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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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Review: We Are OFK is stylish, subversive TV disguised as an indie game

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Enlarge / The stylish leads of We Are OFK—and yes, that includes the cartoony cat, though I’ll leave its involvement in the series vague for now.

Team OFK

Imagine versions of The Monkees TV series or Beatles films like Hard Day’s Night for the modern era. What might those look like? I don’t just mean aesthetically—even though any “songs within the show” would certainly differ from the jangly ’60s likes of “Daydream Believer.” What kind of story would it tell? Where would the series air? How would it be presented?

I returned to this thought often while enjoying this week’s We Are OFK, which is as close to an answer to my question as I’ve seen in a modern, hyper-connected era. This format-blurring experience may be marketed as a video game, out Thursday on PlayStation consoles, Switch, and PC, but it’s somewhere between an interactive experience, a passive TV series, and a visual novel. And its production values and brave storytelling choices benefit wildly from this platform-agnostic approach.

A “video game” that leaves exes on read

<em>We Are OFK</em> includes an ample variety of lushly detailed locales for its characters to hash out their personal and artistic lives.
Enlarge / We Are OFK includes an ample variety of lushly detailed locales for its characters to hash out their personal and artistic lives.

Team OFK

The six-hour experience, broken up into five “episodes,” follows four restless and disaffected Los Angelenos in a slightly modified version of our own world. Certain brand names are changed (Twitter is now “Twibber,” Tinder is “Phoenix,” etc.), but its characters otherwise order ride-share cars, leave messages on read, and doomscroll like modern-day twenty-somethings. Each of the four lead characters came to LA to escape their old lives—an issue each reckons with in different ways—and, at the outset of this series’ episodes, find themselves drawn to each other as a “band” while chasing their own respective artistic and romantic dreams.

This largely resembles an anime or CW TV series that focuses on the lives of young people, as opposed to a thriller or action-filled drama. Yet, despite not regularly tuning-in to that kind of fare, I found myself engrossed by We Are OFK‘s combination of high production values, fantastic voice acting, and tasteful dollops of interactivity. Mechanically, the episodes can either work as a visual novel or a wholly passive TV-watching experience. Choices do not create diversions in the plot; instead, players occasionally choose one of three dialogue options for a main character. These appear as thought bubbles with differing opinions that logically coexist as a response to what has just happened. You can pick your favorite to guide a character’s dialogue in a given scene or let the game auto-select one after a 10-second pause.

When prompted, pick from one of three responses. This plays out in both spoken dialogue and text messages.
Enlarge / When prompted, pick from one of three responses. This plays out in both spoken dialogue and text messages.

Team OFK

The game’s other clever “interactive” content comes when the perspective zooms to a character’s smartphone, where players watch text message conversations play out in real time. These alternate between rapid-fire message bursts and an ellipses icon (…) indicating that the character on the other end is either typing, pausing, or deleting. We Are OFK is careful not to overdo this with excruciatingly long pauses. Instead, sometimes the game lets you press a button to skip ahead with a prompt saying something like, “stare at the phone for five minutes while waiting for a response.” In these interfaces, the game lets you use a joystick or a mouse to optionally scroll up on the virtual smartphone screen and see prior messages and emoji exchanged between characters. This cute Easter egg of character development reminds me of hidden, clickable bits in Flash animations of yore.

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First official teaser for Wednesday is deliciously “Burtonesque”

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Tim Burton directed Netflix’s new eight-episode original series, Wednesday.

Netflix has dropped the first official teaser for Wednesday on the heels of yesterday’s exclusive first-look images for the Tim Burton-directed series in Vanity Fair. All in all, it looks deliciously Burtonesque, and we’re keen to give it a chance.

As I’ve written previously, American cartoonist Charles Addams created the characters in 1938, originally as a series of single-panel cartoons published in The New Yorker. They were his satirical sendup of American “family values,” turning the entire social framework upside-down. The characters proved so popular that ABC created a 1964 live-action sitcom, The Addams Family, based on them. (Not everyone was pleased by the development. William Shawn was editor of The New Yorker at the time, and his refined sensibilities were allegedly so offended by the TV series that he actually banned Addams Family cartoons from the magazine; the characters didn’t return to its pages until he retired in 1987.)

Animated versions of the family have appeared regularly in film and TV since the 1970s, and Fox unsuccessfully attempted to revive the original TV series in 1998 with The New Addams Family. But it was two live-action feature films in 1991 and 1993, respectively, that defined their canonical representation in popular culture: The Addams Family and Addams Family Values.

Burton famously turned down the opportunity to direct the 1991 feature film. He was also originally supposed to direct a stop-motion animated film reboot. It’s unclear what happened there, but it seems MGM acquired the rights to the original series from Universal Pictures and opted to go in a different direction with 3D computer animation. The result was The Addams Family (2019) and The Addams Family 2, released last year. The first made a reasonable box office showing despite mixed reviews; the second did less well and was largely panned by critics and audiences alike.

But now Burton and the Addams Family franchise have come together at last with Wednesday. Showrunners Alfred Gough and Miles Millar—best known for Smallville—expected Burton to turn them down as well when they made their pitch. He signed onto the project instead, professing interest in the opportunity to really explore the character of Wednesday without the time limitations of a feature film. That said, “The ambition of the show was to make it an eight-hour Tim Burton movie,” Millar told Vanity Fair.

