What’s on the Horizon? Talking Virtual Reality with Miles Neuvirth
Miles Neuvirth is a game developer who has been creating programs for Meta's new Horizon Worlds virtual reality platform. Cell Vision correspondent Sylvea Suydam spoke with him about game dev, his ongoing projects, and the future of virtual reality.
A decade ago, in 2012, the first Oculus Kickstarter raised over two million dollars. Just two years later, Facebook purchased the company for two billion. In the years since, virtual reality has continued to evolve, with headsets becoming more advanced and affordable for consumers, and boasting self-contained power sources capable of rendering interactive, immersive worlds. And it’s where Miles Neuvirth has found a niche.
A gamer and renaissance (fair) man by day, Neuvirth works at Brooklyn-based TTRPG company Dwarven Forge, utilizing 3D printers, electrical wiring, and traditional sculpting to develop prototypes for games in the Dungeons & Dragons community. By night, he moonlights as a game developer himself, creating all sorts of innovative programs with his Quest headset, from flying mechanics and cars to musical instruments. In December 2021, Meta opened Horizon Worlds to the public, which has become a growing community of user-created content already surpassing 300,000 accounts. Neuvirth's talent and proficiency led to him winning third prize in their recent launcher competition for developing a magical guitar, and he is currently working on a series of tutorial videos to help other creators learn the ropes. As the equipment becomes more affordable and accessible and the capabilities of the technology improve, it seems inevitable that VR will continue to become more mainstream.
On a Brooklyn rooftop overseeing the IRL Horizon World of the Manhattan skyline, I chatted with Miles about game dev, his ongoing projects, and the future of virtual reality as he sees it.
CELL VISION: You have your hands in a lot of different types of projects these days, seemingly everything, from crocheting that wizard hat you’re currently wearing to 3D printing miniature sculpture prototypes and video game development. When and where did your journey into VR begin?
MILES NEUVIRTH: I’ve been interested in VR for a long time, and for me, it was always linked with wanting to make games myself. I'm an actor by trade, and I've done a lot of writing and other projects, but when it came down to it, I realized my favorite thing was building worlds and designing spaces for people to be in. I got my first VR headset about five years ago, arguably a little late, because it was after I dropped out of college and wasn't already in game development. But I love VR; I think it's the future, and there's a million things that could be done with it eventually.
CELL VISION: What is Horizon Worlds, and how did you get involved with them?
MILES NEUVIRTH: About six months ago, I discovered Horizon Worlds for scripting games, and essentially, it’s a collection of user-created worlds and content built within the program. There are a number of games that have map or level creators, or you can import stuff into the game from another program like Unity, but in Horizon Worlds, everything is done inside the headset with this scripting system based on dragging and dropping code blocks. At the time, it was only in a closed beta that you had to sign up to try, which is like a prototype version of a program to get feedback or build hype for a game. You either had to be invited or apply on the site. I thought it looked interesting and signed up to see if I would get in, and about two weeks later, I got a notification saying that I could join! By then, they had a partially finished version of the program.
CELL VISION: And you just dove in?
MILES NEUVIRTH: Early on, I watched tutorials about how to build things, and what struck me most was that, while the tools are relatively simple, with a little creativity, you could do really interesting things. The complexity of what you can build scales with how much effort you put in, which I think makes it a great learning tool for trying to build and create things in VR.
CELL VISION: At the end of last year, Horizon Worlds ran a contest that you participated in and won third prize, that’s pretty impressive for a first time creator! Can you tell us about the contest and your entry?
MILES NEUVIRTH: When Horizon Worlds announced they were doing a competition, they didn't tell us what it was for, and when they did, it turned out it was a launcher competition. So I was like, “Yes, I'm going to enter something in this competition,” and hoped I could get an honorable mention, maybe. Because it was a closed beta and the number of consistent users was relatively low, a lot of people thought, “Well, you know, there's a solid chance of winning.” But the turnout was probably a little higher than people expected; they had up to 37 honorable mentions, I believe.
CELL VISION: The contest was just for users in the closed beta version?
