At Comic-Con, an impressive virtual reality experience starts aboard a space station, where you're led by a flying robot.
Richard NievaFormer senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Jokes aside, the VR experience, created by the company Noitom, is impressive. The firm, which is based in both Beijing and Miami, set up a VR simulation that lets people feel like they're on a lunar mission.
The company suits me up with an Oculus VR headset, hand sensors and backpack (which is needed to provide the computing power to the headset, but actually adds to this particular experience, because my astronaut avatar is wearing a heavy pack). I'm with five other participants in a big open space -- in this case, a cordoned-off area of a conference room in San Diego's Omni Hotel -- so we have room to roam.
The experience starts aboard a space station. You can fiddle with controls and pull levers. You're led by a flying robot around the environment, and you can interact with other participants. While walking down narrow hallways of docking bays and moving up and down on elevators, the sense of motion feels realistic.
The simulation hits a crescendo -- complete with sweeping background music -- when you're actually led onto the moon's surface, with Earth hovering in the distance. While on the moon, there are various pieces of machinery floating around that you can grab and move around. In the real word, a Noitom worker is handing you physical objects so the experience feels real.
As we walk out onto the docking bay, one of the other participants sums up the effect nicely: "The snozzberries taste like snozzberries!" he says, laughing. While in the program, I felt like I wanted to take pictures so I could remember the images as I wrote my story -- a testament to the immersive-ness of the demo.
Noitom, or "motion" backwards, developed the simulation with Opaque Space, a company that's worked with NASA on its VR training programs. The company creates large-scale VR experiences for museums and conferences. As VR developers, though, they have their work cut out for them. As critics say the technology and ecosystem has hit brick walls, companies cut back their investments in the space.
Noitom is aware of the challenges. "It's still a little bit of a wild, wild west," says Ari Karczag, manager of West Coast operations. "It might have suffered a hiccup in the last two years ... as developers over-promised and under-delivered."
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Still, he's hopeful that a few companies can drive the technology forward. He thinks it's important to give people experiences they wouldn't otherwise get, especially in science.
"When kids are exposed to things that leave them shocked and awed, it can spark someone to say, 'OK, that's what I want to do with my life.'"
Originally published July 20. Correction, July 21, 10:09 a.m. PT: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the company that's worked with NASA on its VR training programs. It's Opaque Space.