Sunday, November 8, 2015

Things are Getting Virtual

This post isn't necessarily about anything related to Trick-Bow, but the last couple of weeks have been so cool that I thought it would be a worthwhile topic anyway. Try not to be too jealous, but I was lucky enough to experience two of the most exciting virtual/augmented/mixed reality experiences that are set to come out soon - Microsoft's HoloLens, and The VOID. Both of these are different from classic virtual reality, in that they use the real world around you and simply incorporate virtual elements into it, but they even do that in very distinct ways. One thing they have in common - I think they both have what it takes to be incredibly successful in VR, a technology that feels like it's primed to explode in the next couple of years. So read on!

HoloLens

For anybody not in the know, the HoloLens is Microsoft's take on this new virtual world. Unlike what we normally think of with virtual reality, the HoloLens doesn't completely immerse you in a virtual world. Instead, when you put on the HoloLens, virtual elements are added to the actual world around you. For instance, you could wear this thing while sitting on the couch at home, and throw a Skype conversation up on your living room wall, and continue with your daily routine. Some people have classified these elements as holograms, and others have called it augmented reality. Microsoft is using the phrase "mixed reality" for their new gadget. If you're having a hard time following, don't worry - I've brought along a YouTube video just for you!

So, how was I lucky enough to play with one of these? Well, last week I responded to an email inviting me to the "Microsoft HoloLens Roadshow‏" which was making a stop in Salt Lake City. They claimed that I got the invite because I'm one of the more active Microsoft developers in the area (woo hoo!). Since I'm clearly into game development, and exciting new technologies in general, I hurried and signed up as soon as I could, as the spaces were limited and allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis. Then I had to sit and be giddy for the next week, while bragging to my friends that I was gonna play with a new toy that they didn't get to play with.

After sufficiently rubbing my good fortune into everyone's face, the day came that I got to go to the demo. Just a few blocks away from my work, I found the building where the demo would take place. It wasn't even a marked building. In fact, the only way I knew that it was the right place was that there was a little temporary sign outside directing me to the side door for the "Microsoft Event." Inside, I signed in, then sat in the waiting area with another guy, where we were later briefed on how to use the equipment while eating some fruit from the breakfast buffet.

A couple of helpers then came out to take us into our new make-shift living rooms. Once in there, my helper showed me how to put on the HoloLens, and started up a program. I started by looking at a specific wall that had the game's title screen on it, and when I started I needed to scan the room. To do so, I spun clockwise in a circle, moving my head up and down to get all the walls, furniture, etc. After I got back to the starting spot, it was time for the game to begin. To my surprise, this is what I got to play:

Now, there were a couple of differences between this video demo and the version that I played. For one thing, I didn't get the nifty arm-blaster-gun-thingy. Instead, I had to use the click gesture to fire my weapon, which consisted of holding my hand in a fist in front of my face with one finger in the air, then moving it down like I was clicking a mouse button. Other than that, it was basically the same, and it was awesome. I spent the next 5-10 minutes protecting that room from a robot invasion, and having a great time doing it. One thing I noticed was the great spacial sound, meaning that if a robot was busting through the wall behind me, it actually sounded like it was coming from behind me, prompting me to quickly spin around and look for the robot's new entry point.

The actual game objects themselves looked amazing, but one thing to note is that the whole visor didn't show the "holograms." Instead, there was a rectangular area that covered most of my standard field of view. Now, this wasn't a huge deal, because it really only hid the objects from the peripheral, and I honestly didn't even notice it once the game began. Still, it was something worth noting. Overall, though, the HoloLens demo was really cool, and I'm hoping that I can eventually justify getting one so I can develop some fun mixed reality games in the future. I say I'd need to justify it because the development kits are dang expensive, priced at $3000. Could you imagine No Girls Allowed when you actually need to defend a real tree fort from virtual girls, though? I sure can.

The VOID

Oh. My. Goodness. I hope that I don't hype this place up too much, but this was easily the coolest thing I've done in my entire life. As far as I'm concerned, my wedding day and the birth of my 3 kids should feel honored to round out my top five. That's how cool The VOID is. My wife described it like so: "It was like being in a dream, and when they stopped us to end the program it was like a rude awakening." I know what you're thinking - "Stop exaggerating," right? K, shut up and check this out.

If you're skeptical after watching that video, I understand, but I'm telling you that you can stop right now. It's only in beta testing, and while my experience wasn't exactly like what the video demonstrates, it was still plenty to sell me on the product. The VOID is obviously also different from standard virtual reality, in that there isn't a controller. Instead, your body is the controller, and you actually get to walk around and feel the virtual world, which is a digital skin placed on top of the physical world. That's right - you feel real walls, interact with physical obstacles, and pull an actual trigger on an actual fake gun that you carry around. Of course, this means that the entire area in which the game takes place needs to be mapped out by the software, which leads us to the big downside of The VOID - because of the nature of the product, you can't buy the hardware to take home, and need to go to the facility in Lindon, Utah to experience it.

