Category Archives: Feature Stories

Ars Technica’s Review of Half-Life: Alyx

Although we don’t usually cover games here at XR4Media, it’s impossible to ignore the biggest VR gaming news of the year. Monday March 23rd gave us the release of Half-Life: Alyx, a monumental event for the VR industry, which many VR enthusiasts believe will be the “savior” of virtual reality.

Personally, I have been a huge fan of the Half-Life series and am incredibly excited and impressed with the game so far (I am about a third of the way through it). I plan to provide a full review after I finish it.

Meanwhile, the many reviews published in the past week have been overwhelmingly positive. From what I have experienced of the game, I can say for sure that it has the most impressive level design of any VR game to date, providing the most amazing sense of realism I’ve ever seen in VR.

From all the reviews I’ve read or watched in the past week, the one that best captures the essence of Half-Life: Alyx is written by Sam Machkovech of Ars Technica. If you are at all interested in Half-Life, virtual reality, or the state of VR gaming, you owe it to yourself to read his review:

Ars Technica: Half-Life: Alyx review: The greatest VR adventure game yet—and then some

Look for for my personal review coming soon, which will elaborate on how games like the original Half-Life, Doom, and others planted the seeds for my interest in VR almost 30 years ago. Stay tuned!

 

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Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.

VR Review: The Under Presents

The Under Presents is the most unusual VR experience I’ve had in a long time. It’s partly a game, and partly a social environment where you can interact with other people in VR. The primary setting is “The Under”, a cabaret-style nightclub where various musical and entertainment acts perform on a rotating basis. The host, or “MC,” is a strange creature with a large metallic face and misshapen eyes, who guides you through the world of The Under.

Besides the nightclub itself, there is also a story side of the game, comprised of three Acts and an Epilogue. The story mode is accessible from a corner of the nightclub, via a photobooth-like portal called the “Time Boat”. The story takes place on The Aickman, a passenger ship with multiple characters engaged in a mysterious encounter at sea. You are able to navigate almost anywhere on the ship, following various passengers as you watch the story unfold. You can also manipulate time by rewinding or fast-forwarding to any moment within each act.

TUP MC

Although it defies description, the best way to categorize The Under Presents would be to call it “immersive VR theater.” Similar to other games such as The Invisible Hours or Eleven Eleven, this game (if you can call it that) invites you in as an observer, with little if any ability to affect the story. (At least as far as I can tell.) The intriguing nature of the game is that it gives you no instructions or hand-holding, encouraging you to discover the mechanics of interacting and navigating on your own.

This makes it all the more compelling to come back and discover more. Each time you launch the game, you may discover something new by yourself, or be introduced to something surprising by another player.

Weil

Which brings me to the most interesting aspect of the game. For the first four months after launch, you may encounter live actors performing on the stage, or interacting with you directly in the nightclub setting. Developer Tender Claws has partnered with immersive theater company Piehole to bring live actors into the game. As far as I know, this is the first time this has been done in a VR game, and adds an intriguing and entertaining aspect to The Under which really makes it come alive.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Under Presents, and will keep coming back to uncover more of the mystery of this amazing VR experience.

 

Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.

The VOID to add 25 new VR destinations in US and Europe

Location-based virtual reality startup The VOID and Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield (URW) announced a partnership to launch 25 new VR entertainment centers across the US and Europe. Full roll-out will be completed by 2022.

New pop-ups will open this summer at Westfield shopping centers in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. Additional permanent venues will be established in Paris, London, and Stockholm.

More from today’s announcement:

The VOID, a Utah-based venture with experiential content deals spanning entertainment studios, including Disney and Sony, is recognised as the most immersive of virtual reality experiences and represents the future of entertainment. Titles include Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, the award-winning experience by ILMxLAB and Lucasfilm; Ralph Breaks VR, by ILMxLAB created in collaboration with Walt Disney Animation Studios; Ghostbusters: Dimension, and original content Nicodemus: Demon of Evanishment, with several new experiences still to be released. The partnership will allow The VOID to scale its presence globally, taking advantage of URW’s unique network of flagship destinations. Together with The VOID, URW will offer its visitors a cutting-edge, first-to-market entertainment across its locations, in line with the Group’s strategy to differentiate through exceptional and memorable experiences.

The two companies will kick off their partnership this summer with four temporary pop-ups expected to open in August and September with Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire and Ralph Breaks VR. URW flagship destinations set to debut these pop-ups include Westfield World Trade Center in New York, Westfield San Francisco Centre, Westfield Santa Anita in the Los Angeles metro area and Westfield UTC in San Diego. All of these centres will open permanent The VOID locations in the subsequent months.

Additional permanent locations – to be announced in due time – are slated to include URW centres in cities such as Paris, London, Amsterdam, Chicago, Copenhagen, Oberhausen, San Jose, Stockholm and Vienna.