Netflix first teased the series during the streaming giant’s Geeked Week in June. Christina Ricci’s scene-stealing seminal portrayal of Wednesday was easily one of the highlights of the 1990s films. We watched her approach puberty and get a sort-of boyfriend in Addams Family Values, but in the series, Wednesday is a teenager in high school. Per the official premise:

The series is a sleuthing, supernaturally infused mystery charting Wednesday Addams’ years as a student at Nevermore Academy, where she attempts to master her emerging psychic ability, thwart a monstrous killing spree that has terrorized the local town, and solve the murder mystery that embroiled her parents 25 years ago—all while navigating her new and very tangled relationships at Nevermore.

Jenna Ortega stars as Wednesday, and she certainly looks the part. Catherine Zeta-Jones and Luis Guzmán will portray Morticia and Gomez Addams; Isaac Ordonez plays Pugsley; George Burcea plays Lurch; and Victor Dorobantu (or at least his hand) plays Thing. Ricci will appear in an as-yet-undisclosed role, while Gwendoline Christie plays Larissa Weems. As for who will be playing Uncle Fester, the showrunners refused to comment, with Gough telling Vanity Fair, “Watch the show.”

The casting choices here seem solid, although Guzman’s Gomez Addams deliberately harkens back to the original cartoon character and, thus, is shorter and stouter than the late Raul Julia’s iconically suave and debonair portrayal. That was a deliberate choice, per Millar, to ensure the series didn’t feel like another remake or reboot. “It’s something that lives within the Venn Diagram of what happened before, but it’s its own thing,” he told Vanity Fair. “It’s not trying to be the movies of the ’60s TV show.”

Enlarge / Why yes, that’s Gwendoline Christie as Larissa Weems.

YouTube/Netflix

Wednesday’s relationship with her mother will also be a prominent theme, because “How do you step out of the shadow of a mother as glamorous as Morticia?” Gough said.

The teaser wastes no time establishing that this is an older, edgier, and even darker Wednesday who—we learn via voiceover—has been expelled from eight schools in five years. In the very first scene she takes revenge on the jocks who have been tormenting Pugsley by releasing piranhas into the pool during what looks like water polo practice. This results in the altogether ooky castration of one of the boys. But Wednesday has no regrets. (“I did the world a favor. People like Dalton shouldn’t be allowed to procreate. Getting expelled was just a bonus.”)

Hence her enrollment at Nevermore Academy. Gomez assures her she will love it there: “It’s a magical place where I met your mother.” Morticia thinks she’ll find peers who actually understand her: “Maybe you’ll even make some friends.” Instead, she finds herself in a “nightmare, full of mystery, mayhem, and murder.” There will also be fencing (Wednesday does like stabbing) and a nod to the bloody prom queen prank-gone-horribly-wrong from Carrie.

There’s still no official release date, but expect Wednesday to premiere on Netflix sometime this fall.

Listing image by YouTube/Netflix

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Sweeping report alleges inequity, sexual harassment at Nintendo’s American HQ

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Nintendo

Through the first half of 2022, Nintendo of America has been in the crosshairs of critics and the US National Labor Relations Board thanks to reports and formal complaints about working conditions for its contracted employees, all brought into the spotlight after a reported layoff allegedly involved pro-union sentiment. In the months since that story broke out publicly, Kotaku reporter Sisi Jiang has tracked down even more allegations about the famed game publisher’s American headquarters—and the allegations land squarely in the domain of sexual harassment and gender inequity.

A sweeping report published at Kotaku on Tuesday recounts roughly one decade of internal incidents among NoA’s pool of temporary employees, dating back to “the early Wii U era,” backed by a number of on-the-record allegations from former Nintendo staffers along with anonymous reports. The report includes attempts to reach out to Nintendo of America’s leadership, an associated temp agency, and individual staffers who were named as workplace sexual harassers, but Kotaku says it never received answers to its questions.

Many of the reported issues revolve around a divide between full-time employees, colloquially known as “red badges,” and the rest of the company’s American workforce, which was managed by temp hiring agency Aerotek before that company was absorbed into another company during a recent reorganization. The women who spoke to Kotaku both on and off the record collectively suggest that their hopes for turning part-time status into a full-time Nintendo career were strained by being women. One anonymous source said, “your chance was probably worse as a girl,” while another who spoke on the record suggested women weren’t given work-related goals or metrics to grow their careers, instead being told to essentially increase “face time” with male colleagues.

According to the sources, this unclear path to advancement led to issues where women faced workplace sexual harassment, then had to brush it off in order to not be perceived as “overly sensitive” and have a clearer path to becoming a red badge, complete with more stable pay and benefits.

She left the company after being “warned to be less outspoken.”

One former QA tester suggests she found this out the hard way after reporting a male translator’s uncouth behavior in a workplace Microsoft Teams chat room in 2020, which included comments about his favorite Pokemon character to have sex with and his attraction to a clearly underage female character in the free-to-play video game Genshin Impact. The staffer in question, who spoke anonymously, says she left the company after Aerotek not only failed to act on the report but also “warned her to be less outspoken,” all while colleagues figured out that she had filed the complaint and “blamed her” for doing so.

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