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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: Locke and Key comes back better than ever with action-packed S2

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Enlarge / The present generation of Locke descendants—Tyler (Connor Jessup), Bode (Jackson Robert Scott), and Kinsey (Emilia Jones)—still have a lot to learn about the magical keys that are their birthright.

The Locke siblings face a demonic dynamic duo intent on bringing chaos to our world and must defend themselves, armed with only a handful of magical keys, in the second season of Locke and Key. In our 2020 year-end TV roundup, I wrote that Netflix’s adaptation of the comic book series, by Joe Hill and Gabe Rodriguez, successfully brought “the fabled Key House and the darkly fantastical world of the comics to vivid life.” The second season is even better: it’s faster-paced, it has intriguing character arcs, and it delves a bit more into the history and mythology behind Key House and its magical keys.

(Spoilers for season 1 below. Some season 2 spoilers, but no major reveals.)

Longtime fans of the comics can attest to the powerful allure of the basic premise: three traumatized siblings whose father was recently murdered return to dad’s ancestral home, Key House, with their mother and discover that the house is filled with hidden magical keys that “whisper” to the children until they find them. The TV series preserves that allure. Only kids can hear the keys whispering, and any adults who witness the “magic” of the keys in use quickly forget what they’ve seen. There is an Anywhere Key that can turn a door into a portal to anywhere in the world, for instance, and a Ghost Key that lets your spirit leave your body. A Head Key provides access to one’s inner self, and an Identity Key allows you to change your appearance.

Bode and Abby (Leishe Meyboom) discover a tiny key that fits into a dollhouse version of Key House.
Enlarge / Bode and Abby (Leishe Meyboom) discover a tiny key that fits into a dollhouse version of Key House.

Netflix

Unfortunately, there’s an evil entity who goes by the name of Dodge (Laysla De Oliveira) who desperately wants one key in particular—the mysterious Omega Key—and will do pretty much anything to get it. Over the course of the first season, we learned why family patriarch Rendell Locke (Bill Heck) moved far away from his ancestral home: there was a high school tragedy that killed two of his friends. It wasn’t an “accidental drowning” that killed them, as local lore held, but Dodge’s possession of Rendell’s best friend Lucas (Felix Mallard). Rendell and his surviving friends eventually imprisoned Dodge in the Well House—until Ellie (Sherri Saum), in a weak moment, tried to bring Lucas, her high school sweetheart, back with the Echo Key and brought back Dodge instead.

Still, Rendell’s kids proved to be a formidable match against Dodge’s many machinations. And they thought they had successfully tossed Dodge back into the void behind the Black Door and locked it behind them. But above all else, Dodge is a trickster. Dodge used the Identity Key to make Ellie look like Dodge. So it’s poor Ellie who finds herself trapped in the void, while Dodge has taken on the identity of high school nerd Gabe (Griffin Gluck), Scot’s (Petrice Jones) rival for Kinsey’s affections. Also, the academy’s resident Mean Girl, Eden (Hallea Jones), is now possessed by a different demon who escaped from behind the black door, so Gabe/Dodge has a secret accomplice.

Duncan Locke (Aaron Ashmore) can't remember the magical keys he used as a child.
Enlarge / Duncan Locke (Aaron Ashmore) can’t remember the magical keys he used as a child.

Netflix

The first season’s 10 episodes covered most of the main narrative arc in the comics but left out a lot of the background lore about where the keys came from, who made them, and who (or what) Dodge really is. Those questions are at least partially answered over the course of S2, which includes flashbacks to the American Revolutionary War and the conflict between the Locke family and a British general named Frederick Gideon (Kevin Durand). (The flashback material is partially drawn from Clockworks and will also likely feature heavily in the first arc of World War Key, a forthcoming new Locke and Key comic book series that will serve as both a prequel and sequel to the original run, according to Hill.)

As S2 opens, life for the Locke family seems stable. Tyler is dating Jackie (Genevieve Kang), Kinsey is dating Gabe, and Bode has a new BFF, Abby (Leishe Bennett). Abby’s father, Josh (Brendan Himes), is the new history teacher at Matheson Academy, and as a recent widower, he and the Locke matriarch, Nina (Darby Stanchfield), forge a tenuous romantic connection. Josh’s ancestors also have a long history in Matheson, so the two might have more in common than they realize.

Gabe (Griffin Gluck), another incarnation of the demon Dodge, and a possessed Eden (Hallea Jones) try to forge a new magical key.
Enlarge / Gabe (Griffin Gluck), another incarnation of the demon Dodge, and a possessed Eden (Hallea Jones) try to forge a new magical key.

Netflix

But all is not sunshine and roses. Tyler and Jackie are both about to turn 18 and “age out” of the magic, prompting a frantic search for the Memory Key that Rendell and his squad (the “Keepers of the Keys”) forged to ensure they wouldn’t forget. That involves restoring their uncle Duncan’s (Aaron Ashmore) childhood memories, which turns out to have unforeseen consequences. Meanwhile, Gabe/Dodge is conspiring to forge a new key for whatever nefarious plot they’re cooking up. And demonic Eden is proving to be overly impulsive and more of a liability than Gabe/Dodge realized.

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343 shows first Halo Infinite campaign footage in over a year

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The first and last time we saw footage of Halo Infinite‘s campaign mode way back in July of 2020, we were a bit underwhelmed by what we saw. Now, with the game’s delayed launch just a few weeks away, Microsoft and 343 Industries have released a six-minute video showcasing more details of the anticipated sequel’s story and gameplay.

