The space station fades into the distance as you float over the silhouette of the Earth below. All around, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant croons, his voice filling the void of space, “Yes, there are two paths you can go by.”
As you round the Earth’s horizon, sunrays burst into view, casting golden light over the blue planet. “But in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.” One moment, you’re blinded by solar radiance — the next, you’re soaring through the Earth’s atmosphere with Jimmy Page’s epic guitar solo in the background. This is “Stairway to Heaven” like you’ve never experienced it.
Since early 2015, Patrick Bulman has been working at Presence Labs to bring this kind of “virtual music experience” to the mainstream. The company’s flagship project, called GrooVR, aims to give audiophiles an immersive virtual adventure right on their phone using only the Gear VR and the user’s own music library.
GrooVR is similar to other VR music projects like Harmonix Music VR in that it presents users with a high-tech music visualizer in a virtual space. What sets GrooVR apart, however, is what Presence Labs calls its “experiences” — pre-programmed visualizations that respond at certain parts to the music you’re playing in the program.
“These are pre-defined experiences that have elements that vary depending on what music is playing and the intensity of the audio data analyzed,” Patrick says.
Patrick earned his BS in Computer Science in Real-Time Interactive Simulation degree from DigiPen Institute of Technology in 2009, two years after he started working in the video game industry. While he finished up classes, he worked as an associate producer at Amaze Entertainment, producing console games such as Warlords for the Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network. After graduating, he continued to work with Amaze Entertainment’s parent company, Foundation 9 Entertainment (bought by Glu Mobile in 2011), primarily on mobile games, before moving on to Monroe, WA-based Bubble Zap Games in 2014 and Presence Labs in 2015.
Thanks to his extensive experience in both console and mobile games, Patrick has brought a host of talents to Presence Labs. His experience with mobile technology has been especially useful for working on the Gear VR, he says, because it’s essentially a mobile virtual reality platform. (The goggle-shaped device attaches to a compatible Samsung Galaxy phone and then wraps around the user’s face.)
“Creating a VR title for a mobile platform is like mobile development on steroids,” Patrick says. “There are really limiting constraints on the resources that we can push through this device, because it’s basically rendering two cameras simultaneously instead of just one.”
In addition, the Gear VR features other CPU-demanding technologies, including a delicate accelerometer and a gyroscope, further constraining the development atmosphere. “We’ve had to get really clever and really efficient with how we’re building things,” he says.
While the technology revealed thus far is more or less a proof of concept, Patrick notes that Presence Labs is interested in continuing to explore game-like music experiences like GrooVR. “We’re basically trying to see if this is something people are into,” Patrick says. “And right now, our data is showing that yes, definitely, this is a path that we should keep going down. It’s really exciting stuff.”
Patrick isn’t the only DigiPen graduate working on GrooVR. Other alumni at Presence Labs include Greg Chudecke, Ryder Hanson, Bryce Nelson (2001, 2014, and 2014, respectively, BS in Computer Science in Real-Time Interactive Simulation), and Jengy Gomez (2011, BFA in Digital Art and Animation). Greg, Ryder, and Bryce are developers on the project, and Jengy is an artist. The entire GrooVR team consists of about 20 individuals.
When asked what kind of music he enjoys listening to while using GrooVR, Patrick laughs. “I love classic rock. I grew up kind of blue collar doing construction work, so that’s what I’m used to,” he says. “It works for a lot of the scenes, too. I think one of the coolest experiences is ‘Mission 9,’ which is one of our space scenes. When you’re coasting along this methane lake and you have Led Zeppelin going and you have a big planet coming over the horizon — it’s awesome. Really cool moments like that — those are what we’re trying to build with these experiences, what we call ‘wow moments.’”
Patrick has high hopes for the future of VR devices and predicts this kind of technology being used by consumers at large — especially once the wrinkles are ironed out. In addition to decreasing costs and building better batteries to support wireless play, Patrick predicts that establishing a consistent set of controls for player interaction will help VR reach a mainstream audience. “I think that’s going to be the key to bringing a smoother VR to the masses, and I think within 10 years we’ll definitely be there,” he says. “I’d be shocked if we weren’t, considering the current rate we’re going at.”
Until then, we’ll keep our eyes — and ears — locked on GrooVR to see what’s coming over the VR horizon.