I hear a bright tone – ding! – and then the elevator doors open to reveal a vast cityscape stretching out before my eyes. Protruding in front of me is a wooden board, about three metres long and thirty centimetres wide – just thick enough to accommodate both of my feet, side-by-side. The task here is straightforward: just like the maritime method of execution, I’m meant to walk the plank.
First, I must step up onto the board. I tentatively put my left foot forward, seeking the raised edge. I shift my weight and bring my right foot up to the timber. What’s most surprising is the immediate physical response that I encounter: my heart beats noticeably faster beneath my ribcage, and I begin sweating. My brain has suddenly thrown my balance into question, because never before in my regular life have I found it so hard to put one foot in front of the other.
Heights have been problematic for me in the past: when I moved into a seventh-floor apartment in 2015, it took weeks for me to be able to stand by the edge of the balcony without gripping the railing or leaning backwards, away from the void. I had supposed this was an inherent self-preservation instinct retained from my ancient ancestors, who were smart enough to stay away from high places in favour of keeping contact with the earth. In the parlance of software development, I rationalised that this inbuilt aversion to heights was a feature, not a bug.
Walking the virtual and literal plank.
A helicopter passes overhead, not far from where I’m standing. Out on the plank, eighty storeys in the air, I’m holding the two wireless controllers up above my waist, like ski poles. This is mostly for balance, I suppose, but also because my mind has been gripped by a set of emotions that I’ve yet to encounter in any other form of visual entertainment. It’s a cocktail of fear, exhilaration and anxiety, and it’s because my eyes and ears are taking in sensations which I know intellectually to be false. This is virtual reality, after all, and I’m playing a game named Richie’s Plank Experience. Yet out here, on the plank, real and fake are all but indistinguishable. All my brain is concerned with is survival.
“I only manage to shuffle about halfway across the length of the plank before giving in to the fear. My heart pounds, my skin prickles with sweat, and I’m completely out of my comfort zone... It's simply too real."
I only manage to shuffle about halfway across the length of the plank before giving in to the fear. My heart pounds, my skin prickles with sweat, and I’m completely out of my comfort zone. Before I put on the headset and headphones, I was just another guy standing in a building near the Brisbane River, watching a bunch of strangers attempt to walk a board that sits just a few centimetres off the ground, held aloft at one end by a hardcover copy of Steve Jobs, and a few stacked kitchen sponges at the other. Yet even after having watched these interactions and reactions play out on the faces of strangers, I was completely unprepared for the sensory overload that comes wrapped in the immersion. It’s simply too real.
With careful consideration, I remove my right foot from the timber and reach out into space. For a moment, this act sends my mind reeling once again, and I give a clumsy shimmy from my hip before moving my left foot off the edge, too. For about four seconds, I fall toward the hard bitumen and slow-moving inner-city traffic. I turn my head to take in the last sights I’ll ever see. When I hit the ground, everything turns white.
There’s video footage of my first time with this game: putting on the headset, tentatively edging up to the timber, and spending a few anxious moments standing out above the cityscape before deciding to step off. From start to finish, it takes about two minutes. Beside me stands Richard Eastes, the game’s Brisbane-based creator. Between occasional sips of beer, the man in flip-flops, polo shirt and shorts is tasked with ensuring that I don’t do anything sudden or stupid in the real world, like jump into a nearby metal railing. At the far end of the board is his striking wife, Toni, whose natural facial expression rests on a smile.
Arranged as part of the Brisbane VR Club’s monthly meet-up, held at the Brisbane Powerhouse, this HTC Vive hardware installation is a chance for curious strangers to try something new in a central location at zero cost. Nearby, club attendees chat over drinks, oblivious to my mental gymnastics.
While writing this story, I watch the clip on loop, and I’m transfixed by the paradox: how something so mundane as walking on a plank of wood can totally change my perception and understanding of everything that has gone before, if only for a few moments. Even during those two minutes, I kept trying to tell myself that it wasn’t real. The disconnect between my intellectual understanding and emotional response was enormous.
