Playtesting the world’s largest VR holodeck

Words by Samuel Tate, photos by Cade Dhiem

I’m sitting in the foyer of a warehouse in Fitzroy, staring at a machine gun’s schematics, its blue light pulsing from a digital display. I’m about to get dropped into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where I need to fight through hordes of zombies to recover a ship that has been hijacked by anti-vaxxer terrorists.

They strap a back-pack on me, hand me a serious looking gun, and then lower an Oculus Rift onto my face. As it covers my eyes the cement room becomes small metal chamber out of a sci-fi war movie (so a Tom Cruise movie). I look down and see I’ve got a soldier’s body, holding a gun that moves wherever I move mine. I look to my left, and what was a giant empty space the size of a basketball arena has become a shooting range.

I probably should have listened a bit harder when he explained how the gun worked.

I probably should have listened a bit harder when he explained how the gun worked.

This isn’t a nightmarish dream I had after a eating too much cheese, this is Zero Latency. It’s a 400sqm virtual reality playspace, known by Star Trek fans world over as a holodeck. Players are decked out with an Oculus Rift, an AlienWare alpha (a super-compact computer) and a serious looking gun. Players are then tracked by over 126 Playstation Eyes which map your physical position and put it in the game. This is free roam, multiplayer, wireless virtual reality, and it’s in Melbourne.

I’ve actually visited Zero Latency before, when it was a crazy idea in a small studio. It was pretty cool, but it was about 5 sqm, and the guys had to stand around me to make sure I didn’t run into walls. They demoed it at Pause Fest last year, with a line out the door, but the experience was essentially static, and limited. They’ve since successfully run a Pozible campaign for $25,000, to put 400 melbournites through their virtual paces. Recently they received a million dollars in venture capital, allowing them to build out their vision of the arcade of the future.

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MFW I’m in a dystopian sci-fi hellscape

Back to (virtual) reality

So I leave the firing range, and proceed with caution, the photographer has put down his camera and picked up a gun to partner with me. As we edge past burning cars and barrels, the first wave of enemies emerge, with zombies shambling and crawling towards me. I pick them off easily at first, but they just keep coming. Finally the throng dies down and I go to finish off a crawler execution style. I pull the trigger and the instructor’s half ignored advice comes back to me, “re-load early, re-load often”.

Before the zombie does any damage, my partner takes it out, saving my virtual life. The physical act of reloading, sharing the space with other players, and the ability to walk around and experience a digital space in such a way, creates an incredible sense of immersion that overcomes the limitations of what is essentially first generation technology.

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Now I imagined we’d be in a play space mapped to the square room, but what was really interesting was the way they created complex maps using something called a “tumble-turn”. You reach a waypoint, as with any game, and then the map turns around, and directs you to turn as well. This means that in the physical space while you are walking back and forth, in the game you can proceed in a linear fashion, or weave through hallways.

We cleared the level in 40 minutes, passing through courtyards, construction zones, office buildings and ruins, to get to the dropship and get the fuck out. But what really struck me was a point where we came through a shattered office wall out on to to a ledge. We’d taken a lift or two and I looked over the edge and realised we were maybe ten stories up. I had a dizzying wave of vertigo, and gulped as I realised I needed to walk across a tiny bridge of debris.

Now zombies and terrorists don’t scare me, but heights do. Despite everything my brain was telling me, my instincts said I was in distinct danger; the wind whistling past my face, my gut dropping as I peered over the side. I wanted to laugh it off and run (I was surrounded by cool guys) but my legs would only let me inch forward. I later found out they actually turn on a fan at that point to add to the experience.

Headsets off

Afterwards I catch up with Tim, the CEO of Zero Latency, to talk about what drove them to build the experience, and where they see it headed. He tells me they are now in their first generation of commercial play spaces, and are working with partners to bring the technology to similar spaces around the world. Tim wants to see people in large play spaces like this all around the world.

Some of the brains behind the world’s first Holodeck

Some of the brains behind the world’s first Holodeck

They started out creating scary experiences, but after feedback from their Pozible campaign they are now shifting to a focus on more fun, cooperative levels, where people have to work as a team, recreating the arcade style outing, but with a futuristic twist. Tim describes his perfect  gaming experience as a large scale Battlefield or Call of Duty style multiplayer map, with people in the shared spaces like the current one, but networked together, and situated all around the world.

My heart is still racing as I say my goodbyes. Switching from what my brain started to accept was a crisis situation, to an interview setting on some nice couches, creates a cognitive dissonance like no other. Tim says that “even the biggest skeptics, who after 5-10 minutes of adjustment feel they get a handle on the situation, will suddenly get a fright, and duck or run”, he chuckles, “no matter how everyone goes in, they come out bewildered.”

The only thing I’d add is exhilarated.. and a bit puffed out.

Trying to figure out exactly what’s real.

Trying to figure out exactly what’s real.

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