Last week, The VOID received a $20 million investment from James Murdoch. Location-based virtual reality (LBVR) is proving to be an interesting sector of the VR industry, with companies like DreamscapeZero LatencySPACES and Nomadic joining The VOID in delivering premium multi-player VR experiences for out-of-home customers.

 

Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.

Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge: A “Real” Virtual Reality Experience

The Force was with me! During my recent trip to California for the DelliVR conference, I had the opportunity to visit Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland Park in Anaheim. Although this website is devoted to immersive technology (including virtual reality), I thought it would be interesting to cover an immersive entertainment experience that’s more “real” than “virtual.”

Although Galaxy’s Edge offers minimal use of virtual reality in a traditional sense, it’s main attraction does incorporate some VR elements (more on this below). Much like the rest of Disneyland, and theme parks in general,  the entire environment is a “real” experience in which elaborate sets, props, and “cast members” are all working together to convey the illusion that you have traveled to another time and place: the planet Batuu, on the outskirts of the galaxy.

Disney and Universal are undoubtedly experts at creating immersive experiences in highly themed environments. Galaxy’s Edge is no exception, and at this point in time it serves as the  pinnacle of theme park experiences available anywhere.

No headset required

20190617_082035When Walt Disney created Disneyland in 1955, he invented a brand new category of entertainment. For the first time, visitors could enter worlds of fantasy and adventure, or travel into the past and future, simply by passing through the gates of his new theme park. This was “virtual reality” long before computer simulations were invented. The objective of Disneyland was to immerse visitors in environments that transported them to other times and places. Through the use of elaborate set design, special effects, and costumed cast members, Disneyland managed to create virtual worlds out of brick and mortar.

From 1955 until today, Disney and Universal have evolved the theme park experience to include much more detail, immersion, and interactivity in the various “lands” of their parks. Notable examples of such immersive environments include Cars Land (Disney California Adventure), The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Universal Orlando/Hollywood), and Pandora, the World of Avatar (Disney’s Animal Kingdom). As each of these attractions have launched over the years since 2010, they have truly raised the bar for theme park design by both companies.

20190617_092411Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge is comparable to Universal’s Wizarding World, as far as the high degree of immersion and interactivity provided. However, Galaxy’s Edge has gone the extra mile in creating back stories for its cast members, in order to truly bring life to the world of Batuu. Guests can interact with cast members and learn various greetings, such as “Bright Suns” (good day), or “Rising Moons” (good evening). Cast members are trained to remain in character when interacting with guests, to avoid spoiling the illusion.

Various shops and eateries are present, all themed in the world of Star Wars. There’s even a cantina that serves Blue Milk, one of the other-worldly beverages depicted in the films. Opportunities to build your own lightsaber or astromech droid are also present, for those who wish to spend the credits. Iconic characters like Chewbacca, Rey, Kylo Ren and stormtroopers make appearances throughout the day, interacting with guests in authentic encounters which outperform the typical “meet and greet” experiences found in the rest of Disneyland.

The main attraction

20190617_095857Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run is currently the only “ride” available in Galaxy’s Edge. A second attraction (Rise of the Resistance) will be launched at Disneyland in January 2020.

Smuggler’s Run is probably the most authentic recreation of a movie experience ever presented in a theme park attraction. A great example of immersive storytelling, this attraction fully engages guests via visual, tactile, and auditory features that combine to create the illusion that you are actually piloting the Millennium Falcon. The use of elaborate architecture, vehicle/set design, props, sound effects, and CGI video all contribute to the effectiveness of this experience.IMG_0188

To compare it to a typical VR experience, Smuggler’s Run surpasses anything currently available in VR today. The ride is experienced in a life-size cockpit (exactly as depicted in the Star Wars films) which serves as a motion simulator. This enables the physical sensations of traveling through space, by making quick dives and turns through various planetary and space environments. The experience is also enhanced with interactive elements, where each of the six crew members can participate by pressing various buttons or levers to perform specific tasks.

Lessons in VR design

20190617_080211Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge has raised the bar for location based entertainment. While the LBVR industry is also thriving with venues such as The VOID and Dreamscape, they simply cannot replicate the tactile, visual, and physical elements offered at Galaxy’s Edge. Although Disneyland’s new themed area has a limited number of attractions and activities, it has effectively created a sense of reality unmatched by VR.

Because of its ability to efficiently manage multiple guests at a time, Galaxy’s Edge succeeds as a social, multi-player immersive environment. A microcosm of real-world role playing, it includes many elements that would be right at home in a multi-user VR game. Comparing it to current social VR platforms like VRChat, Disneyland’s new Star Wars land provides many features that could potentially enhance those platforms by introducing more organized activities and structured gameplay.

