Schell Games is a supporting sponsor for and regular contributor to Game For Change Festival’s content. This year was no different, as Schell had their upcoming VR game, HoloLAB Champions, on display and ready for demos. This game has players learning and practicing “real lab skills in a safe environment,” recreating basic safety measures like putting on goggles to working with advanced items like Bunsen burners.
On Saturday, I had an opportunity to sit down and talk to Jesse Schell, CEO and Founder of Schell Games, about HoloLAB Champions, projects his company is pursuing now, and where he thinks the industry headed in the next few years.
First think we touched upon was Schell’s mention of using HoloLab Champions in the classroom, an interesting idea made possible thanks to the Department of Education grant. He mentioned that it’s a perfect application for home schooling, too.
“We’ve got a Department of Education grant, we focused on in-classroom use because that’s what they care about the most.
“We started finding that using it on your own, privately, when you have your own time and you’re on your own schedule, actually I think it ends up being that the use is strongest that way. So we think a lot about homeschool for this. That is one of the places where… You know, homeschooling can be great, but one of the things it’s generally not great at is chemistry.
“Now they can have something like a college-level chemistry lab in the house and that’s very interesting. Homeschool parents often have a sense of inadequacy when it comes to equipment, so it’s a sensitivity for them. They’re interested in something [for that].”
“Welding is tricky and dangerous, why not get you to do virtual welding before you step in and do the real welding?”
During Schell’s panel, he mentioned that HoloLAB could also be used to promote safety in the lab. I wondered if this is an application he’d thought of, or whether it could be used as a safer alternative for kids not quite ready to step into a real lab just yet.
“Absolutely! I think one of the strong uses is before you just let kids loose in a chemistry lab, having them and getting them to understand the nature of safety and getting them to have more practice with, you know, ‘you must put goggles on,’ the way you use a striker with a Bunsen burner, a number of these safety issues. And possibly even, you’re not allowed into the real lab until you’ve passed your safety test in the virtual lab, as kind of a ramp up. Similarly, there are people who make welding software for the same reasons.”
“Welding is tricky and dangerous, why not get you to do virtual welding before you step in and do the real welding? And this is very simple instruction.”
HoloLAB does, however, take on a more video game feel by offering a light-hearted game-show style, something that isn’t necessarily common in a classroom setting. Fortunately, Schell was more than happy to go into more detail on how they’ve balanced that comic element with the knowledge.
“Part of challenge for this, again, we knew this would be useful in school, but we also… wanted to reach people not just in a school context, but we want people to say, ‘That looks fun. I think I’ll pay for that and download that for myself.’ And if it’s just utilitarian, that’s really going to limit your audience. If you can make it kind of fun as well as educational it really expands the number of people that get exposed to it, which is good for the world, and, potentially, makes it a more sustainable business model.
“And comedy is often a really good way to make things engaging… So that was definitely a thought we had, because one of the great things about comedy is that comedy is so flexible and allows you to kind of do anything. And so, we needed reasons, like, what would be a reason I’d want to… arrange these chemicals by their density in a row? If I was making an adventure game, I could try and come up with some adventure game reason why I need to find all of these densities. But with a game show it’s just the game show. You do silly things on game shows. And then if you make jokes about it further, then it’s just kind of a way to make it more engaging.”
“the next steps we’re taking is towards history”
Moving on from this we wondered whether there were plans to introduce more science materials into HoloLAB in the future, like an anatomy class with dissecting the frog, you wouldn’t have to really get down and dirty with the frog’s anatomy. Interestingly, however, it seems the team are heading in a more historical route than science.
“Well, actually, the next steps we’re taking is towards history… We have this concept we’re calling History Makers. It’s in an early development phase, and the idea is that you use – this isn’t really a game so much as a creativity tool – it uses the motion tracking aspect of virtual reality to let you puppeteer historical figures… Give speeches as them, answer questions as them, they’d have to be the figure.
“And so, if you pick out a character and you upload whatever, if you want to give a speech, you upload that. And there’s a Teleprompter, and then, in the system, your movements match, say, Abraham Lincoln’s movements perfectly, and your hands match his hands. So you give your speech and have your gestures, and that’s all there. And as you speak, his mouth will move, and then further with the voice modulation, you can kind of pick a voice that you think sounds more like that person. And then you can export videos of that. So it’s sort of a new way to kind of do a first person report, or if you want to do a live debate between two different figures, you can do those sorts of things.
“This [also] is a way for you to do a performance without actually having to be physically shown. So you get that benefit of practicing performance with hopefully less of the anxiety.”
Diving a little deeper into the historical game, Schell tells me that they’re currently trying to find the sweet spot with the art style. Too cartoony and it wouldn’t work, too realistic and it’ll get pricey.
“We’re working this out right now because too cartoony and its problem is that no one takes it seriously. Too realistic, it starts to get very expensive. It limits the number of characters we can have. And then, further, the more ‘perfect’ you expect it to be. And that’s a problem. So we’re trying to find this little space where it’s slightly caricatured but not so far that you can’t take it seriously. And that’s a big center of our work right now, kind of finding that Goldilocks [spot] in the middle, ‘just right’ space.”
