Boldly going where other gamers have gone before
If you want to see a particularly intriguing vision of the future of gaming be sure to get over to the Science Gallery at Trinity College today or tomorrow to explore Project Holodeck’s virtual reality game Wild Skies.
You’ll have to put on a crazy assemblage of makeshift hardware, attached in a Rube Goldberg fashion to a black plastic bike helmet – there’s a bit of PVC piping, a pair of ski goggles, some headphones, tape and elastic bands.
And more interestingly, there’s the latest functioning version of the Oculus virtual reality goggles that were famously funded through Kickstarter.comto the tune of a couple of million dollars earlier this year; a Razor Hydra game controller flashing neon green. Towering above it like a glowing neon candlestick is a vertically–mounted Sony PlayStation Move wand, a game controller normally held in the hand.
Another one of the wands is carried in a backpack that contains all the computer bits that enabled me, once I had the helmet strapped on and the goggles in place, to stand on a lunar surface under a starry sky. The sun blazed off in the distance. Incongruously, a table sat in front of me, with an item resting on it.
I picked it up, pressed the trigger on one of the two game controllers I held in each hand, and a glowing light saber “blade” shot out of it, complete with the iconic sound we all know from the Star Wars films.
I swung it to the left and to the right. It was a moment I’d waited for since the summer of 1977, when, from a third row seat in a cinema in California, I’d fallen under the spell of Luke Skywalker and Co.
Seconds later my virtual adventure got a lot more exciting – the lunar surface disappeared and suddenly I was on a flying ship, exploring the deck surface and looking out on a series of sky-floating islands as clouds drifted past. The deck lurched to the right and left. I tried firing a cannon off the side of the ship. I lasted about five minutes before the pitching surface and lack of a virtual sick bag made me pop the goggles back off my head.
The graphics may be a bit primitive still, but visiting Wild Skies, the first virtual reality game developed for Project Holodeck – a collaboration between students and researchers at the University of Southern California Games programme and a number of Los Angeles–area art and design colleges and companies – was very, very cool.
James Iliff, a USC undergraduate, and producer at Project Holodeck, says Project Holodeck came about because the various participants had common software and hardware interests.
“We all really wanted to make something as close to a holodeck (the totally immersive virtual world used for recreation by crew members on the starship in Star Trek) as possible, using today’s technology, at a consumer price point.”
Playing a computer game on a screen “is like a window into a virtual world, but this is like a presence”, he says. “There’s a sense of avatar embodiment – you feel like you’re inhabiting the body of the avatar (the character you play in a game).”
Given that the player wearing the headset is only moving in a space that is about 15sq feet in area, you nonetheless get a sense of vast space if you are moving through a changing landscape, as with the flying “steam punk” ship.
All of that is made possible by the helmet with its headmount display, combined with position tracking, orientation tracking as well as full-body tracking, Iliff says. It’s all technology that “languished for a long time in military research”, says Nathan Burba, Project Holodeck’s director.
Both are very interested in feedback from anyone who wants to try the headset at the Science Gallery today and tomorrow. This type of total immersion into a gaming world is a completely new medium. They say their team is only just beginning to think of all the possibilities for the technology, such as artistic, training and educational uses.
One word of caution: you will look like an idiot in the headset, especially as you tentatively shuffle your way around the floor, blind to the outside world. “You’re always going to look like a dork when you’re playing in virtual reality,” admits Ilff with a chuckle. “But eventually, everyone will get over it.”
* Project Holodeck runs through Friday at the Science Gallery at TCD. More information: www.projectholodeck.com