Is Augmented and Virtual Reality the Next Big Thing in Localization?

From foldout cardboards to high-end head-mounted displays (HMDs), viewing virtual reality applications on game consoles and smartphones has gone from little more than child’s play to serious business.

At the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles in June 2017, all eyes were on the highly anticipated showdown among game publishers for announcements in the VR space.

The world’s biggest games convention did not disappoint. VR versions of widely popular titles such as Bethesda Game Studios’ “The Elder Scroll V: Skyrim VR” and “Fallout 4 in VR” were previewed and scheduled for release later this year. Square Enix’s Final Fantasy is also coming to the PlayStation VR with the forthcoming launch of ”Master of the Deep: Final Fantasy XV,” a first-person fishing simulator game within the franchise.

A prequel of Supermassive Games’ survival horror adventure game ‘Until Dawn” is also coming by way of the psychological thriller, “The Inpatient,” which will be released exclusively for the PlayStation VR.

AAA games publishers have started beefing up their VR titles in the last couple of years. But independent game developers were most actively pushing into the VR space to experiment with the new possibilities and create a more immersive gaming experience.

London-based Ustwo Games, which developed “Land’s End,” a puzzle adventure game often cited by gamers and the tech press as among the top games made exclusively for the Samsung Gear VR, was among the first to try out this new frontier.

The game was an experiment in navigation and interaction as the controls were based solely on head tracking. Designed to be played completely hands-free, it requires the player to discover and conquer worlds only through head movement and gaze control.

Interestingly enough, the game is available in six languages — English, French, German, Spanish, Korean and Chinese (many other VR games so far remain English-only)

Peter Pashley, Head of Development at Ustwo Games and Co-Designer of “Land’s End,” told Slator that translating or localizing VR games is very similar to localization for other types of video games.

“We also felt that having floating words on screen in VR is not something that happens in the real world” — Peter Pashley, Head of Development, Ustwo Games

“But there are some differences,” he says. “We tried very hard not to have language in the game as much as we could because for us the game is about experiencing a place and we want to be able to do that in an unconscious way as much as possible. We also felt that having floating words on screen in VR is not something that happens in the real world.”

Less Text, More Voice-Overs, and Body Language

This is where the world divides. In a game like “Land’s End,’ Pashley says you are immersed in a magical prehistoric, natural world. So, it’s good to experience that world in a diegetic way. “But we wanted to make something that is accessible to as many people as possible so we also translated it for other markets,” he says.

Julian Mower, Head of Pre-Production at Testronic, a US-based IT services company that offers Quality Assurance and Localization Services to game publishers, agrees with this observation. He says onscreen subtitles are not a good fit for VR content, so localized voice-overs might be more appropriate. It may also be ideal to have localized descriptions via audio or subtitles on demand.

“But I think any game will always have some text in it because you can’t just convey (everything) pictorially,” says Pashley. “One of the huge challenges we found out when it comes to localization is conveying the subtext of the words in the game. It can be easy and cheap to do word-to-word translation, but there’s emotion and intent to consider beyond what those words are trying to say.”

“Land’s End” has no dialogue, but for games that do have dialogue, Pashley says he would recommend adjusting the music or sound for certain markets, though he says it would definitely push up the expense. “I think, that aspect (cost) is exacerbated if there is a performance such as dialogue.”

“One of the huge challenges we found out when it comes to localization is conveying the subtext of the words in the game”

The “Land’s Age” co-designer adds that one big challenge for VR game localization is body language, which is coming to VR games and apps this year with hand controllers coming with the new VR headsets, as well as various body-tracking technologies in the apps.

“For me, the most exciting and most promising thing about VR is being able to communicate body language. The interesting thing for localization is how to translate those body gestures and what they mean in different cultures,” he says.

Still in the Early Days

2016 was a watershed year for VR hardware. In March, Oculus released the Oculus Rift and has since been adding AAA and indie games in its marketplace of games. Pre-orders for the HTC Vive also started in March, with 124 games revealed at the launch. The Sony PlayStation VR debuted in October 2016 and has sold a million units as of end June 2017. Google followed in November with the launch of the Daydream View.

The opening salvo in the battle of the VR headsets, however, was fired by Samsung in November 2015 when it released the Oculus-developed Samsung Gear VR. The company said it has sold five million units as of June 2017.

According to market research firm Super Data, 6.3 million VR headsets were shipped in 2016. The buzz generated by these new gadgets in tech conferences has contributed to the frenzied interest for new content. Hence, by the time the E3 was held this year, the anticipation for new game titles was palpable.

While these numbers look promising, they also show that VR headsets haven’t reached mass adoption and many who have tried it were early adopters. But this may not be the case for long.

A PwC report on global media and entertainment estimates that consumer VR content market will experience a large upswing to USD 5bn at 88% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) by 2021. The report noted that this will be powered by spending on VR video, which is projected to represent 58% of overall content spending in this market by 2021.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, whose acquisition of Oculus for USD 2bn hogged headlines in 2014, also expressed the belief that the next battleground in gaming is VR software. “The next phase in virtual reality is building great software experiences,” he says at the third Oculus Connect conference in October 2016. “The magic of VR software is this feeling of presence — the feeling that you are there with another person or in another place,” he says.

More than Just Hype

Among executives in the language services industry, many share the belief that VR and its twin — augmented reality or AR — are more than just hype.

“I believe AR and VR are here to stay. These are fantastic new ways to experience gaming in a much more vivid and intimate way. We’re starting to see some really polished projects from big names like Capcom and their “Resident Evil” series,” says Damien Yoccoz, Founder, Level Up Translation, a game localization company based in Saint-Germain-de-Varreville, France.