The wife and I went there on Monday and Friday of last week, and had the privilege to beta test the Research Facility and Dimension One. These are just the first centers, or VOID Game Pods, that they've decided to open for testing. In the real world, they both took place in the exact same room, with the exact same wall layout, etc. However, if you didn't know that from the get-go, you would have no idea that this was the case. The experience is so immersive, and so real, and so different between the two, that you honestly wouldn't know that you were actually walking the same exact route with both areas.

Research Facility was the first game pod we went through. Before it started, the attendants took us back to an area that would normally be used as a warehouse in an industrial park, then led us up to a platform that had a bunch of short walls that we could see over. It looked like they were organized in a maze. They then had us stand on a number while they suited us up. The equipment consisted of a helmet, a backpack, and a gun. Apparently, they're working on a full body suit for motion tracking, but for now, it was just the helmet and backpack. Once we had the helmet on, obviously all we saw was black until they launched the program. Once it was launched, it looked like we were in a cube with white walls and green outlines on the corners. I don't know if it was for calibration or training, but we were asked to shoot some targets that appeared on the walls. To be honest, at this point, I was thinking, "If this is all that the beta test is going to be, I'm not going to be happy." Then some magic happened. A little passage way opened up, and we were asked to step through the doorway into the actual level. I looked over at my wife, who was skinned as a space marine, and we stepped into the corridor. The rest of the experience was incredible. It took place in what seemed like a futuristic, abandoned space station on a far-away planet. We had to take out some big space spiders, flying robots, and then a freaky alien. At one point, we stepped outside of the space station, onto a narrow walkway. Right when we stepped out, we could hear wind gusting across us, and then a big draft hit us in the face. When we looked down, we found that there was a huge cliff off the edge of the walkway, and I honestly got a little vertigo. I can't stress enough how real it all feels when you're actually in the pod. It is like being the main character in a video game. We went around a couple more corners, and saw a huge window and a door that looked like it would lead to a huge area in the level, but just then the attendant grabbed my wife's shoulder and asked how it was. She yelled "No, It's not over yet!" Unfortunately, it was. But that's okay, because we knew we were coming back in a few days for Dimension One!

When we came back on Friday, we were seasoned professionals of The VOID. We went to the back, got on the exact same spots on the floor, put on the exact same equipment (minus the gun), and when they started the program, we were in a completely different world. This pod took us to some underground caves and tomb - think Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones. The first thing we noticed was a torch on the wall. My wife reached out, and to her excitement, she was able to physically grab it and take it off the wall, and it worked! It's good that it worked, because it was really dark down there, and it lit up our little journey. After wandering for a bit, we came to a room that had an old wooden bridge over what looked like an underground river. The bridge looked really old and rickety, like it would probably collapse if I stood on it. But, being the brave explorer that I am, I took a deep breath and stepped onto the bridge. Of course, when I did, I realized that it was just more solid ground under my feet. The bridge was short, and there was a drop off just on the opposite side, showing that it wasn't actually going to lead us anywhere. However, about half way across the bridge, I came to a little podium that had a little hand print engraved on it. Hey, it's kind of a puzzle! I placed my hand on the podium, and the room started shaking beneath our feet. All of the sudden, the bridge started to rise in up into the air. Well, at least they made it feel like we were going up really high. In reality, once the floor started shaking, the podium that I put my hand on just went down into the ground, and the virtual world around us gave the illusion that we were rising. It felt so real that we both backed up against the wall, as far from the edge as possible, even though our logical minds knew that we were perfectly safe. This type of interaction illustrates how they can make their levels much bigger than the 60x60 foot space that they are actually in. We emerged from the underground, made our way through a few more hallways, and were back to the beginning again. At least this time we were a little more emotionally prepared when they grabbed us and told us it was over.

I don't know if I've been strong enough on my stance yet, so I'll say it again - The VOID was amazing. They priced the beta at $10 per person, and though the beta period is now over, they said they'll be opening more slots soon. They also told us that the next pod up for beta testing is a player vs. player level that resembles Unreal Tournament, which, to me, sounds even more amazing than the others. They hope to have 8 different game pods available to play in by next summer. If you want to be a part of the testing, head over to their site and sign up for their email alerts or like their Facebook page to stay up to date.

VR is Getting Real!

We've been waiting for it for a long time, and the world of virtual reality looks like it's finally coming. With products like HoloLens, The VOID, Oculus Rift, and the myriad of mobile phone VR accessories available, momentum is only growing, and offerings are only getting better. I got a glimpse of a couple of these offerings this week, and they were both amazing in their own ways. I was already pretty excited about the future, but now I can't wait to see what's in store for us.