#46: Aaron Lemke of Unello Design on Eden River HD and creating a counterpoint to horror experiences, finding an outlet for his music in VR, & distraction therapy medical applications

Aaron Lemke of Unello Design talks about the relaxing VR experiences that he created in order to create a counterpoint to the flood of horror games that were released on Oculus Share. He talks about his first VR experiences that he created including Eden River, Waking Man, Fire Breather and Lunadroid 237.

aaron-lemkeHe talks about updating Eden River to a full-fledged game, and asking for feedback on Reddit and the Oculus development forums. He’ll be adding a endless mode, options to have more interaction and less interaction, and a more intuitive interaction of leaning to steer that will be possible with positional tracking with the DK2.

Aaron is a musician, and he talks about how music is at the core of all that he does in VR. He found VR to be a really great outlet for his ambient music.

Finally, he talks about some of the medical applications for VR including distraction therapy for pain modulation, and well as for other types of physical therapy for stroke victims. He also sees that one of the big open problems is implementing more sophisticated audio reflections and realistic binaural audio in 3D spaces.

Reddit discussion here.


  • 0:00 – Intro. Started as a musician. How he started into VR. Didn’t know how to program. Bought a Rift.
  • 1:05 – First VR experiences that he created. Firebreather. Use microphone to measure how much fire comes out of your mouth. Waking Man kind of like a meditation game that would echo the microphone. Started Luna Droid, and then made Eden River and went back to finish Luna Droid.
  • 2:26 – Relaxing intention. Played a lot of horror games, and they’re very terrifying. Wanted to make a counter point to horror games. Easier to stand out in the VR market
  • 3:40 – Transforming Eden River from a demo into a full-fledged conference. Went to Valve’s Dev Days conference to get onto Steam. Get feedback from Reddit community about what they want from Eden River. Wanted an endless mode. Some people wanted more interactivity, and others wanted no interactivity. Doing both. Fly with animals. Graphics update.
  • 6:00 – Motion sickness. Heard from a lot of people that it doesn’t make people sick. Acceleration and slowing down. Looking around without low persistence can cause sickness
  • 7:10 – New DK2 controls allow you to lean to steer, which is more intuitive.
  • 8:02 – What’s next? Eden River HD will be on Steam once he gets his DK2. Opera Nova will be like a Fantasia for VR
  • 9:02 – Everything he does is driven by music. Always made ambient music, and didn’t have an outlet for his music. Music is at the core at all of his games. Doing a musical for VR
  • 10:18 – Going to change all aspects of media and design. Will change architecture, and no longer use toothpicks for models to show clients. Get feedback from client and design it in realtime, and get internal design happening before building the building. Games and education will be huge, and education will be like recess. Getting more interested in medical applications of VR. Showed a doctor, and wanted to use VR for therapy. Physical therapy. Take movement from people who have had a stroke and amplify their movements in VR. Pain modulation with distraction therapy.
  • 13:58 – Audio is really important. Need to model reflections of audio. Virtual haircut and binaural audio can give you a lot of presence and depth, and accurate audio will be key in the future.

Theme music: “Fatality” by Tigoolio

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.

[00:00:11.924] Aaron Lemke: My name is Aaron Lemke. I'm from Austin, Texas. I started out as a musician. I've been playing in bands for over 10 years. Wow, that's a long time. And I got into VR. I remember, like, sitting in class in middle school and just kind of fantasizing and thinking about, like, oh, like, you know, someday we're just going to have these cool screens on our faces with lenses, and we're going to be able to do this incredible VR stuff. And then, you know, a few years later, the Rift came out. I saw the Kickstarter and I was like, ooh, that's really cool. I want to do that. But at that point, I still didn't really know how to program anything. And I was very inept at all that kind of stuff. And I was like, oh, man, I just need to find someone who can program everything for me, which was such a stupid, stupid thing to think. Eventually, I sort of swallowed my pride and was like, well, I'll just learn it. And so I bought a Rift, bought a Leap Motion controller, and just started playing around with stuff.

[00:01:05.602] Kent Bye: Maybe talk about some of the first VR experiences that you created and what you learned from each one.

