We get pretty excited about virtual reality at Gadgette. Remember when we had our own dedicated event in collaboration with Virtual Umbrella? This week I got the opportunity to visit another event Virtual Umbrella have collaborated on – VRUK Fest at Ravensbourne in London. Bringing together a host of exhibitors and speakers, VRUK Fest was an exploration of the technological and creative potential of virtual reality in events, theatre, film, gaming and more. And there’s definitely lots of potential.
I made a beeline for immersion zone, where all the hands-on demos take place. Spread across two floors, there was plenty to see. The sheer amount on things on display wasn’t the most impressive thing, though, it was the variety of the experiences the offered that really brought home to me just how man different ways virtual reality is being used. I’m guilty of thinking mostly about the gaming side of VR, but it’s really so much more than that.
That said, I headed straight for the gaming experiences first. Incorrigible.
The first games I tried out were called Escape Velocity and Neverout. They’re from Polish developer SETAPP and used the Samsung Gear headset. Escape Velocity puts you in the body of an astronaut whose space mission goes wrong. Ejecting yourself from your ship into open space, you have to navigate yourself around space debris and fix what’s gone wrong. Think of Gravity with Sandra Bullock and you’ll get the idea. I definitely didn’t look like, or possess half the grace of, Sandra Bullock as I desperately swivelled in a chair in my attempts to propel myself through space.
The game doesn’t use a handheld controller so it’s not the easiest thing to navigate; I got stuck behind a canister and had to lie back in my chair in an attempt to float over it. I don’t even want to imagine what that looked like. It’s amazing how quickly you lose a sense of what you’re doing in the real world when you put on a VR headset.
The next game was called Neverout, a first person environmental puzzle that promised to “lock you down and never let you out.” It wasn’t lying. I didn’t get out. I might still not be out, who knows. Neverout drops players into a box room and on one of the walls or the ceiling there’s an escape hatch you have to get to.
To get to it, you have to walk towards a wall in order to spin the room and turn that wall into the new floor. It’s like solving a rubix cube from the inside. Simply repeat this until the escape hatch is under your feet and you can fall through it. Although you just fall through it into another room which is more difficult to escape from. It keeps going until you get through all of the levels, or you grow weary of playing. I kept going until motion sickness hit me. After a few levels of repeated spinning with no crosshair to focus on, I found myself become nauseated quite quickly. It’s a shame because though the game is enjoyable and I love environmental puzzles, it could really do with an addition that will hold the eyes steady.
Moving to Rewind VR, I got hands-on with a game of their own creation – a game about cleaning windows called Pane in the Glass (how great is that?) The game kind of reminded me of a more advanced version of a short game for Eye Toy on Playstation 2 with the same objective (and a great musical accompaniment). Rather than Eye Toy, this game uses the HTC Vive headset and motion controllers to lift you up the side of a skyscraper where you have to contend with irritating seagulls on top of cleaning windows. Just don’t look down.
It’s amazing that despite not being photorealistic, this game can still play on a fear of heights. On top of that, playing it is bloody exhausting. VR is going to result in some very fit gamers, I’m sure of it.
Moving away from some of the more active exhibits, I decided to explore some of the more passive, visually focused experiences. 360 Events are a company that specialise in 360 degree video experiences, filming real life events which can then be watched back from every angle. They were actually rendering their own footage from VRUK as I approached. After asking if I was afraid of heights, to which I tentatively replied no, they placed a Samsung Gear headset on my head and told me to turn around. I was at the edge of a building. And then I jumped. It wasn’t virtual either – this was footage from an actual bungee jump from a skyscraper. Something I now never have to actually do. I’ve seen it. It’s done and it shall not be repeated.
360 degree video appears to be one of the most the most immediately accessible means of using VR headsets as it doesn’t carry the same risk of motion sickness and it’s something that can be used to great effect for businesses; travel agents could allow consumers to explore their holiday destination before they buy, bands can film their shows to show the full atmosphere in a crowd, it even presents a whole new way for people to film their own weddings. It has the capacity to go commercial extremely quickly.
Like the 360 degree videos, there were other more passive uses of VR which had exciting possibilities, particularly in theatre.
Enter.wonderland by Play Nicely sends you tumbling down the rabbit hole using the Oculus Rift into a world of almost overwhelming colour, sound, and whimsy. There’s even a giant Cheshire Cat head to marvel at. The experience has been developed in collaboration with the National Theatre to accompany an exhibition for their musical production, wonder.land in which the lines between our offline and online worlds are blurred. By its very nature, Theatre shuts us off from the outside world in order to have us watch a story unfold in real-time and VR headsets would be an extremely interesting accompaniment to that.
You can find out more about the installation here.
Finally, an experience which was an interesting mix of both active and passive was Sentient Flux, an art/coding project by Nicola Plant and Alexander Adderly. Sentient Flux uses Oculus Rift to immerse users in a world of particles that interact with their body when it moves. You can see it below:
The experience was interesting in that it almost felt like I was being forced into a meditative state. With earphones on blocking out the sound of the room and the only thing in front of me being the effects of my own movements, I was suddenly highly aware of my own body. It was all incredibly calming. As simple as it was, this was one of my absolute favourite uses of VR and the calming mental effect lasted with me for the rest of the day. I needed it going home via the busy tube.
If there was one thing to take away from VRUK Fest, it was that VR is not limited in its uses; this is so much more than gaming and although it’ll no doubt go mainstream commercial before it goes mainstream consumer, we’ve got a lot to look forward to.