A voiceover confirms that the traditional Halo story following the partnership between Master Chief and Cortana is “now a distant memory” in Infinite. Instead, John-117 is now looking to retrieve and work with a new and extremely uninformed AI codenamed The Weapon. Together, the two will explore Zeta Halo to find an answer to the core questions driving Infinite‘s story: “What happened to Cortana?” and “What did she do that was so wrong?”

The new trailer highlights what the studio says is a campaign structure that offers “more freedom than ever before.” There’s a brief glimpse at a section of the game’s open world “Tacmap,” complete with the kind of color-coded mission markers you’d expect from a different sort of game. Completing some of those missions will grant Master Chief control of Forward Operating Bases, which seem key to advancing the story and offering new perks. Through it all, Master Chief will be pursued by “a sadistic Spartan killer named Jega ‘Rdomnai,” who seems to come from the Covenant’s red-tinted Banished faction.

The trailer also provides a quick peek at a deep upgrade menu, which shows how Master Chief’s abilities will progress. Players can spend “Spartan Cores” on improving both defensive and movement capabilities in categories like the Grapple Shot, Shield Core, Threat Sensor, Drop Wall, and Thruster.

As for the shooting itself, the trailer shows Master Chief using the usual array of guns and explosives, while the new grappleshot helps him grab far-off weapons or drag himself toward enemies for a quick melee attack. We also get a look at some vehicle stations that should let Master Chief hop in a Wasp or Warthog whenever he wants, and there are one-on-one arena battles with some suspiciously boss-like foes.

Halo Infinite is set to launch on December 8, but features like co-op play and the Forge customization suite won’t be coming until later. The separate free-to-play multiplayer mode will also launch that day following an extensive beta for Xbox Insiders a few weeks back.

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Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy on Nov. 11: Cartoonier, flashier, and Game Pass-ier

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Enlarge / Aw, blank, here we go again.

Rockstar Games

Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy: The Definitive Experience may go down as 2021’s worst-kept secret, but how it would actually look remained surprisingly well-protected until the game’s Friday reveal went live. The new look is visible in a one-minute trailer, which comes with a release date: November 11 for the Xbox console family, PS4/PS5, Nintendo Switch, and PC (via the Rockstar Games Launcher).

Today’s reveal video primarily shows the visual top-to-bottom touch-up applied to all three games in the collection (Grand Theft Auto III, GTA Vice City, and GTA San Andreas), with a few “wipe” transitions comparing a vanilla version of each game to its remastered equivalent. The footage largely consists of cut scenes, as opposed to the behind-the-back view of average gameplay, but we still see enough to get a look at Rockstar Games’ bold artistic changes.

Thanks to the trailer’s focus on cinematic scenes, we get a clear view of how Rockstar updated the characters’ bulky, Mickey Mouse-like blob hands to ones with details like individual fingers. In order to include the new additions while remaining true to the games’ original code and animations, Rockstar has opted for a bulbous, cartoony aesthetic, perhaps most visible in the above after-and-before gallery where a mob boss gestures with his hands while sporting a higher-res, cartoonier face. Each shot also makes clear that Rockstar is employing many higher-res textures, higher shadow resolutions, improved ambient occlusion, increased model geometry, and an entirely new staging of both pre-baked and dynamic lighting. What might look off-putting in screenshots comes together much nicer in the trilogy’s full video trailer (embedded at the end of this article).

Additionally, and arguably more crucially, each game’s control suite has been updated to better resemble GTA V, complete with lock-on weapon aiming and custom waypoint mapping. The Nintendo Switch version brings toggleable motion controls and touchscreen support—though we don’t yet know whether that version will favor higher fidelity and resolution or higher frame rates.

PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S owners can expect “up to 60 fps” performance. Sadly, Rockstar has yet to clarify what kind of performance to expect on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles. PC owners with Nvidia RTX graphics cards can toggle on DLSS to squeeze more performance out of the trilogy. While today’s footage clearly teases some enhanced and more accurate reflections than the original trilogy, they appear to lean on simpler processing techniques as opposed to current-gen ray tracing systems.

More visible detail across this cityscape will make the trilogy's flying sequences that much prettier (and hopefully suffer from far less object pop-in).
Enlarge / More visible detail across this cityscape will make the trilogy’s flying sequences that much prettier (and hopefully suffer from far less object pop-in).

The trilogy has been ported in full to Unreal Engine 4 by Grove Street Games, a longtime Rockstar support studio with experience porting the game maker’s classics to various consoles and smartphone platforms.

The package costs $60, and there doesn’t appear to be an option to purchase each game separately. However, on the same day that the full trilogy releases, GTA San Andreas: The Definitive Edition will launch as a standalone freebie for paying Xbox Game Pass customers on Xbox consoles. Roughly one month later, on December 7, GTA III: The Definitive Edition will land on Sony’s PlayStation Now service. Physical versions of the trilogy will launch in December, as well, though we’ll be curious to see how much of the Switch version ships on its cartridge and how much will require a follow-up download.

Without a clear look at updates to the UI and general gameplay mechanics, we’re left wondering exactly how much better this $60 package will be than applying many of the available mods to the game’s original PC version. If you have missed our advice earlier this month, your modding dreams may be toast, though—as Rockstar has formally delisted all older versions of the games from storefronts like Steam. (If you had previously bought those games, at least, you can still download, access, and mod the heck out of them.)

GTA Trilogy: The Definitive Edition trailer

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