[00:01:13.067] Aaron Lemke: Well, the first one was Fire Breather, and that was just an idea I had where it uses the microphone on your computer and it shoots fire out of where your mouth is based on the decibel input. So you can kind of like yell into your computer and you shoot fire out. And it was just like a proof of concept kind of deal. And I posted that and people seemed to like it. The second thing I made was called Waking Man, and it was like kind of a meditation game where, again, using the microphone on your computer, and it'll echo anything that's coming into the mic. So at a situation like this at the exhibit it wouldn't work at all because there's too much background noise it would just be like insane. But if you're in a quiet place you can chant into it or you can hum to yourself or just breathe. Sometimes I take a guitar and kind of like pick my guitar in this world. So yeah that was the second thing. The third thing I started was Lunar Droid. That was like me kind of learning C Sharp. Before that, everything was in JavaScript, and with Lunar Droid, I was like, all right, let's do C Sharp. I started that. I did a bunch of it, and then kind of got bored of it. And then I went and made Eden River, and then came back and finished up Lunar Droid. So yeah, that's kind of the four games that I've made so far.

[00:02:26.249] Kent Bye: And especially with Eden River, there seems to be a little bit more of a relaxing, taking you to another place, and maybe talk a bit about the intention that you're putting into what you're trying to create.

[00:02:35.912] Aaron Lemke: Yeah, I've played a lot of horror games. There's a bunch of horror games on Oculus Share right now. And I can hardly play some of them because they're so terrifying, like they just scare the shit out of you. And it's, I don't want to say cheap, but it feels, it's so easy to do. You just, all you need is like a scary, kind of like gloomy atmosphere, maybe some weird ominous noises. And then something that pops out of you, like it literally could just be a cube that pops out. You know, it's just about the tension and the fear of the unknown. So I don't know, I played a lot of those games and I was like, you know what, I don't want to do that. I don't like being scared. I want to make kind of a counterpoint to that, something more meditative or relaxing. And that's kind of, well, that's where they all really came from. But yeah, Eden River, I think is probably the best manifestation of that idea. And also, I mean, the plus side is that it's easier to stand out because I'm kind of making a counterpoint to these horror games and these action games. You know, the market, whatever, is saturated with those types of experiences right now. So it is a little easier to stand out with those. I see.

[00:03:40.328] Kent Bye: And so, you know, talk about the process of taking Eden River as sort of a little demo and then expanding it into a more full-fledged experience. You know, maybe start with, like, what it was at the start and then where it's going and where it's ending up.

[00:03:53.554] Aaron Lemke: Okay. It's pretty simple, the original version. It's really just a skybox, and some lily pads, and some grass, and like, that's it, and some music, and some flowers. Okay, I guess it's not that simple, but yeah, I don't know, it got a really good response. I think people are hungry for that type of game. So I went to Valve's conference in January and I just, my goal was like, okay I want to talk to somebody who can get my game on Steam. And I just like talked to everyone, I bothered so many people. And eventually I got an email contact. They were like, yeah okay we want to do Eden River. So then I had to figure out, alright what do I want to change about the original Eden River? What do I want to add? And I had some ideas, but my first inclination was just to ask the community because they're the ones, I don't know, they give good advice. Like Reddit, you know, it's a very passionate community and they love talking about games and thinking about games. So yeah, I just, I think I did a Reddit post that was like, hey, what would you want in Eden River HD? And I posted on the Oculus forums as well. And then sort of like tallied up all of the suggestions that people had. And then from that I was like, okay, well, I'll take the top, you know, five or six and then those are the things I'm gonna add. People definitely wanted an endless mode, a looping mode, because the original one is, it's only like five minutes long. People want to just do it forever. Well, not forever, but as long, you know, as long as they would like to. So that was the first thing I was like, okay, gotta have that. A lot of people wanted more interactivity. Some people wanted no interactivity. It's interesting, there's kind of a split. There's like, the people who want these goals, you know, like traditional game type goals, and then there's people who are like, I don't want to do anything. I just want to cruise. Don't make me distracted with any of your goals. So I decided I had to cater to both. So there's going to be kind of like a story mode where you can interact with these animals and they come and fly with you. That's the thing that I've been showing here at the expo. What else? Yeah, just a general graphics update. The environment's going to be much more complex. There's better trees. There's better rocks. Yeah, those are the main changes.

