I’m on top of a tower block in an unknown desert landscape when, out of nowhere, a lift appears. I get inside and am transported down a level. Now I’m in a museum. Portraits line the dimly-lit walls, a large case contains tropical plants and when I spin around I’m faced with a large mechanical model of the solar system. A small door appears on my right and I duck through it. I walk from room to room in the mysterious tower - but in reality I never leave a three-by-three metre box.
This is an early demo version of a room-scale VR experience developed by London-based creative studio Found. It plunges participants into a virtual world that they can walk around and explore, nudged in the right direction by visual cues and a voiceover.
Marcus Moresby, director and head of VR at Found, says he was inspired to make interactive VR experiences after seeing immersive theatre productions such as those by UK-based company Punchdrunk. “I was going to lots of immersive theatre in London, and I was quite jealous, I suppose, of the work they were doing – because it made me feel something,” he says. The Kickstarter campaign for the Oculus Rift was launched around the same time and he got one as soon as he could. “I fell in love with it as soon as I put it on.”
Room-scale VR lets people interact with virtual landscapes and objects by moving around in the real world. It’s mainly designed for use at events or VR arcades (most people don’t have the space to set up their own VR room at home) and is achieved by setting up camera sensors around the space that track movement, so the VR visuals can adapt to the user’s actions.
You can control an in-game torch using Oculus Touch controllers
Found's new experience is called Vanishing Act, and it tells the story of a scientist who has digitised his memories. Once I put on the headset I'm tasked with exploring these saved memories to uncover information about his history. Each time I get into the lift and descend further into the tower, I’m in a different, earlier memory – a scene in his son's bedroom is followed by one in a dark forest where the scientist rushes to the birth of his child.
The Found demo setup uses the Oculus Rift headset with four cameras mounted on metal trussing around the ceiling of the studio. Oculus Touch controllers let users interact with objects in the virtual world – press the trigger and you can pick up different items, such as a torch that lights up the path ahead in one section of the experience.
Many people use the HTC Vive for room-scale gameplay, explains Moresby, but Found opted for the Oculus Rift because it felt more user-friendly. “The headset was easier for the public to use whenever we did events. Putting on the Vive, or the old Oculus, and then putting on headphones – it’s all a bit clunky.”
It's still early days for room-scale VR tech, and one of the major current limitations is the wire that connects the Oculus Rift to a computer. “It breaks the immersion a bit,” says Moresby. When I try it out, he’s on hand to keep the cable out of the way when I spin around so I don’t get tangled.
Another limitation is the space the Oculus tracking cameras can cope with. Oculus recommends a playable space of no more than 2.5 x 2.5 metres when you use three cameras (Found uses four, though Oculus doesn’t currently recommend this).
A player holds a block using the Touch controllers, with the virtual lift in the background
But once in the virtual world, space doesn’t seem to be an issue -Vanishing Act is most remarkable in how it turns a small room into a seemingly infinite virtual area. The experience is carefully designed to guide you through a maze of rooms and corridors without you realising that you’re actually doubling back on yourself or just going round in a circle. “There are things you can do in VR you can’t do in other media,” explains Moresby. “For example, if you look in [one] direction you can change the environment behind you, so when you look back it’s something else.”
The only reminder of the physical space comes if you venture too close to a real-world wall, at which point a warning light flashes up. Moresby says he is planning to add more natural barriers into the virtual scenes to stop people veering off track and breaking the immersion.
It’s not finished yet, but Moresby eventually hopes to develop the experience into a combined immersive theatre and VR event, where participants are initially greeted by actors who set the scene for the virtual world before they put on the headset. People will be given a mission: to explore the scientists’ memories in order to uncover the password to his computer, which they’ll then have to input into a real-world computer at the end of the event - similar to an escape-the-room game.
Ultimately, he envisions an experience in a much larger space, which multiple people could enjoy at once. “The dream for this is to be on an aircraft-hangar scale and to be able to walk around fully,” he says. “The redirection you can do on that kind of scale is enormous.”