim community, and the trade-off for so much beauty and world detail by default is milder physics realism and fewer customization options than rival PC flight sims like X-Plane 11 or Prepar3D. Still, this version of MSFS is Microsoft’s most competent flyer yet.

One point of community contention, however, is MSFS‘s notoriously uneven performance across a variety of PCs. Performance hitches and stutters are more often the rule rather than the exception, while massive download requirements for various patches haven’t necessarily curried favor with PC players. MS and Asobo have promised PC version optimization as far back as the game’s July 2020 beta period, yet to this day, the PC version pulls powerful CPUs and GPUs to their knees at even “mid-high” settings, let alone with unnecessarily maxed graphics sliders.

In terms of CPU optimization, we’re now in “better late than never” territory, because the Xbox Series X/S ports are clearly running on an updated, focused version of the engine. Holy cow, are the results tremendous.

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