[00:06:00.215] Kent Bye: And so talk a bit about motion sickness, because you are zooming down this river, and I think that people who don't have their VR legs in place, they can start to get a little nauseated. And so maybe talk about that process of, you know, how do you help alleviate that a little bit?

[00:06:16.792] Aaron Lemke: Well, actually, a lot of people have come up to me here at the conference and said, hey, I love Eden River. It's the game that I introduce VR to people with. So there's something about it that doesn't make people motion sick. My theory is that the main thing that makes people motion sick is acceleration and deceleration. So in Eden River, you're going forwards at a constant rate, and it would be a little bit more jarring if you were constantly speeding up and slowing down and stuff. You can turn and steer left and right, or you can just go forwards. So, yeah. It's the acceleration that, in my experience, gives people motion sickness.

[00:06:53.826] Kent Bye: Oh, interesting, yeah. Because I think my experience is that when I'm looking around left and right, that could start to, without the low persistence feature of the new HMD,

[00:07:03.212] Aaron Lemke: Yeah, you're right. Moving forwards and looking sideways can be a little disorienting for sure.

[00:07:09.957] Kent Bye: And so do you have a sense of how that may work with the upgraded technology? Is it going to be a little bit better in terms of being able to be flying through the river and be able to look around?

[00:07:20.253] Aaron Lemke: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of times when I show people Eden River the first time, they intuitively just try to lean to steer, and then I tell them, oh no, you have to rotate your head, you sort of have to roll your head to steer. And so that to me is a good indication that If their intuitive, if their initial intuitive sense is to lean, to steer, that's going to be perfect because DK2 is going to allow you to do that with positional tracking. It's just going to be steering based, maybe speed control I'm thinking too, like lean forwards, lean backwards, you know, kind of like go up or go down to change your height. I'm playing around with all those things. But yeah, it's just going to allow for a more intuitive control scheme.

[00:08:01.226] Kent Bye: Interesting. Cool, and so what's next for you? Is Eden River HD the only thing you're working on, or do you have any other projects that you have in the pipeline?

[00:08:09.962] Aaron Lemke: Yeah, Eden River HD will be on Steam whenever I get my DK2 and get these new controls set up. But I'm also working on a game called Opera Nova that's sort of a VR Fantasia, if you remember that old Disney movie. Came out in 1940. It was the third movie that Disney made so 1937 He invented feature animation with Snow White his next film was Pinocchio, and then I love I just love the balls To say okay for my third movie. I'm gonna make a complete completely experimental, weird music animation film, you know, the likes of which no one has ever seen before. Just the creative courage of Disney to do that is so inspiring. So, I love Fantasia and my next game is going to be kind of like a VR Fantasia. So, sound and music visualized.

[00:09:03.809] Kent Bye: It sounds like because you're a musician you're going to be trying to incorporate more of that. I'm just curious in terms of the special considerations when it comes to virtual reality and the audio and the music.

[00:09:14.577] Aaron Lemke: Yeah, everything I do is really driven by music. Like I said, I grew up playing in bands, and honestly one of the reasons I started making games was because I'd always made kind of like weird electronic music, ambient music on my computer, and it was never the kind of thing where it's like, oh nice, I'll make an album out of this and sell it, or like start a band and make this music. I just didn't have an outlet. I didn't have a context to put the music into. So when I started getting into games, it was like, oh, whoa, what if I can make games and then make the music for the games? Then I'll have this place to put my music. So yeah, music's really at the core of all my games. It's still the part that I love doing the most. And I think, yeah, when you approach games that way, you can do some really cool things. Opera Nova, for sure, is going to be completely focused on music and driven by the music.

[00:10:06.916] Kent Bye: It's almost like, you know, if you were to do a musical for a movie, like a musical VR experience in some way.

[00:10:13.237] Aaron Lemke: Yeah, yeah, totally. VR musical, I want to be in that.

[00:10:18.378] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you see as the potential for virtual reality?