MILES NEUVIRTH: I don't think anyone who wasn't in the beta got to compete, but I could be wrong. They had many examples of launchers you could import and take apart to get an idea of what they were looking for, stuff like a bow and arrow, a paper airplane shooter, several types of guns, that kind of stuff. One of the criteria they were judging on was “delightfulness,” and I knew I didn't want to make a gun.
CELL VISION: Guns aren’t very delightful…
CELL VISION: And it corresponded to how an actual guitar would be played in terms of the finger placement for these chords?
MILES NEUVIRTH: Kind of! [In] the first version, I didn't pay much attention to that; I was mostly focused on getting it so that where your hand is decides which chord you are playing.
"Early on, I watched tutorials about how to build things, and what struck me most was that, while the tools are relatively simple, with a little creativity, you could do really interesting things. The complexity of what you can build scales with how much effort you put in." -Miles Neuvirth
CELL VISION: Do you play guitar?
MILES NEUVIRTH: I do play guitar in real life, yes, but I didn't focus on making it accurate, because it didn’t track your actual finger position. With the later version, I did make it so as you went up the neck of the guitar, the chords get higher. The fret had to be pretty large to differentiate your hand placements.
CELL VISION: Sounds like it came to you pretty naturally.
MILES NEUVIRTH: I had a fully finished product a week after the contest was announced and was like, “This is good. I'm pretty happy with this.” But in the back of my head, I knew it could be better. Well, I tried to go to sleep one night, and suddenly the entire script for it popped into my head! I immediately took out my notes app and frantically started writing down script, and the next day, I was able to implement it in 20 minutes and had a functioning version of the new guitar.
CELL VISION: So, in terms of the physical guitar itself, how do you create the geometry of that with the controllers? And how is that different than on traditional 3D modeling programs like CAD, if at all?
MILES NEUVIRTH: Building in Horizon is very limited. Everything is made out of primitive shapes and combinations of reshaped, resized, and skewed versions of those shapes.
CELL VISION: That’s something I’ve noticed—the avatars, the graphics in general, seem very rudimentary. It reminds me of the Nintendo Wii actually. But then we’ve got the newest generation of consoles like the PS5 setting a really high standard for graphics these days, so why is VR seemingly so unimpressive by comparison?
MILES NEUVIRTH: It depends on the program.
CELL VISION: What are some of the other Horizon World competitors out there?
MILES NEUVIRTH: The big three I hear about most are probably VR Chat, Altspace, and Rec Room. Functionally, the main difference is ease of access. That’s something Meta wants to lean extra hard into, because they’re a social media company and they want to get as many people as possible building in the space. Whereas with Rec Room, you might not even know there’s user-created content on there. Horizon is built specifically for the Quest line of headsets that are capable of playing standalone (non-PCVR, or not hooked up to a PC), so they have greater limitations as a result. [In] something like VR Chat, you can actually import custom avatars, but that's run on a PC.
In general, VR takes more power to run graphics because everything is being rendered twice, once for each eye to get the 3D effect. So even with the most powerful graphics card, your cap on quality is significantly limited. Another part of the reason for the simplicity was just the demographic; I think, originally, they were looking for, and still often get, a much younger audience, so it just made more sense that it is less tech intensive. The Quest 2 is basically running on a really decent cell phone chipset, and in order to fit more in, they simplified things. That’s why they went with a more stylized and simplistic Avatar—it looks polished without details. You mentioned the Wii, and that is something Nintendo does a lot, because they tend to focus more on innovative controls, and they get around that by making beautiful games that don't try to look realistic.
"I don't see pictures in my head. If someone tells me to imagine something, I'll vaguely remember an experience I've had with it, but I can't mentally visualize it. Until relatively recently, I didn't think anyone actually could do that!" -Miles Neuvirth
CELL VISION: So how did you build your guitar within these graphic limitations?
MILES NEUVIRTH: The body of my guitar is two cylinders that I've reshaped and put together, and the neck is a half cylinder and stretched out rectangle, but I hit it with some finer details, like leaves and stuff, just to kind of draw your eye away from the fact that it's simple shapes.