“There’s a lot of experimentation going on at the moment and unlimited creativity flowing from small developers. I like to compare the interest in VR with the arcade years ago when you had to pay the price for something unique and almost exclusive. I guess many early adopters are driven by curiosity and also want some sort of exclusive experience,” he adds.

“There’s a lot of experimentation going on at the moment and unlimited creativity flowing from small developers” —Damien Yoccoz, Founder, Level Up Translation

Jacob Stempniewicz, Vice President of Marketing of Andovar, a Singapore-based game translation and localization company, with offices in Thailand, the US, and India, expressed the same view.

“I have no doubts that VR is more than just hype. It’s still early days, but I am sure that VR will continue to grow and over the coming years will spread quickly both in terms of use cases and in the number of consumers who own VR gear at home,” he says.

This optimism is, however, tempered with realism. Stempniewicz told Slator that at present it’s very time-consuming to create games in VR because there’s little content that can be re-used, which is the norm in regular games.

“There are still serious challenges in interactivity. Different types of handheld controllers exist and none of the ones we’ve tested feels natural,” he explains. “It is also difficult to solve the question of physical movement in the VR world because if the player actually walks around they need a lot of free space, plus it’s easy to lose balance or trip.”

Mower, on the other hand, feels that the opportunity presented by the first major generation of core hardware is still not being realized. “There seem to be a number of companies who are on the fence due to the risk of not seeing a return on investment (ROI), even if they have confidence that they can develop a high-quality product,” he says.

Mobile: The Next Battleground

While VR games on consoles can only be played at home, mobile games can be brought anywhere and people can play all day, Stempniewicz observes.

Pashley agrees that there are millions of devices out there now and there’s going to be a lot more in the future. His view is that there’s not going to be any reason why anybody who has a mobile phone shouldn’t be able to own a VR headset maybe in a couple of year’s time.

The ubiquity of the mobile VR headsets is what inspired Ustwo Games to head out into the VR space.

“That is one of the reasons why we want to make “Land’s End” — to be there from the beginning and try to get people to know that there are good things to do in VR and you can do things which can be a great experience and only exist because of VR,” he says. “We want the design of the game to be based on what works on that platform and leveraging what that platform is good at. And that is the stories that you get — an introduction to VR and what these devices can do.”

In a podcast interview with Jason Calacanis on This Week in Startups, Robert Scoble, an American blogger, technical evangelist, author, and Partner at Transformation, believes that a new wave in AR gaming is in the offing with Apple’s introduction of the ARKit on June 5, 2017.

AR came on the radar of most gamers and even ordinary people by way of the immensely popular “Pokemon Go,” a free-to-play, location-based AR game co-developed by Niantic and Nintendo for iOS and Android devices. The app has been downloaded over 500 million times worldwide and was one of the most popular and profitable apps in 2016.

While VR recreates a real-life environment and places the gamer inside the game by wearing a headset, AR uses a gamer’s existing environment to overlay new information or objects.

This made “Pokemon Go” a global phenomenon. The novelty of seeing and capturing pocket monsters lurking in the middle of the street as well as perched on top of cars, bridges, tables or even on people’s heads, fed the adrenaline rush at the height of its popularity.

“It (Apple’s ARKit) is a platform that leads developers to build AR apps for existing iPhones. You don’t need a new iPhone, you need iOS11, which is coming in September. It lets you do all sorts of stuff where you can put things on top of the table like a rocket landing in the pool,” Scoble explains.

His bold prediction is that with the ARKit in developers’ hands, it can deliver around 200 million iPhone users who can play AR apps. “This will decimate the rest of the AR/VR industry,” Scoble says. “This is when AR will come to mass numbers of people and is going to cause the development of a whole range of startups. You watch this in the next six months.”

Moving Forward

As VR and AR technology evolve, Stempniewicz says the industry has a lot of growing up to do.

“The move to mobile gaming has been fundamental. This means several new challenges to localizers: smaller screens require more intense and structured post-localization testing; no standard screen size on mobile phones means that localized build’s layout may work on one model, but not on another (this is especially true of Android handsets),” he says.

At the moment, testing of localized builds needs to be done using VR equipment, which is often hard and expensive to get. There is no one standard or dominant platform in VR yet, so testing needs to be done on several platforms with different technical specifications.

At the moment, testing of localized builds needs to be done using VR equipment

“But I think localization for the VR industry will follow the same path that it has gone through with other industries. It will slowly become more mature and organized, meaning that the end clients will realize the importance of localization and learn how to become an active and engaged party with a crucial role to play. Loc kits will become more comprehensive, deadlines more realistic, developers will take localization into account at an earlier stage,” Stempniewicz says.

He also mentioned the rise of China as a source of games and Chinese as a source language in games.

“In the past, the games were localized into Chinese, but nowadays the opposite is true. Chinese as a source language presents unique challenges that caught many language service providers by surprise,” he reveals, adding that there will likely be an increase in the total number of languages as new countries become viable markets in Central and Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and India.

Incidentally, Microsoft announced in its Build developer conference last May that it will start shipping its own VR headset, the Hololens, to China. Prior to the announcement, this version of “mixed reality” by Microsoft was available in nine countries, including Japan, Australia, France and Germany, which probably offer bigger potential for localization.

While games have been developed for the Hololens such as “Fragments,” a high-tech crime drama that turns a gamer’s room into a crime scene, and “The Floor is Lava,” which transform a gamer’s entire room into a pool of Lava, its applications are far more diverse — in medicine, science, travel, and manufacturing, among others. Dubbed as the “first fully untethered holographic computer,” this hybrid VR headset has transparent lenses for a complete AR experience.