[00:10:23.527] Aaron Lemke: Oh, I don't know. All kinds. It's going to change every aspect of media. It's going to change design. I don't know. There's so many different things they could talk about. My sister is studying architecture in Seattle. This is just one of my favorite things to think about. And they still teach their students how to build these models out of toothpicks and glue for your clients or whatever. Yeah, this is what the building's going to look like. Here's some fake trees. Just try to imagine what it would be like to be in there. That's the whole point of the model is to give the client a sense of what the building is going to be like, what it's going to be like to be inside, what it's going to look like from the outside. And to me, it's so obvious that VR just solves that problem. If you can go into the building as it's being designed. You know, if you're the client, you can go in and say, oh, you know, I don't like, you know, maybe we can raise this ceiling or we can do, you could literally design it from the inside out in real time. Another cool aspect of that is you could get your interior designers in on the process much earlier. So I kind of think it would be awesome to be an interior designer walking around and being like, oh, let's try blue on the walls or like a different wallpaper or maybe different light fixtures and, you know, let's move that window to the right a little bit and just Oh, it's just going to be such a cool design process. That's just one of them. I mean, you know, games, obviously. Education, obviously, is going to be great. Imagine if you were a kid and you got to go to school and go into VR every day. I would love to do that. Exploring the human body, exploring biology up close on a molecular level with your peers. And it's like recess. Oh, yeah, did you see that mitochondria? Oh, yeah, it was so cool. I love that. That's another one. I guess the final thing, I'm starting to focus more or at least get interested in medical applications for VR. So I've got a team assembled back in Austin. That's me and a good friend of mine and another developer. And his dad is the medical director of one of the big hospitals there. And I showed him the Rift and he was just like so pumped about it. He got really into it. And his idea was, let's use this for therapy. Let's use this for medication. And so we've been talking to doctors, figuring out, just asking them, hey, what kinds of applications would make your daily routine better? And there's all kinds of cool ideas floating around. One of them, physical therapy, I think could be really cool. I don't know exactly what this would do, but I can imagine using a Kinect or something, taking someone's input, maybe they have had a stroke and they have, you know, they've lost a lot of movement in one of their arms or something. But if they do have a little bit of movement still, you could take that movement with the Kinect sensor and amplify it in VR and sort of trick the body into thinking that it's working again. These guys, the Diplopia guys, who are curing lazy eye with VR, that is amazing to me. So cool. Yeah, well the thing we kind of ended up focusing on though is pain modulation. So it's this thing called distraction therapy where essentially it's just like maybe someone has to get a bandage changed every day and it's really painful. It's like, okay, we could give them some morphine, you know, which is really addictive and has lots of side effects. Or maybe you can give them a really immersive, really engaging VR game, and just say, hey, you know, like, go into this, and maybe that'll distract you from your pain a little bit. So that's something we're really looking into. It's the kind of thing where you gotta have a study to back it up. It's kind of like your proof, or like your patent, basically. So yeah, that's, I'm really excited about that front as well.

[00:13:56.127] Kent Bye: Great. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you think needs to be said?

[00:14:01.109] Aaron Lemke: I said a lot of things at the panel. I think audio is really important. There aren't enough people thinking about sonic reflections. There's a couple of companies that have pretty good spatial audio plugins, but those are all based on the listener. So like in Unity, the listener, the audio listener. None of them are modeling reflections, but I think Once we do start modeling reflect like this room I'm sure the microphone is picking up the reflections and you know, it's not binaural, but you can get somewhat of an idea Okay, we're in a large carpeted room with walls or whatever, you know You can take in a lot of information about your environment based on reflections if you've ever done the virtual haircut that thing is amazing and gave me such a sense of presence the first time I did it and it's just two audio tracks and You know, it's phenomenal. And not only presence, but you get this depth. You can tell when the characters are far away from you, and you kind of can picture what the room looks like, you know? So that kind of accurate audio, I think, is going to be crucial. There's a long way to go. The reflections, I think, are the key thing. Great.

[00:15:02.620] Kent Bye: Well, thanks so much.

[00:15:03.561] Aaron Lemke: Yeah. Thank you.

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