Possibly the Best Thing I've ever Seen
Ok.. maybe not quite, but it's probably in my top 10 (watch the video above before reading). I've been very lucky to have seen and done some amazing things in my time. I watched and participated in the birth of both my daughters. I've skied a World Cup run in Switzerland at close to 100kmh. Snorkeled on the Great Barrier Reef, The Red Sea and been Scuba Diving on ancient wreck sites and caves in the Greek Islands.
I've swum in pitch dark through the Cenotes of the Mayan Peninsula in Mexico, climbed the steps of Nohoch Mul; the Pyramid at the ancient city of Coba, walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, photographed far off Galaxies ! and let's just say that once upon a time, I might have met what you'd call an Alien, albeit in a very Out of Body Experience. I've even watched Cuttlefish mating in the Caribbean Sea. Now there's something you don't see every day. Nothing was to prepare me for the experience I just had. Star Wars Hyper Reality is possibly one of the most exciting things I've ever done. I was actually the Rebel Alliance Dad, as it says in my profile... in Star Wars, (just for a few minutes.)
Let's head back to 1977
I was six years old. It was Christmas and we were snowed in at my Uncles in the Peak District. My Aircraft Engineer Uncle took my brother and I along with my three cousins, (his sons) to see Star Wars. Six very excited boys. I was the youngest. My younger Brother was still a babe in arms. The Star Wars hype was so frenetic at the time that we didn't get in the first time and had to wait for the next showing. The cinema was screening back to back and when we did get in, we got the last 6 seats in a row. It was totally full and the atmosphere was palpable. I remember it like it was yesterday. The story was of course, very well told and the special effects were in a totally different class from anything I'd seen before. A classic tale of adventure about a brave novice knight on a journey to save the world, but the thing that blew me away was the depiction of a Galaxy, far far away & / = ~ a very long time ago replete with a host of enigmatic aliens, Imperial Storm Troopers, amazing spaceships traveling at warp speed and of course, laser pulse weapons.
Suffice to say, I was, like many of my contemporaries, both blown away by it's ambition of describing such a large world (outside of our own) and the new paradigm it thrust us into mentally. I retained that science fiction bug for evermore and even when Star Wars became a franchised Disney money spinner, I still want to see the films. (I have seen all the Star Wars films) and even the not so great ones are well worth watching, including the contemporary series, which I quite like.
I also loved video games as a kid, latterly called computer games, or more likely console games. In the 1980's and often situated on one of those oddly desolate industrial shopping parks, there was also Laser Quest, where you ran around a mirrored maze with a backpack on shooting your friends with a lazer gun. It was often a birthday treat for a lucky kid and six or seven of their favourite gang of space mad kids. The backpack would rumble when you got shot and just like paintball, one team would seek to take the base of another. Slightly disconcerting, a bit confusing, but kind of fun, in a go mad in the dark but a bit underwhelming to be honest, way.
It's Been in the post for a while
Once upon a time at a Theme Park you could visit Cine2000 where a huge globular projection immersed you into a world of rollercoasters and panoramic vistas. I once saw a woman fall over, such was the compelling illusion. Then IMAX brought 3D to the big screen and along with sophisticated mechanics, virtual space journeys of a vaguely written science fiction theme. It officially now is the future. The original Bladerunner was set in 2019 and Oculus have changed the game.
My first experience of true VR was in NYC 1998. It was pretty basic. I had a gun, which was quite amazing. when I moved my arm, a huge low poly pistol reared up in front of me. the space was black and there was a part chequerboard floor. It was really slow. I also had a go in a flight sim with a headset. Being able to see around was pretty amazing as we took off. That was quite impressive with a real sense of speed and acceleration. Then fast forward to 2014. At the Frankfurt Bookshow, I had a go with an Oculus Gear headset, using a Samsung Note. It was pretty impressive but the screen was pixelated and although the content was indeed totally 360, you just travelled through CG landscapes, as if on a magic carpet.
Virtual Reality Just took a step closer to Irresistibly addictive.
Imagine if you took the best of a first person computer game, took the Star Wars Theme, with graphics by ILMXLAB and joined a VR mission dressed as a stormtrooper, with a laser pulse weapon and set the whole experience in a Laser Quest environment, then were promptly whisked aboard a light speed ship half way through a mission to collect vital intelligence for the Rebel Alliance. It's so very clever I wanted it to continue on and one and like many magic moments, as the end drew near, I was already missing it. It uses a very clever set up so that within a relatively small space, perhaps a few square metres, you can literally travel the Galaxy, have intense firefights with Storm Troopers, enter secret codes, work out how to find your way out of a squeeze. Go through the classic Star Wars sliding doors, walk along the oh so very Star Wars metal frame gangplanks and winding corridors, travel by skiff (quite realistic to the point of dizziness) and up, above and through burning landscapes, (with the actual smell of real burning smoke) heat, wind and a quite realistic buzz on the front and back of the pack while being shot at by multiple StormTroopers.
