I’m standing at the lip of a step measuring all of 3 inches. My brain is currently processing the information my eyes have delivered it and come back with the reply of “two minutes ago we put our foot over this tiny dip and felt the yawning drop of a 30-foot cliff underneath us. Care to explain that?” All my senses are feeling rather baffled as I come to terms with the fact that for the last fifteen minutes they had been deceived by a devious combination of virtual tech wizardry and sensory sleight of hand that is the early version of the Imagination experience.
Before the rather embarrassing height-based revelation my eyes, ears, nose and sense of balance had experienced a variety of bizarre experiences. From being driven down a road in a brand new car (complete with new car smell). Walking over a rickety bridge above the aforementioned 30-foot cliff. And standing underneath the Northern Lights in the middle of the arctic. All while remaining in a rather small open room in Imagination’s London office and it all felt incredibly real. Sure, I knew that I was wearing a VR headset and the experience was rather obviously computer generated (although it was made very clear to us that this was very much a barebones version of the intended experience) but it felt real.
While our guide, Imagination’s Creative Director Ben Callis, led us through the experience, his assistants bombarded us with sounds, smells and other sensory experiences that turned what we were seeing into a fully immersive 4D experience. Even the room itself was in on the act, with parts of the floor laid out to add stimuli that complimented all the other sensations. I came out dizzy, adrenaline pumping and fully sold by what I had witnessed. Even if it was just a demonstration.
What imagination have created, in collaboration with The Mill, Grand Central Recording Studios, and Bompas and Parr, is merely a taste of what a VR experience can be capable of and what it can be used for. It was a fun and enjoyable experience, just like many similar experiences are, but it also showed that this type of technology can be used in ways other than simple entertainment. This was a revelation in how a VR experience can be used to create a whole new realm for events, experiences and demonstrating concepts to interested parties. The team were very open about the fact that what we had witnessed was a prototype cobbled together from various engines and platforms and more is planned for future releases. However, if such an engaging and enjoyable proof of concept is the bare minimum than it spells a very interesting short-term future. VR is no longer just an amusing toy but is fast becoming a very real medium to use in a variety of contexts.
What is even more extraordinary however, is the type of software and equipment used during the presentation. During the experience we wore HTC Vive headsets and backpacks that tracked our movement in the room. Meanwhile Ben was wearing a fully VR bodysuit that put his entire body into the virtual world, demonstrating how VR can now be used to actively map the entire body in real time. A bodysuit of that nature is certainly on the high-end scale of VR technology but not state of the art to be almost unobtainable, to say nothing of the Vive.
Then after the experience a conversation with Ben and team members from The Mill provided some startling revelations. Firstly, it was revealed that the entire experience could be saved onto the cloud and downloaded by any team across the country. Meaning that an experience of this quality could soon be within reach of anyone with the right equipment and access (although the 4D probably need separate shipment). More interestingly however was what engines and graphics were used to create the experience.
The Mill, being responsible for the graphical production, were keen to discuss how their new CGI and effects were being generated on video game engines such as the Unreal Engine. Meaning that their ground-breaking graphics are now being produced just on relatively high-end consumer PCs, rather than prohibitively expensive monoliths only available to major studios. The most astonishing fact however, was the engine the proof of concept experience itself was built on. Unity. Yes Unity. That Unity. A major VR experience being potentially used for all manner of major functions being made in the engine famous for being available to any aspiring developer in their bedroom.
Sure, Imagination have slightly greater resources to polish their experiences to a much greater degree and actually create a proper VR experience, but the point is this type of experience, the type of thing imagined in Star Trek (yes this is the obligatory Holodeck reference) can now be created on a publicly available engine on current generation technology. The world of truly immersive VR being made with a simple engine and everyday tools is a future long dreamed about and now, almost within our grasp.
Alex is a freelance reporter specialised in technology, travel, gaming, and rugby. Alex currently lives in London with two dogs.