Category Archives: Reviews

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 and 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.

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.

Back to the VOID: A scary good time in VR with Nicodemus, Demon of Evanishment

In June 2019, I had the opportunity to visit The VOID in Glendale, California for their VR attraction Nicodemus: Demon of Evanishment. A very strange name, but a very worthwhile VR experience!

This was not my first time to the VOID. I had experienced their Ghostbusters attraction in NYC as well as Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire in both Orlando and Anaheim. But I had heard good things about Nicodemus, which is a very different experience (more horror than action/adventure). It’s not recommended for young children, because it has some disturbing images and quite a few jump scares.

I was not disappointed. Here is a rundown of the experience, which may contain a few SPOILERS.

Back in time

20190624_053613After checking in at the front desk, you get to choose a character by picking a physical card representing your role in the experience. (As a nice bonus, you get to keep the card as a souvenir of your visit.) After selecting your character and watching an introductory video, you are escorted into a setup area where you and up to three friends are instructed to put on your VR gear (a customized flip-up style Oculus Rift headset with headphones, tethered to a backpack PC). After everyone is suited up, you are led to the start position for your adventure, and asked to lower your headset and have fun!

The overall concept is a trip back in time to the Chicago Word’s Fair in 1893. There was an exhibit known as “Electro-Spiritualism” which allowed visitors to experience various effects related to spirituality and technology. Kind of a paranormal idea, which many people believed in at the time. The attraction at the fair was a moving platform that would take visitors past different scenes, with animatronic figures representing different ideas. (I know this is a very vague description, but I want to avoid spoilers). Here is more “official” info from the VOID’s website:

In the summer of 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition – aka the Chicago World’s Fair – was held on the south side of Chicago. Three days before the fair closed, a tragic demonstration in the Electro-Spiritualism exhibit brought something terrible into our world.

Word spread that an unknown creature was luring guests down to an ‘Evanishment Room’ from which they never returned. The attractions were quickly and quietly closed. Workmen refused to dismantle the exhibits as the fair died around it. Two months later on January 4, 1894, strange lights were seen coming from the abandoned exhibit hall.

You and up to three friends or family will travel back over one hundred twenty years to that night at the decaying Chicago World’s Fair. You will choose one of six personas through which you will discover frights, trials, and adventure around every corner. Your goal is simple: explore the abandoned exhibits and don’t get caught by the demon… Nicodemus.

The best way to describe it is a Victorian era horror experience, with an aesthetic very similar to the video game BioShock (more specifically BioShock 2, which has a similar scene where you move on a ride vehicle through an abandoned museum exhibit).

The exhibit has deteriorated over time, with most of the figures and features looking old and decrepit. Lighting and sound are used to great effect, to facilitate multiple jump scares throughout the experience. There is also a CREATURE. (That’s all I will say on that topic!).

Puzzles and jump scares

There are some puzzle aspects to the experience, in which you have to manipulate objects in order to proceed to the next scene. Nothing too complex, but interactive enough to make it interesting. The experience includes multiple room-scale VR scenes, which may involve standing, sitting, and/or walking short distances. The VR effects make the overall environment seem much larger than the actual physical location. For example, in the first scene your ride vehicle appears to move forward in VR, but you are really standing in one place in the real world. At one point, you appear to descend on an elevator for many hundreds of feet, but in reality you haven’t moved at all.

The climax involves some very cool effects with the CREATURE (no spoilers). Overall, for people who are affected by darkness and/or jump scares, this experience will be scary as hell. I heard many screams from a family in front of me who were going through the attraction before me. Personally, I enjoy horror films that are creepy/spooky but not gory.  This attraction fits perfectly with that description.

Bonus content

Interestingly, there is much more info (including a complete short story!) providing more info on the VOID’s website.

Nicodemus: Demon of Evanishment is a unique and beautifully designed experience that I highly recommend. It’s a much slower-paced attraction compared to other VR experiences at the VOID, and a very enjoyable “funhouse” experience not to be missed!

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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: Vader Immortal on Oculus Quest

When the original launch titles were announced for the new Oculus Quest VR headset, I was eagerly anticipating the arrival of Vader Immortal. As a lifetime Star Wars fan, the idea of entering the Star Wars universe in virtual reality is extremely appealing to me. Having played countless video games in George Lucas’s universe, it’s only natural to want to have a Star Wars experience in VR.

Last year, I was fortunate to have tried Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire at The VOID in Orlando, Florida. That was my first experience of Star Wars in multi-player VR, and I was not disappointed (see my review).

Vader Immortal is a single-player game, which takes plays in the same setting as Secrets of the Empire. Set mainly at Vader’s home base on the planet Mustafar, this is an episodic story (currently Episode One is the only chapter available), in which you play a smuggler who gets captured by the Empire. Brought to Vader initially as a prisoner, you are  eventually revealed as having inherent abilities which are key to the story.

