Inside Academy Xi’s building, a converted warehouse in Sydney’s Surry Hills, a swarm of entrepreneurs, designers, developers, and gamers have come together to talk virtual and augmented reality.
It’s some time before the panel kicks off, and a freezing evening by Sydney’s standards, but the masses huddled around the complimentary chips and beer have already brought the temperature up to that familiar mugginess that one associates with tech events.
I instantly gravitate towards Ursula, the commanding figure and VR Consultant at ACME Virtual, who busily sets up a VR demonstration in a small room on the second floor. Revelers continue to enter and crowd the space, many of them prodding devices, while others evaluate the spectacle with all the scrutiny of wine connoisseurs. Peering over her thick-rimmed glasses, Ursula explains that the demonstration cannot proceed with so many bodies in the room. The sheer volume of people has begun to interfere with the camera’s optical sensors, she explains. And with that, the hoard sheepishly walks out, jostling at the doorway. “But two of you can stay,” she says, looking at me.
I put on the HTC Vive and acclimatise to my new ‘reality,’ feeling almost totally immersed, if not mildly nauseated, in the sky-blue cube I now inhabit. The game, titled Fantastic Contraption, is the new VR incarnation of a once-popular building game, redesigned from the ground up for room-scale VR. The premise of the game is that you build increasingly complex contraptions with objects that appear in the cube, progressing over 40 levels.
It’s fun, like assembling IKEA furniture in space, with a hangover, could be fun in an alternate universe. At one point, a magnificent robotic cat appears and I instantly lunge to cuddle it with outstretched controllers. It becomes apparent that my objective is to pick up nearby pins and stick them into the cat, as if it is a living(ish) pincushion, so I reluctantly oblige. Perhaps it’s my inner pacifist, or more likely, my obvious lack of dexterity in the cube, but it’s clear even to the increasingly impatient crowd in the doorway that gaming isn’t exactly my bag.
Ursula isn’t a gamer either, but loves InCell VR, an explorational game about the human cell microworld. “You go inside a human cell and combat viruses and collect proteins by moving your head on what feels like a rollercoaster ride.” Another game she recommends to non-gamers is AudioShield, a new VR music game that syncs to your music, and you essentially dance-fight against the beat: “Your hands become shields to combat orbs flying at you. It’s a full-body experience; I end up on the floor almost every time.”
I caught up with panelist and wellness innovator Eddie Cranswick a few days later to talk immersive relaxation, which sounds more my speed. Eddie is a co-founder of Now VR and co-creator of Relax VR, the top-rated VR relaxation app worldwide:
“Relaxation VR enables anyone, anywhere to discover, relax and meditate in the world’s most beautiful locations. Users are immersed in idyllic location, prompting the brain to feel at ease and allow true relaxation to occur. We’re innovating how people use VR technology beyond gaming. We hope to truly make a difference in peoples increasingly stressful lives by giving them an immersive escape.”
If Pokemon Go’s ‘game-changing’ success has taught us anything, it’s that an increasingly mainstream audience is willing to embrace virtual and augmented reality as long the technology taps into their existing interests and adds genuine value to the experience. The message is more important than the medium, but the medium must enhance experience in a way that was previously unimagined.
According to Eddie, Tourism Australia’s latest immersive campaign was a great success for the VR industry, proving a successful case study for best in class content, and most importantly, return on investment. The slick, immersive campaign was launched to a receptive New York audience on Australia Day eve, 2016, and has since garnered more than 10 million views of both the ad and 360 mobile-immersive, as well as a 64% increase in engagement on Australia.com. The promise of a so-real-you-could-touch-him Chris Hemsworth probably didn’t hinder the ad’s success, either.
If you too, are a fellow novice who is quietly curious about trying out VR/AR why don’t you start out by playing with the following devices and apps:
- The HTC Vive ($899): Arguably the most sophisticated device for consumers at the moment, the HTC Vive comes with two wireless controllers and two base stations enabling 360° room-scale motion-tracking. If the tale of cat pinning and and DIY sounds right up your street, you’ll be pleased to find that Fantastic Contraption is also included, free.
- The Ricoh Theta S ($599.95): A cute little 360-degree camera that creates spherical photos and images.
- Samsung Gear VR ($158.99) An incredible mobile VR experience at the more affordable end of the market.
- Leap Motion ($133.12): Interact with AR/VR using your hands as you would IRL.
- Previewing the HTC Vive in a big, sweaty crowd
- Relaxation apps and non-gaming entertainment
- The games non-gamers will love
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