Final thoughts

Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge is a truly amazing achievement. As a life-long fan of the films (ever since I was a ten-year-old in 1977), I felt like I was exploring the biggest Star Wars playset ever created. Disney has created an immersive environment that captures the feeling of being present in those films, using physical and tactile elements that simply cannot be reproduced in VR.

The unfortunate “reality” is that such environments are few and far between, and can only be produced with exorbitant amounts of money. The good news is that VR has the potential to enable the creation of comparable experiences without spending billions of dollars. Let’s hope for the continued passion and hard work of talented artists, designers, and technologists collaborating to create the virtual worlds of our dreams.

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Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.

VR Review: Dreamscape at Westfield Century City, Los Angeles

During my recent trip to Los Angeles for the DelliVR conference, I had the opportunity to visit Dreamscape at the Westfield Century City shopping mall. Much like the VOID, Dreamscape is a location-based virtual reality attraction that offers three different immersive experiences, for the price of $20 each. I was able to attend two of the three adventures currently available.

Please note, the review below contains minor SPOILERS.

Alien Zoo

20190621_120603The lobby of Dreamscape is welcoming and pleasant, with lots of props and photos available to set the mood for what you are about to experience. I had purchased my ticket previously, so registration at the front desk took just a few minutes, and I was able to choose my avatar model for each adventure. After registration, I waited in the main lobby until my departure time, where I had some time to peruse the artwork and props on display.

When my “boarding time” arrived, I was escorted with five other “travellers” to a boarding area where we were each assigned a seat and instructed to put on our gear. The equipment consisted of an Oculus Rift headset, a backpack PC, and wireless trackers for our hands and feet. This is notably different from the VOID, which only requires a headset and backpack.

The attendant made sure we were suited up properly, then brought us into the next room for our VR adventure. We were asked to line up on one side of the room, each of us on a set of footprints marked on the floor. With our headsets on, we were soon able to see our virtual selves in VR. The tracking worked perfectly, even when we were asked to shake hands with the person next to us.

20190621_120631Finally, the adventure began. In virtual reality, we appeared to be standing on a platform surrounded by a railing (which we could hold onto if needed). Guided by a narrator who described what we would see and provided instructions via our earphones, we were shortly transported to another planet.

Our platform floated forward across the landscape, past various flora and fauna of an alien world. There were huge dinosaur-like creatures which provided a true sense of wonder similar to a scene from Jurassic Park. Colorful plant life and smaller animals were also there, and there were a few opportunities to interact with the creatures and objects in specific scenes.

The final scene is a bit more action oriented, as a larger creature appears to attack the vehicle. Being a family-friendly attraction, it’s more exciting than scary. The relatively short (around 12 minutes) adventure was a truly magical experience. I highly recommend it for anyone who has never experienced VR before, as well as for VR enthusiasts.

Curse of the Lost Pearl: A Magic Projector Adventure

20190621_120246The second attraction I experienced was more of an Indiana Jones-style adventure, set in the past. The concept is that an inventor has created a “magic projector” that enables viewers to go inside a motion picture. The effect to create this illusion is truly remarkable in VR, and I won’t spoil it here.

The initial setup was the same as with Alien Zoo. However, once the experience begins the group has more freedom to navigate the virtual environment and participate in the story. At one point, the group was split in half, and it appeared as if we were separated by a great distance across a chasm.

More interactivity is provided in this experience (compared to Alien Zoo), and a fast paced vehicle ride at the end provides an exciting climax.

Again, highly recommended!

Comparison to The VOID

I have previously reported about my visits to The VOID (Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire and Nicodemus: Demon of Evanishment). Both of these are extremely high quality VR attractions, similar to those at Dreamscape. However, there are notable differences in the venue, setup, and overall experience provided by each.

Dreamscape has devoted much more attention to the lobby and outdoor area of their venue. The lobby itself includes many props and artifacts from each of the adventures available, getting you into the mood before beginning your adventure. The VOID has a much smaller lobby, with little to look at other than a few souvenirs available for purchase.

Dreamscape also provides more instruction and attention for users, while suiting up in the VR equipment. This makes sense, since there are more external trackers required to be worn. The VOID does not require trackers for your hands or feet.

Finally, Dreamscape’s attractions seem to offer more freedom of movement, in the sense that participants are able to walk freely on the virtual platforms, while the adventure unfolds around you in VR. At the VOID, your actions are more “directed” with less freedom of choice. Both of these approaches work very well, and neither is necessarily “better” than the other.

Ultimately, both Dreamscape and The VOID are able to offer cutting-edge location based VR experiences of the highest quality. This level of room-scale VR simply cannot be experienced at home. I hope to see many more VR attractions in the months and years ahead from both of these establishments.

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Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.