The Set up
I didn't even know it existed. I was having lunch with my Wife after some impromptu outfit shopping (for her) and we were sitting next to this structure which immediately piqued my interest. Two technicians in Star Wars shirts sat next to us. I just had to go in. We paid for our tickets & signed in, literally signed a waiver which nobody reads of course, then entered our details and off we went inside the temporary installation, built inside a food court on the raised floor of a huge sprawling Westfield Shopping Centre. Where else would it be ? It could be anywhere in the Galaxy. We were ushered into a small room where we watched a short film. There were four of us. The mission briefing was a glitchy film extract of Star Wars where the mission was explained. Cassion Andor from Rogue One briefed us in !
We were then taken to get suited up. the backpacks were engineered so that they fitted tightly with complex straps. They are suspended on wires as you get into them for support. The headset is above and once you put it on and tighten it up, you're good to go. We were then let off the wire. At this point we're still in the real world of the prep area. We still look like people and we look more like infantry in Starship Troopers garb at this point. Or a swat team. We were then led a short distance to the room. I saw the laser pulse weapons and was a bit surprised we weren't given them. I wondered if it was going to be a passive experience. I hoped we'd be given the weapons along the way.
We calibrated our screens and there we were, BANG - we were now 4 imposter Storm Troopers in a grimy little space, somewhere far, far away. We are now in full VR. The initial experience of being in full Stormtrooper garb was quite thrilling. When the door opened and we're met by K-2SO aboard a rebel alliance ship, it's quite amazing. The pixel count, the grime and dirt, the sounds (and air pressure, heat and smells), the sheer scale and scope of the surroundings make it a quite enchanting and incredibly immersive experience. It was of course quite a high quality show in terms of resolution. No pixellation. Impressed.
By the time we find our way out of the elevator, onto the skiff and across the incredible burning landscape of Mustafa, (with heat and the actual smell of smoke) I'm repeating inside my head, WOW, this is REALLY GOOD... there in front of me are a row of the pulse weapons on the wall. The ones I saw when we first put our suits on, but instead of black plastic gun shapes, when I reach to pick one up in the graphic VR world, it is actually there and now in my actual hand, rendered in dirty used gunmetal and with feedback on the trigger. (I am still super impressed with that, a few hours later.) I am at this point in the experience, literally 6 years old again and within a kind of dreamlike dislocation from reality which has already quite taken hold of my consciousness and set in. I know it's a game but it's so very well done. Seeing the VR weapons on the wall, reaching out for them and actually picking up a laser pulse gun, which I immediately tested out on the walls of the VR room, much to my delight, as the walls melted white hot, where I hit them was such a complete and compelling illusion that I was totally hooked and began to live out the fantasy dream of every 6 year old Star Wars Fan.
I was about to find my range and get down to business. The first few shots allowed me to calibrate the weapon ( I was shooting from the hip and a bit high) and then boom. Stormtroopers falling all over the place, just like I remembered in those first battle scenes of the original Star Wars Episode IV. At this point I have to admit, I actually really am not usually a big fan of first person shoot em ups.
I spent a lot of my teenage years playing them (among many other types games) on various games platforms and I eventually decided it was not a very healthy activity, but I did end up running a digital animation company.. and this was different, (it's not) but it's Star Wars and it's VR ! The way the small space we were in was used to provide so many different scenes was brilliant game architecture. The fact that K-2SO gave us some dodgy information, which made the experience even more exciting and the sumptuous rendering of graphics all conspired to show us a glimpse of the future of entertainment.
I can easily see VR hyperreality versions of a film becoming a norm for big sci fi blockbusters, but they will be limited to short duration. This was about 15 minutes and felt like 7-8. I could have easily gone for 45 minutes / 1 hour and been captivated. I can see now where films like Surrogates lead us to a future where people live their whole lives in VR.
It makes me start to question the whole matrix as reality philosophy again. (No, we live in real world with real atoms). If we begin to think that it's simulated, then it's just an easy way to absolve the very real problems we've collectively created and this was my original plot hole in Elon's theory. He may live in a fantasy world of Hyperloops and sending cars to space in rockets (twit) but we all live with air pollution, climate change and a mass extinction of species, plasticification of the oceans and extremes of poverty out of sight but not of mind, for many in industrialised countries. Lest I digress. It is not a cheap experience. $33 or £25 in GBP (per person) is not a cheap tickets. that's two or 3 times the normal cinema ticket price for a 20 minute journey but as a one off, a very valuable and educative, entertaining experience.
Serious Back End Tech
The computers running this kind of system must be pretty immense. The graphics cards need many thousands of cores to generate all of it in real time. I can't quite imagine what's back stage. The time gone into making this come to life. The hours and the hundreds of people, probably thousands, involved in making it all happen.Then there's the guns, the packs, the sound, the co-ordination of smells and air pressure. It's a serious project and one that requires resources worthy of an Imperial Warship. George would no doubt be impressed. I do hope he's had a go and if it comes to a town near you. Save up your steem dollars because this is one experience you probably won't want to miss, unless you've never seen Star Wars, in which case, you probably should.