Despite being a lifelong gamer who has invested thousands upon thousands of hours of my life into staring into television and computer screens while controlling virtual avatars, I was still stupefied and, essentially, defeated by the novelty of Richie’s Plank Experience.
The thing about novelty, though, is that it operates according to the law of diminishing returns: once you try something for the first time, you’re already on the path to normalisation. Later, after my heartrate returns to its baseline, I jump back into the game to try its other modes, which are much less fear-inducing.
One prompts your creative urges by allowing you to use a jetpack to paint shapes mid-air, out between the tall buildings; it’s rather difficult, and gives me new appreciation for the task of sky-writing. The other mode encourages you to use a firehose to put out a burning building: virtual firefighting, a hundred metres up. All of it is rendered in vivid, colourful, and strikingly realistic tones. There is no need to suspend my disbelief, because the brain immediately believes – hence the physical response.
Co-founded by Lex Van Cooten, the Brisbane VR Club brings together enthusiasts, local business owners and interstate guests. In the high-ceilinged park mezzanine meeting room on the second floor of the Powerhouse, Van Cooten welcomes the few dozen attendees, who sit in rows of chairs. Most of them appear to be in their 20s.
“My name is Lex, and myself and my friend Drew started this back in 2014,” the 24 year-old begins. “I bought a DK2 [development kit] headset for Oculus Rift: it gave me motion sickness, but also at the same time, it was the most amazing thing I’d ever tried. From then on, I wanted to find other people locally who I could collaborate with, and learn about this new re-emerging medium called virtual reality.”
Richard Eastes is the evening’s final presenter. He wears black-rimmed glasses and a huge grin that immediately disarms and charms the audience. The 38 year-old’s plainspoken manner is an interesting contrast to the others before him: he’s clearly got more than a streak of geek, given that he can spend hours in front of a screen, poring over code. But an undercurrent of knockabout masculinity runs through him, too, coupled with the fact that he’s built tall and strong, like a fast bowler.
Eastes plays a video which shows a man in his living room, wearing a Vive headset, who takes a running leap off the plank and headbutts the TV cabinet. The crowd gasps, horrified. “That happened last week,” he says of the accident, which occurred after the guy on the plank asked his friend if he could jump off, but misinterpreted the instruction. “We got about 200 extra sales after that.” He grins. “Which means that people are buying it after seeing the video, and saying, ‘Yep, I want to do that to my friend’.”
Richard and Toni... with one of the more novel video game peripherals of recent years! (Photo by Scott Patterson.)
He queues up the game’s trailer, and intermittently pauses the footage to explain certain design decisions – such as the fact that when the elevator doors open, the player is confronted with seven different sounds playing: the distant sound of traffic below, the helicopter which flies from right to left, the creaking of the wooden plank, as well as one I hadn’t picked up on. “There’s the subtle, subliminal sound of an elevated heartbeat, which you don’t notice consciously,” Eastes tells the group. “It’s designed to help your own heartbeat match it, and it increases slightly over time, too. People don’t notice it until I point it out.”
“There’s the subtle, subliminal sound of an elevated heartbeat, which you don’t notice consciously… it increases slightly over time, too.” – Richard Eastes.
The idea for the game came to him when he and Toni visited Tokyo on a honeymoon, and observed a similar concept in action at a VR arcade, without the wooden addition. The hardest part of designing Richie’s Plank Experience was figuring out how to set up a physical object within virtual reality. “Using a real-world plank adds a thousand times to the immersion,” he says. “I probably went through six different trials of how to do this.”
Using the two Vive hand controllers, the player can measure the width and length of their timber. It’s accurate down to the millimetre, which is important, he says, “because people want to go to Bunnings and buy whatever plank of wood is on special. The plank of wood downstairs is $30; in the U.S., people are saying it’s five bucks. Why is the wood so expensive here?” he wonders.
He thought that using code to measure the length and width would be easy, as in theory, whenever he gets new information about the user’s particular piece of timber, the code would automatically update to reflect the in-game dimensions. It turned out to be much harder than that. “I’m so confused trying to explain. I can’t take credit for it,” he says. “There was a hundred trial-and-errors, to be honest. And then all of a sudden, thank god, it worked! And now when I look at the code, I can barely understand it myself.”