Physically building, sculpting, in Horizon is not my strongest, because I'm not much of a visual artist. It's something that I have trouble with, probably related to my aphantasia.
CELL VISION: What is aphantasia?
MILES NEUVIRTH: I don't see pictures in my head. If someone tells me to imagine something, I'll vaguely remember an experience I've had with it, but I can't mentally visualize it. Until relatively recently, I didn't think anyone actually could do that! When people talked about it, I'd assumed it was all hyperbole.
CELL VISION: There's no one right way to make anything, right? Five people could make five guitars that function totally differently. Would you make your guitar differently now, knowing what you have learned since the contest?
MILES NEUVIRTH: Oh, yeah, there's often a cleaner way to do something once you know how it should work. They're making templates from the top three winners for people to mess around with, so I'm excited to see what other people do with my guitar as well.
CELL VISION: You're working on some other projects right now, a flying game and also a drivable car, which you've mentioned is particularly difficult for various reasons. What makes those projects hard to tackle, and how are you trying to get around it?
MILES NEUVIRTH: For the car, it isn't difficult in VR per se, it's just super difficult in Horizon Worlds specifically. It’s related to the flying mechanics. When a player is standing on a platform and you move that platform with scripting, the player moves with it. If you're standing on a platform and you teleport that platform, they will teleport with it, too. However, if that platform rotates, the player does not rotate with it, which is most likely to prevent people from making worlds that intentionally make people motion sick. So, because you have no way to control the players’ rotation, if the player is sitting in a car and they turn the car, the car will turn without them, which is an issue.
CELL VISION: And that’s how you end up in a windshield.
MILES NEUVIRTH: Exactly. Not being able to rotate players is frustrating. A lot of experiences are cut out or limited by that, and while I understand why they make it that way, I think there should be better options.
CELL VISION: What headset are you currently using?
MILES NEUVIRTH: I am using what’s now called the Meta Quest 2, because they changed the name recently.
CELL VISION: This is the Artist-Formerly-Known-As-Oculus?
MILES NEUVIRTH: Yes, and I love it. The funny thing is Facebook has owned Oculus for quite a while, since relatively early in Oculus's consumer life cycle. They just didn't change the name until they changed their own name. My first VR headset was the HTC Vive, before the Quests existed, and it was great because there wasn't much they weren't compatible with. For quite a while in the early days, you were separated into a bunch of different VR camps, and there's still PlayStation VR, which isn't compatible with anything but itself. Basically, they only had non-Oculus PCVR headsets that you hooked up to a computer and could play titles from steam.
CELL VISION: One of the games I played back then was in a fight pit, and there's these big heads looking down on you…
MILES NEUVIRTH: Gorn!
CELL VISION: Yeah! I think that's pretty much the only VR game I remember playing, back in 2016 or whenever that was.
MILES NEUVIRTH: Gorn is a classic, honestly. It was a launch title for Steam’s VR, but people still love it. It's one of those games that is simple and engaging.
CELL VISION: What are some favorite games you’re playing right now?
MILES NEUVIRTH: I spend so much of my time in Horizon! But I am a big fan of survival crafting. I spent a pretty decent amount of time in The Forest VR, which is a horror survival crafting game.
CELL VISION: Is that the one where your plane crashes?
MILES NEUVIRTH: Yup!
CELL VISION: Oh, I’ve played that one too! I was mostly drawn in because of the cannibalism...
MILES NEUVIRTH: See, that's why I can't get people to play with me; they don't want to go hang out in the cannibal forest, but it has a crossplay between desktop players and VR players, which is great.
CELL VISION: Yeah, I’ve only ever played it on PlayStation.
MILES NEUVIRTH: And that's what’s great about it, because very few of my friends have a headset, so if there's games I can play with them where I'm in VR and they aren’t, that's a bonus for me. Another game is The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners. It’s a really solid, well polished zombie survival experience and one of the most complete package VR games out there currently. And Zenith The Last City just launched, so I’ve spent some time in there lately.
CELL VISION: There are these contraptions that you can walk in, are you able to integrate those with your Quest? And also do you see auxiliary equipment like that solving some of these problems with rotation, motion sickness, and spatial relationships?