Interactive Story

I will not spoil the plot here, but I will say that this initial episode hits on many of the iconic moments and experiences that fans have always wanted to participate in. Be the captain of a smuggler ship? (Check.) Use a lightsaber? (Check.) Escape from a detention cell? (Check.) Meet Darth Vader up-close? (Check.) There are more moments like this in the hour-long experience, some of them surprising and unexpected. Suffice to say this is a very satisfying experience of “living a Star Wars story” that you could not have in any other medium (books, films, or non-VR games). If you are a Star Wars fan and have not experienced virtual reality, Vader Immortal is the best way to do it.

The new Oculus Quest has been reviewed elsewhere, but I will say that the graphical quality and performance of Vader Immortal are fantastic. I experienced no glitches or technical problems, and the gameplay was easy enough to be enjoyable but not overly challenging. In fact, the main story mode had little if any gameplay elements, but mostly involved interacting with objects in the environment in order to advance the story. This was perfectly fine for me, as I embraced the experience more as an adventure rather than a challenge. (I also want to mention that the voice actor playing Vader gives an amazing impression of James Earl Jones. I really thought it was him, until I watched the credits.)

Lightsaber Dojo

Fortunately for those who are looking for more of a challenge, Vader Immortal also includes a wave-based game mode called “Lightsaber Dojo.” This mini-game involves lightsaber combat with training remotes (the floating drones which Luke Skywalker used on the Millennium Falcon). Highly replayable and offering rewards for completing different challenges, this mode provides more than an hour of additional gameplay. My only complaint would be that there is no combat versus other characters (only robotic opponents). Hopefully this will be included in a future update, or in an entirely new game.

For the price of only $9.99, Vader Immortal offers one of the best VR experiences currently available on the Oculus Quest (if not the best). I’m really looking forward to future episodes of the story!

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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.

 

Oculus Quest Review Round-up

The Oculus Quest standalone VR headset will be available on May 21st. Many reviewers have already given their take on this exciting new device. See below for a collection of the latest reviews:

c|net: Facebook’s new VR headset it the best thing I’ve tried this year

Digital Trends: With the cord-free Quest, Oculus finally makes high-quality VR easy

Engadget: Oculus Quest review: VR freedom comes at a cost

Game Informer: Oculus Quest review: The next step for VR

GameSpot: Oculus Quest review: No PC? No problem

IGN: Oculus Quest review: A new reality

Mashable: Oculus Quest review: A new milestone for VR

PCMAG.COM: Oculus Quest Review and Rating

PIVIRAL: The Best VR Headset of 2019

Pocket-lint: A cable-free VR experience that’s surprisingly satisfying

RoadToVR: Oculus Quest Review: The First Great Standalone VR Headset

TechRadar: Oculus Quest review: An all-in-one virtual reality system for everyone

Tom’s Guide: Oculus Quest Hands-on: The New King of Mobile VR

Trusted Reviews: The Oculus Quest offers an exciting future for VR after shaking free its wired shackles

The Verge: Oculus Quest review: a great system with a frustrating compromise

Wareable: Goodbye wires, hello total freedom

WIRED: Oculus Quest review: VR has never felt this free

 

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.

 

Gymnasia VR Review: Unique and Creepy Stop-Motion Puppetry

Gymnasia, the latest project from Felix & Paul Studios, recently debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. It’s also available for viewing at home on Oculus VR headsets, for the price of $4.99.

Clocking in at around six minutes, this short film is strange but engaging, presented in a gothic style that is creepy but not scary. Fans of Tim Burton will definitely enjoy the experience, but it’s worth seeing by anyone interested in cinematic VR and/or animated films.

Although there is not much of a plot, this VR experience is very atmospheric and effective. Set in an abandoned school gymnasium, creepy music plays while children’s shadows appear on the walls around you. Soon a basketball starts bouncing on its own, followed by many more of them, as their sounds reverberate from the walls. Eventually, you are introduced to a pair of animated dolls dressed in gothic outfits, who engage in a bizarre musical performance.

Gymnasia

As with any stop-motion projects, it’s clear that a lot of time and creative energy was spent on this project. The attention to detail of the miniatures is remarkable, and VR enables a close-up view of the artistry at work. I only wish it was longer, with more of a story. Hopefully there will be more to come in the future.

Here is a behind the scenes look at the making of this project:

More information is available at the Oculus Store:

Step into the stillness of an abandoned school and enter GYMNASIA, a place where the ghostly ephemera of a lost childhood await you. Recall the particular sights and sounds of a child’s world through the echoes of ball games, school lessons and choir recitals. GYMNASIA reanimates the memories of those forgotten days.

This ground-breaking, cinematic VR experience is the first collaboration between the National Film Board of Canada, Felix & Paul Studios and Clyde Henry Productions. Blending 3D 360-degree video, stop-motion, miniatures and CGI, GYMNASIA pushes the art of puppet animation into uncharted territory. The first VR experience to induce the elusive anxiety that occurs when the lines between what’s real and unreal are blurred beyond belief, GYMNASIA is a dark dream–unsettling and weirdly wonderful. Duration: 6 minutes 29 seconds.

