Get your headset on: Time to enter virtual reality

ERNEST WHITMAN PIPER
ISTANBUL
Published 31.03.2017 00:10
Updated 31.03.2017 00:11
Ernest Whitman Piper
Ernest Whitman Piper

Virtual reality is not a technology that you can only come across in films, it is the next big thing in the gaming industry and the technology is much closer to you than you might think

Just up the stairs from a business center in Besiktaş Square, I went into an office with a reception desk and waiting room, like you'd find in any office anywhere. Most of the side rooms are occupied so the curtains are drawn, but one's empty and open. Curtains ring the walls inside, giving one the impression they're on stage. A long cord snakes down from the ceiling, attached to some colossal goggles and headphones.

Semih Gökçe, the manager and founder, fits the goggles on each of us and gives each of us two handheld controllers. Me, my friend Chris, and my girlfriend Harriet all get our own chamber. I can't see or hear them. I feel like a clumsy robot.

Then Semih flips the system on and I find myself in a grid of laser lines, a la Tron. He first calibrates the system by asking me to hold my arms out, and then move them to my waist slowly. The grid disappears.

Then, we find ourselves in a desert, surrounded by hungry zombies. Harriet and Chris are no longer in different rooms, but right next to me. They look a little strange – faceless, indistinguishable, and dressed a little like baseball players, but I can hear them through the headphones. Am I wearing headphones? Are these my hands?

The zombies attack. I had to physically stretch my arms out to pick up weapons. I had to physically walk through the space for better angles. As soon as a zombie got too close, everyone would shriek and panic, blasting imaginary bullets into the ether.

It is not quite the Matrix, but it is close enough for me. VR – virtual reality – is not just a thing of science fiction, but a commercially available experience. And it's in Istanbul.

I talked to Deniz Opal, the Chief Technical Officer for Hologram Innovation Alchemists in Cambridge, England, whose company programs VR games and movies. I wanted to find out how the technology worked and when it had emerged. For many years in the tech and gaming industry, he explained, the goal for years has been to design a completely immersive environment.

"At the core of the viability of VR is that, the platform attempts to take over your senses and entirely immerse you in another world," said Opal. Though we rely mostly on our eyesight, the system also has to trick the "middle ear" – a combination of your other senses, plus your sense of balance and the sense of yourself in space.

Basically, you strap a screen to your face. It's got a gyroscope in it so it can tell when you turn your head, and as you look around, the system "draws" the virtual surroundings for you.

But the reason the technology hasn't come out earlier, Opal told me, is that we've only just in the past couple of years developed fast enough computers for the consumer market."

Earlier computers could also draw the virtual world, but at much slower speeds, resulting in some lag between turning our heads and seeing what's behind us which is a little nausea-inducing, to say the least:

"As far as your brain is concerned you obviously must have been poisoned and must throw up whatever you have eaten," Opal said.

You'd think that programming a life-like 3D environment would be tricky, but it's apparently no harder than programming any other modern game, just with a few unusual design problems. Opal explained:

"The major challenge is keeping in synch with your middle ear and your eyes. We built a [game] in which the player only stands still and has to shoot at monsters chasing civilians. The sense of adrenaline and urgency is given by the fate of the civilians rather than the usual bullet dodging. Anything that happens too close to the player in VR can induce a sense of claustrophobia."

"Essentially, we have to think about designing the products to a 'closer proximity to the users' psychology.' Sounds weird, but that's how immersive VR is," he said.

Current technology is limited by expense. There are mobile-based VR applications, but those offer an inferior experience to the more high-end HTC or Oculus headsets, which came out last year for consumers. The cost of a headset, plus a computer fast enough to run it, can cost a prohibitive $2,000.

That's why places like Semih Gökçe's VR house have been doing so well. Semih's brother saw the new VR headsets debut in the U.S. last year. Semih, a longtime businessman in the entertainment services industry, didn't want to open just another Playstation café. The new VR systems his brother had seen seemed like the perfect idea. He put together the capital, purchased the headsets and about ten different games, and opened VR House in January of this year. Even in the just over three months he's been open, he's had plenty of customers eager to try it out.

"It's addictive," he said. "Usually people come in and bring a friend, and then maybe six hours later they're following me on Instagram or Facebook. And then I see them the next week, bringing their own friend."

"When we opened we pictured it would be mostly guys coming in here," Gokce explained. "But actually we're becoming a popular date spot. This VR stuff – girls pick it up exactly the same speed as guys."

Currently he's got a rotation of about ten games, including two zombie shooters, two games of archery, and a 3D art program not unlike Microsoft's Paint.

His most surprising story? "I had a whole bunch of housewives having a girls' day out. They all sat in my salon, having tea and biscuits, some nice conversation, and then went in for a half hour to play. They did that four or five times."

"And they were playing the zombie killing game," he said, laughing.

Though immersive reality games can be a lot of fun, they're not the only way VR tech can be used. Bora Sezer, a professor of Design at Özyeğin University, explained to me that VR already had applications in in architecture and medicine, to name a few.

"You strap on a headset, and you can walk around a building that your architect has drawn up for you. Or, if you're a medical student, you can call up virtual skeleton, take out a bone, and then see its information 'projected' on a virtual wall in front of you."

Opal saw far-reaching implications for VR technology.

"What are the applications for a smart phone? Or a PC? The answer to this question is endless. It's down to us to invent applications. One thing is for certain, there has never been a consumer product as immersive as VR. Not even close. This will not only augment existing product categories, but create new genres."

"What do we want to do? We want to immerse people in new realities and give them freedom to just exist there," Opal said. "We want to build the Star Trek holodeck. In the mean time, let's kill some zombies."

You can visit the VR House at Sinanpaşa Mh., Hasfirin Cd. Vidin İş Merkezi in Beşiktaş, or call them at 212 327 27 34 to make an appointment.

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