MILES NEUVIRTH: I am hopeful, yes! I actually worked previously with omnidirectional treadmills (that’s the commonly used nomenclature for those) at a VRcade, and I also streamed for a distributor of them.
CELL VISION: Where was that, and what did you do there?
MILES NEUVIRTH: Here in the city, right by Penn Station, there is a VRcade called Escape Virtuality, and they have physical escape rooms, they have a VRcade, and they also have VR escape rooms, which, in my opinion, is one of the most immersive types of virtual reality you can do. If you see a goblin in front of you, that's your friend playing with you. And I’d have to remind players to not run into other characters, because there’s a real person there. That place also had a set of omnidirectional treadmills, and what I will say is they're much too large for general consumers right now for obvious reasons, but they're interesting. I have not yet seen a solution for walking in one that feels like walking in real life. You can get used to it, and it feels like a natural movement relatively quickly, but it doesn't feel like walking.
"Although Horizon Worlds is created by Meta, the confusion comes from the fact that the Metaverse doesn't exist yet. It's a potentially cool idea, and a potentially disastrous one, but it hasn’t come to fruition yet, so people look at the programs that currently exist in VR and think, ”Oh, that's the Metaverse,” but a functioning VR world like Horizon would need ten times the building capacity and connectivity with other programs that it has now to be that." -Miles Neuvirth
CELL VISION: How do you navigate Horizon Worlds or other VR spaces absent of omnidirectional treadmills?
MILES NEUVIRTH: There's two options, smooth locomotion and teleport. Most VR titles have those two if there is movement. I use smooth locomotion where I use my left hand joystick the way you would use a joystick on a regular game, and you can just turn in real life! That’s the fun part of VR for rotation specifically; you can interact with the world by moving your body as you normally do. There are also room-scale programs where you can physically walk around however much space you have, there are games built for that; or the VR escape rooms I mentioned. But generally speaking, you can either teleport or use smooth locomotion. Many people find teleport mitigates motion sickness.
CELL VISION: Do you ever get that motion sickness or sense of vertigo that occurs with VR?
MILES NEUVIRTH: There was one poorly designed sailing program that affected me. Most of the time, if you have your “VR legs,” you’ll be fine. The things that cause it are usually extreme motion, which doesn't get me, or bad programming.
CELL VISION: I wonder if it’s the kind of thing that can be improved as the technology advances, or if it’s something fundamental about the interface. Will there always be a jarring disconnect between what's happening in your body’s equilibrium versus what your eyes and brain are processing?
MILES NEUVIRTH: A little of column A and little of column B. It's something you can get used to. There's a lot of people who do have issues with it and will use teleport, but then for the last 5-10 minutes of their session they use locomotion and eventually they can get used to it. Making sure you don't have tremendous amounts of lag between a player's movement of their head is critical. If you turn your head and you have to wait even half a second before your screen turns with you, you will get sick. The most experienced VR players in the world will get sick in those scenarios, so there are things you can do from a game design standpoint to mitigate that.
CELL VISION: Like adding a puke bag under the visor?
MILES NEUVIRTH: Ha, well, there is another solution called the KAT Walk loco. It’s three motion sensors; two on your ankles and one on your belt, and it tracks what direction you're facing and whether your feet are moving. You walk in place to move forward and put your foot behind to back up. There’s studies I can't quote that basically show if you do things like stepping in place to cause the movement, it lessens simulation sickness but I don't know if it's something that can be solved entirely. Time will tell.
CELL VISION: You've talked before about how people confuse Horizon Worlds with the Metaverse. Can you explain how they're different?
MILES NEUVIRTH: Although Horizon Worlds is created by Meta, the confusion comes from the fact that the Metaverse doesn't exist yet. It's a potentially cool idea, and a potentially disastrous one, but it hasn’t come to fruition yet, so people look at the programs that currently exist in VR and think, ”Oh, that's the Metaverse,” but a functioning VR world like Horizon would need ten times the building capacity and connectivity with other programs that it has now to be that. The Metaverse implies a connectivity between different programs in a way that I'm skeptical will ever occur.