 

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.

 

Lucid VR Review: A moving tale of human connection

Lucid is a cinematic virtual reality story, currently available via VeeR on multiple platforms. It’s a short but effective tale about a young woman’s attempt to connect with her mother, who recently suffered a traumatic brain injury.

Told via computer generated imagery (CGI), it’s essentially a 360-degree animated experience told from the point of view of Astra, a young woman whose mother is in a coma from a recent car accident. Astra is working with a medical technician in a near future hospital, where she is engaged with a brain-computer interface, trying to make contact with her mother via an electronic link-up.

There are short scenes in which Astra enters various fictional worlds created by her mother (a children’s book author) and eventually establishes contact in a touching and effective way. The VR experience is mostly passive, allowing the viewer to look around in any direction, but not interact with any characters or objects in the scene. The camera is always placed within arm’s reach of the main characters, as if you are another person in the room observing the story.

Lucid was an official Selection of the 75th Venice International Film Festival. According to director Pete Short:

Lucid was an opportunity to explore the fading imagination of a beautiful mind. This is a topic very close to my heart because of personal experience with dementia. I wanted Lucid to be an appreciation of the happiness, joy, and love of a person’s life rather than a somber farewell. The story is set inside the mind of a children’s book writer, which lends much of the piece an innocence and cheeriness, even though it’s dealing with an extremely difficult topic. I have been waiting a long time to tell this story. VR finally allows me to tell it in a way that does it justice. The audience is granted access to Eleanor’s mind to share the final, intimate moments between a mother and daughter. As the audience find themselves immersed in the magical worlds of children’s books, I hope they will let themselves be swept away by the story.

Despite the limited interactivity, Lucid is an excellent example of VR storytelling. Well worth the price of $1.99, Lucid is representative of the high quality immersive content that continues to be available at VeeR.

VeeR

VeeR is a global VR content platform and community where users can create and share the next generation of media. It’s available on all major VR devices, providing a large library of free and paid content.

 

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 Limit VR Review

The Limit is a new virtual reality film, directed by Robert Rodriguez and starring Michelle Rodriguez and Norman Reedus. A short film in stereoscopic 180-degree format, this is a high-octane action film, putting you in the role of a bionic-enhanced human on a fast-paced quest to find another cyborg. Told in a no-holds-barred series of quick cuts and action snippets, you barely have time to breathe as you move from bar-fight to car-chase to jumping-out-of-an-airplane.

Despite director Rodriguez’s established film credentials (From Dusk Till Dawn, Sin City, and Spy Kids), in VR his technique leaves something to be desired. Although the high production values are evident, the overall experience was too fast and furious to be enjoyable. I have nothing against action films, but this production makes clear that extreme close-ups and quick cutaways are not conducive to a pleasant experience in VR.

Most of the story is told from a first person perspective, with you as the protagonist. However, at multiple points in the film we switch to an objective POV which can be disorienting and intrusive. It would have been much more effective and immersive if the original POV was retained throughout.

the-limit-vr

At best, The Limit is an interesting VR experiment from a high-profile filmmaker. Unfortunately, the cinematography employed is not appropriate to the medium at hand. Let’s hope that other filmmakers can figure out how to utilize top name talent in an effective VR production.

The Limit is available on all major VR platforms including Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Windows VR, PSVR, Gear VR, Oculus Go, and Google Daydream.

 

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.

 

Blast From the Past: Quantico VR

In the spring of 2016, ABC Television released a short 360-degree video, set in the world of its popular crime drama Quantico. Although the show was cancelled in 2018, it’s worth taking a look back at this early VR experiment. Officially called Quantico: The Takedown, this short VR film was one of the first examples of a broadcast network using virtual reality (or 360 video) for a major TV series.

Sponsored by Lexus, the three and a half minute video starts in the backseat of a Lexus LX 570 SUV. Told from the point of view of a new FBI recruit, the viewer is brought along on a mission with FBI trainees Shelby Wyatt (Johanna Braddy) and Caleb Haas (Graham Rogers) as they track down and apprehend an assigned target.

Presented in a single, uninterrupted camera shot, the viewer follows Shelby into a nightclub, where they search for and apprehend their target, then move quickly into a back alleyway. Finally, they end up back in the Lexus SUV.

It’s a short experience, but provided enough immersion to give me a feeling of what it’s like to participate on a mission with these characters. Throughout the film, the characters addressed me directly, and the camera pulled me through the story without limiting my freedom to look wherever I wanted.

Overall, a fine early example of 360 video used for a TV show. This and other early examples have led to current productions such as Nightflyers VR, The Limitand Trinity.

See below to experience Quantico: The Takedown on YouTube VR, along with a behind-the-scenes companion video (in traditional “flat” format).

Quantico VR is available via YouTube on all major VR headsets, including Google Daydream, Samsung Gear VR, Oculus Go, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR.

 

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.

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