Of the fire-fighting mode, he says “It’s not really even a game; it’s just a fun experience, where people can see what it’s like to be like Superman – [a name] which I can’t use, because that’s trademarked.” He pauses. “Like ‘a powerful human’,” he says, grinning.
The sky's the limit with twin jetpacks. Y'know, because of the sky box.
After his thoroughly entertaining presentation about the intricacies of solving that particular problem, an audience member asks him how he got into VR game development. “I had a lawn mowing business.” He grins, and the crowd laughs. “It’s like Uber, but for lawn mowing – it’s called GreenSocks, and it’s still going. It wasn’t making me any money, only the lawn mowing guys. But for the last ten years, game programming was a hobby. I preferred to make them, rather than play them.”
It stayed a hobby for most of that time, as he was well aware of the breadth and depth of competition, where talented teams of independent developers could invest years into a game that sells only a few copies upon release. “Then virtual reality came out, and there was a window of opportunity where a rookie like me could have a chance to make some intellectual property that can do well,” he says. “So I turned it from a hobby into a business, with my wife – she’s the lady downstairs still putting people through the plank.” The company is called Toast VR, a relatively meaningless name chosen simply because Eastes already owned the web domain toast.com.au.
Richard and Toni looking about as dignified as is possible with VR headsets on. (Photo by Scott Patterson.)
Since it appeared on the Steam sales platform in September, the game has achieved more than 24,000 sales, at USD$7.99 apiece; not bad for a husband-and-wife team based in Brisbane, with zero marketing budget. As well, it has received over 190 Steam reviews, with an overall community response ranking of ‘very positive’.
HTC liked the game so much that in February, it decided to bundle Richie’s Plank Experience with all Vive headset purchases made before the end of March. As a result, the title has been played by an additional 50,000 people around the world. A handful of prominent YouTubers also found the game and published videos of their reviews and reactions to it, too, which was a nice surprise for Richard and Toni.
The game is still in early access on Steam, but the goal from here, Eastes tells the crowd, is to publish a ‘finished’ version, “and then work out what games to make next. We need to make sure this keeps improving, because some expert could come and make something that’s ten times better.” With a final smile, he thanks the audience for their attention, then says, “I’ll be down at the plank!”
On the ground floor of the Brisbane Powerhouse, curious first-timers are presented with the strip of timber. Near the building’s entrance, about 100 people of all ages give it a go over the course of four hours, though some flee in fright before even attempting their first step.
Just before Richard and Toni Eastes pack up and head home at 10.30pm, a middle-aged Powerhouse employee asks if she can try it. “Flippin’ heck!” she exclaims a few minutes later, just before taking off the headset and neatly summarising the entire experience. “This is so weird!”
Hopefully we'll have a new definition of "planking" now.
On the website for their young business, Richard and Toni Eastes write, “We create short, fun and interactive games for people who wish to immerse themselves in a virtual reality.” They’ve done it with a wooden plank, whose unexpected success has become the proof-of-concept. Now they know there’s a market for this sort of thing, as more Vives, Oculus Rifts, PlayStation VRs and other systems are being installed in living rooms around the world. With the growing user base comes a hoard of curious gamers who are scrolling through online stores to see which novelties they might like to try; to see which emotions they might be able to use VR to tap into.
A couple of months after the Powerhouse demo, I visit the apartment that the couple shares in inner-city Brisbane. The view from the balcony outside is filled by the Story Bridge, while inside, a computer is perched on a small table in a corner of the living room. This is where Richard spent countless hours developing Richie’s Plank Experience from scratch, impeded by some limitations of reality such as his eventual need for sleep after all-night coding sessions, and a painfully slow internet connection.
Just before I leave, Eastes opens the world-building software app Unity and shows me some very early sketches of what his next game might look like. Although he’s devoted to improving Richie’s Plank Experience in order to reach new players and to make sure that existing customers keep coming back for more, he’s also the kind of guy who can’t help but dream of what’s ahead. I can’t share the idea he shows me, as I’m sworn to secrecy, but he could well be onto something much, much bigger than a plank of wood perched eighty storeys in the sky.