CELL VISION: Why is that?
MILES NEUVIRTH: Two things would need to happen. First, for the Metaverse to be as described in the two-hour-long spiel Mark Zuckerberg gave, someone needs to make a platform that is so widely adopted that the majority of people who develop games decide to only develop on that platform. Then things would have that inherent compatibility. Alternatively, all the individual devs within the VR community need to get together and decide to start building our programs so that they are compatible. I think a lot of people get the concept behind the Metaverse being like “the internet,” but in VR, that’s only kind of accurate. The reason the internet feels connected is because no matter what sites you go to, you’re just looking at them through your eyes on your screen, right? But if the current internet is going to be like this new idea for the Metaverse, it would be like that but every site would use the same scripts and logins for you, which I mean Facebook and Google have attempted to do.
"Throughout quarantine, about once a week or so, [my brother and I] could hop into VR, and were able to hang out even when I couldn't actually go see any of my family. I was able to go out, leave my house, talk to people, and experience things despite being stuck inside. It could be a very good socializing tool for people who have trouble getting out." -Miles Neuvirth
CELL VISION: Given the size of Meta, and Facebook’s history of unscrupulous business tactics and ambitions, do you see them maybe strong-arming or forcing people to use their platform exclusively? Making their proprietary VR programs industry standard?
MILES NEUVIRTH: For sure, potentially. If anyone is going to attempt something like that, it would be Facebook. They're the only people who have both the resources and drive to do it, but I don't think they will ever have the power to totally strong arm people in that way, not completely. However, they have bought a lot of game development studios since the Quest launch, so yes, I can see them trying. They have their best chance now, since there isn't much competition yet. No one does mobile non-PCVR better than the Quest, and the fact that you can do both PCVR and non-PCVR with the same headset with a Quest is also huge. If you're not using the Quest and you're doing PCVR, the only other options are just more expensive ones.
CELL VISION: You mentioned earlier that the potential for VR isn't being fully utilized right now. What is its full potential?
MILES NEUVIRTH: The coolest thing I’ve been able to do personally is get my brother into VR, which was maybe half a year before the pandemic started. Throughout quarantine, about once a week or so, we could hop into VR, and were able to hang out even when I couldn't actually go see any of my family. I was able to go out, leave my house, talk to people, and experience things despite being stuck inside. It could be a very good socializing tool for people who have trouble getting out. I also think it could be huge for education. As someone who had to go through our school system with entirely untreated ADHD, a lot of classes were very difficult, and there's so many things you can teach in a more interesting and compelling way with virtual reality. Once the headsets are cheaper to produce, being able to conduct remote learning in a more engaging way could be huge. There’s also training for jobs, which is already being used in some ways. Plus, hand tracking or haptic gloves will improve to where you can track individual finger movements, which will open up the interface even more. But being able to help people who can't get out of the house to see and spend time with people they love is the most interesting to me.
CELL VISION: What else is on the horizon for you? Pun fully intended.
MILES NEUVIRTH: Horizon just announced their next competition, so I’ll be entering that again! I was asked to help out another group with their project and since I'm not the head of that project I won't get too much into the details, but we’ll be competing. I've been working on the cars thing, and I built a flying game that I'm actually super proud of. If anyone's on Horizon Worlds, you can find me at Flight Academy, and I’m making a video series where I look at mechanics from other games and attempt to recreate them in VR. I made the glider from Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, and I thought I did a pretty good job with it!
CELL VISION: That's awesome!
MILES NEUVIRTH: The coolest part for me is the channel that I'm going to be putting these on, VIDYUU, is the same channel that had all the tutorials that taught me in the early days of learning Horizon.
CELL VISION: That’s a nice full-circle moment for you.
MILES NEUVIRTH: Yeah, they helped teach me how to do all of this, and now I get to make stuff for that same channel and hopefully will inspire other people to learn as well.
Miles and his ongoing VR projects can be found on Instagram, Twitter, and Tiktok, and you can find out more about the new Horizon contest in the links below.