One of the more interesting parts of learning more about HoloLAB was the materials we were sent before the interview. While Schell Games has plenty of other games on its slate, one of the titles being tied to HoloLAB was I Expect You To Die a game which seems like a world apart from the educational theme of HoloLAB; however, it seems the two are closer than you might think.
“In some ways, there are some similarities because I Expect You to Die is also a comedy-oriented game. In I Expect You to Die, you play as a secret agent… who has no idea what they’re doing. Right? Because you’re not a secret agent either. Suddenly you’re a secret agent, and you get caught in a series of death traps, and you have to get out of them by McGuyvering the objects around you in clever ways.
“And so the similarities are that they’re both games about manipulating objects in a room, they both have kind of a comic overlay, and they’re both kind of about cognitive puzzle-solving. The difference being that I Expect You to Die is not trying to teach you anything. It’s like an escape room, where HoloLAB Champions is very much trying to get you familiar and build your muscle memory with being comfortable in a laboratory. But in terms of scope and aesthetic… and even some of the UI, in fact, our first experiments with fluids were in I Expect You to Die, in some of the puzzles… So some of the tech came across.”
“There are a lot of hard things about VR for schools”
With HoloLAB it would be natural to think that virtual reality and education comes hand-in hand. I wondered whether that was the same feeling for Schell. Unfortunately, it looks like VR still has a way to go before it has educators jumping to adopt a currently very expensive and cumbersome technology.
“Education is always very slow to change, technologies come in education very slowly. So what will happen a lot sooner is mass adoption of VR. And what I think that’s going to take is one mass VR system: no PC, no phone, it’s just, you put on the headset and that’s all you need. With a hand-tracking system that requires no external cameras, or anything like that. And if you have a system like that, and price it under $400, I’m pretty sure a system like that could sell more than ten million units, and at that point you’re at mass market. I think we’re going to see that in the marketplace by the end of 2020, possibly sooner.
“So that’s the big barrier for mass market VR. Because we are seeing slow and steady growth in the VR marketplace, it’s definitely happening, but we’re going to need some price drops and tech advances to really make that big jump. Schools are going to be slower. There are a lot of hard things about VR for schools. I think there are going to be targeted places, and I think it’s going to be largely about specific things that schools need. We think [HoloLAB] is one that they’ll potentially need, and I think there are others. And I think that there will an anatomy one, that’s great, a biology one… So there’s going to be areas they specifically care about with VR…
“And then you’ve got the whole augmented reality question, which in a lot of ways fits the schools a lot better… If a teacher is in front of the class, they can’t put on a VR helmet! That’s not responsible. So that’s a problem. So as we start to have advances in AR, I think that may end up having more relevance for schools in the long run…”
So perhaps AR is the future of education technology? Being able to manipulate things in real time without the need for vision-restricting headsets seems like the more sensible option. According to Schell though, it’s not that simple.
“This is the ‘I don’t know’ part. This is the question. When it comes to anything physical… Like honestly, if we could do HoloLAB Champions in AR, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Just put all the glassware on a table, and just do it in your own room! Like we worked on this one, Jedi Challenges… and you can do that in VR, but to do it in AR, like there’s Darth Vader in your living room, and it feels very comfortable. That’s pretty cool. Anything that involves physical manipulation of objects has the potential to work very well in AR.
“Math I think is a great example, math is already hard to understand because it’s got these models that ostensibly affect something, like say an equation that defines a graph. And you draw a graph… What if, instead, the graph was just like, here, in front of you. And I could manipulate the equation and watch it change… Manipulate it with my hands and watch it change the equation. It would be so much easier to understand these concepts! And particularly, it’s more social. You and I are both sitting here, like, ‘let me show you’ and boop, it’s right here and I’m going to just stretch it. And you can see what I’m talking about.
“That’s the big promise of AR. Anything that can be manipulated and shared… Education gets stronger with that. That’s where the power starts to show up. But unfortunately, that technology is so difficult. I look at it as, the 2020’s are going to be about VR, and the 2030’s are going to be about AR.”
“There’s so much more with AR [than VR]”
This is something, I wondered, whether Schell Games planned to move more into. With Jedi Challenge working well in AR, could we see more AR projects coming from the company?
“We’re doing a lot [in the AR space]. We did the Jedi Challenge game. We’re very interested in it. We have some other internal AR projects right now. But so much is going to depend on what’s actually in the market and what actually succeeds there. Right now we’re focused more on VR because that’s where the market is right now. People are ready for VR games and experiences. So we’re a little more focused on that.
“There’s so much more with AR [than VR], [It has to] scan and understand my environment, and draw three dimensional images over reality, like… it’s just so many technical problems. Not to mention that everyone expects the glasses to be small, and like, where do you put the battery, all of that, that isn’t really ready yet.”