VIRTUAL REALITY TRICKS your brains in weird, wonderful ways. If you’ve done a good VR demo or two, you’ve likely experienced that sense of presence, of feeling like you really do exist in this made-up world: reacting to virtual people as if they’re real people, or trying to balance yourself on a virtual table and falling on your face IRL. I don’t think presence is the end of VR’s bag of tricks, though. Judging from one VR demo I tried recently, it’s just the beginning.
Ripcoil, from developer Sanzaru Games, will ship this year alongside the launch of the Oculus Touch motion controllers. As game designs go, it’s fairly simple. Actually, it’s pretty close to VR Pong, starring you as the paddle. Two giant robots, one of whom is you, face each other in a brightly-lit future-sports arena, tossing a flying disc back and forth. If the disc goes behind you into your goal, the opponent gets a point. You can catch it and throw it back, rebounding it off the walls if you like, or you can charge up your fist and punch it back at high speed. To defend your own goal, you can move back and forth.
The strangest part is, you never actually move.
You play the game in a standing position, feet planted and knees bent. If you shift your torso to the left or right, you move laterally in that direction in front of your goal. You need only gently nudge your body to start moving slowly, and it doesn’t take much movement to zip quickly back and forth.
There’s a lot of smart design that goes into Ripcoil making you feel as if you embody the giant robot you’re portraying. Your arms and body are fully rendered, and move realistically as you shift yourself around. The fast action and responsive controls of the game quickly let you lose yourself in its fiction, and you’ll be zipping back and forth catching and tossing flying discs with ease.
Playing a game like Ripcoil is a good reminder that motion-control devices like the Wii and Kinect weren’t the flash-in-the-pan gimmicks detractors like to portray them as. Instead, they were baby steps along the road to VR. Used in isolation, they don’t have much of a lifespan (as evidenced by the fact that Nintendo and Microsoft have abandoned them as standalone devices)—but coupled with VR display, Wii-like motion controls and Kinect-like body tracking are perfect, seamless input methods.
But that’s not the crazy part.
It didn’t take me very long to adjust to tilting my body to send my paddle-robot back and forth in front of the goal. And once it became second nature, something amazing happened: Although my legs were planted firmly on the ground in meatspace, it felt like I was moving. I was standing in a tiny demo room in the Oculus booth, but it felt as if, outside the VR display, my body was on some kind of crazy Disney theme park ride where I was physically sliding to the right and left.
The only stimulation my body was receiving at that moment was what was being shown to my eyeballs. But somehow, everything synced up so perfectly that my brain told me, in no uncertain terms, that we were in motion. Perhaps the fact that I was standing still in the room, and that the game’s design had locked me to a single plane of movement, helped cut down on any potential eye-body dissonance that might have otherwise reminded me that I wasn’t actually moving.
Either way, I didn’t have long to think about it since on the other side of the arena, my opponent (played by one of the game’s developers) was winging rebounding shots at me that I was mostly failing to intercept. Finally, they walked another reporter over to the other Oculus in an adjacent room, so we could play against each other in something resembling a fair fight. We kicked things off and started throwing the ol’ virtual disc around. And before long, the other reporter experienced exactly what I was feeling.
“OH MY GOD,” I heard from the other room. “IT FEELS LIKE I’M MOVING!”