Stepping onto the large freight elevator, my body sways to keep balanced as the rising platform lifts me into the zombie-infested city above. Yet my conscious mind knows I'm actually standing on unmoving concrete and that the sense of motion is all in my head.
I've been playing Zero Latency for mere moments and already I'm amazed at how it overwhelms my senses. This is the world's largest virtual reality (VR) attraction, and its doors open August 15 in North Melbourne, Australia.
Once confined to the realm of science-fiction movies like Walt Disney's "Tron," virtual reality has grown into a real-world industry worth an estimated $7 billion. But since the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset appeared on Kickstarter in 2012 and reignited passions for VR, the big question has been when these prototypes and concepts will launch for public consumption. And when we reach commercial launch, will the experience live up to the hype? Zero Latency is one of the first ventures that will put mainstream viability to the test.
Scott Vandonkelaar had the seed of the idea behind Zero Latency in 2012, months before the Oculus Rift's record-breaking Kickstarter campaign had shipped its first prototype virtual-reality headset, and years before game developer Valve and smartphone maker HTC partnered to announce the HTC Vive VR kit.
Vandonkelaar had been working on an optical tracking system to track battles of radio-controlled battleships armed with BB-guns, but when he saw the success of the Oculus Kickstarter campaign, he realized his tracking system could work beautifully when combined with VR.
Like the HTC Vive, Vandonkelaar's idea allowed players to walk around a real-world, physical space whilst wearing a head-mounted display. However, Vandonkelaar had grander ambitions about the size of the playing area. Instead of keeping the action confined to a single small room like Vive, he wanted to place up to six players in a much larger space.
Vandonkelaar raised the idea with a few ex-workmates. "I started mentioning that I had this idea -- do I sound like a crazy person?" Zero Latency soon formed and grew to a team of six full-time staff with extra contractors brought on board for specialist duties.
Want to play Zombie Fort: Smackdown?
Building the technology has taken the team at Zero Latency more than three years. While initial funding came out of the team's own pockets, the first round of public funding came courtesy of crowdfunding platform Pozible.com in July 2014, eighteen months after the idea's conception. Tim Ruse, director and resident business guy at Zero Latency said that "it was the hardest thirty grand we've ever earned."
Next stop on the funding tour was Film Victoria, a state government funding body, where a grant for $60,000 was approved. At the time the team hadn't come up with a name for the game, so they lodged the grant application under the title "Zombie Fort: Smackdown."
The team first built working prototypes of the technology mounted inside primitive plywood cases, but they were functional nonetheless. Ruse credits this prototype-led approach with the next milestone in the money-raising process. It was the helping hand of Dean Dorrell, from boutique investment firm Carthona Capital, that gave the company a $1 million cash injection.
"He sent me a Google Hangout message, of all things,"Ruse said of Dorrell's unorthodox approach. "He said he was really interested in investing, and he came down on the Thursday."
"He said, 'I really like it, I reckon you need a million bucks,'" said Ruse. "I was like, 'Alright, off you go,' not expecting to hear from him again. Then he was down with another business partner and he looked serious. It all fell into place from there."
After three years of research and development, Zero Latency is ready to open its doors to the public on August 15. The game offers a one-hour cooperative experience for four or six players, and tickets are currently selling for AU$88 (about £40 or $65) per person. Online sales began in early August, and in a week, hundreds of eager gamers had already signed up for this world-first experience.
As we enter the large warehouse space, I'm amazed by just how big the area is. All 400 square metres (4,300 square feet) are covered in a white grid pattern to aid camera rigs mounted above the playing area in monitoring each player's movements. Covering the entire play space are 129 Sony PlayStation Eye cameras driven by the team's proprietary software. They're arranged in circular rings that cover a 360-degree view, each ring with its own dedicated controller PC.
According to Vandonkelaar, the team tried to use off-the-shelf hardware where possible, but the immaturity of VR made this difficult.
"VR is all really new, so we're working with companies that still have all of their equipment in the prototype stage. So nothing is locked down, and a lot of the features that are meant to work don't."
As the games master suits us up for the battle ahead, I'm pleasantly surprised by the weight and comfort of the backpack. Each pack houses a heavily customised Alienware Alpha PC to render each player's view of the world. Looking like a Proton Pack from "Ghostbusters," it sits easily in the square of my back, despite including its own power source. The Oculus Rift DK2 and a set of quality headphones are tethered to the backpack, and a glowing orb sits on top of the headset.
We're then handed our weapon for the impending zombie apocalypse: a large five-pound rifle machined from a solid block of PVC plastic on the massive computer-controlled milling machine, tucked away in a workshop at the back of the warehouse.
A button at the base of the magazine swaps between machine gun, shotgun and sniper modes, while another button at the front of the magazine is used to reload. Finally, a pump action at the front is used to reload special grenade ammo, as well as shotgun and sniper rounds.
Clear and present greatness
As I slip the Rift DK2 over my eyes, the cold, empty, concrete warehouse around me is replaced by a military firing range that wouldn't look out of place in "Aliens." At night, the warehouse drops into complete darkness when the game begins. You're running blind in a cavernous space, the virtual world your only guide to not slamming into a wall in the real one.
While the game was built using a relatively simple modern game engine called Unity, I'm impressed by just how real the world around me feels. Commonly referred to as "presence" by VR pundits, this sensation of being in a real space intensifies when I walk forward to the firing range, before raising my weapon to let off a few virtual rounds.
This experience is massively different compared with the many hours I've spent strapped stationary into my home racing cockpit with my own Rift DK2 in place. Despite the lack of physical haptic feedback, firing the weapon still feels meaty and impactful, though the accuracy isn't quite good enough to aim down the sights. Besides, it's surprising how heavy the weapon becomes after just five minutes of zombie-blasting. Firing from the hip is entirely feasible thanks to the gun's virtual laser sight.
The next 40 minutes are spent walking through a variety of virtual locales, from open city streets to cramped laboratories. The warehouse itself was around 100 metres (328 feet) in length, but clever use of loading screens and level design mean I ended up walking over 10 times that during my experience. Combine this with the weight of the gun and by the end of the hour I was exhausted, dripping in sweat and my arms ached.
When my headset is sitting just right on my face, I am completely in the moment, ignorant of the fact that I'm actually walking around an empty warehouse. In my mind I'm gunning down zombies and rebels by the dozen, with my real buddies covering my virtual flanks. Yet some of the best moments are when there are no enemies at all, where the lack of immediate threat means I can relax and simply enjoy exploring the virtual environments around me.
Day one of the VR revolution
It's the best virtual reality experience I have ever had. And I have tried them all since Dactyl Nightmare almost made me puke back in 1991. It's not entirely perfect though -- the Rift DK2's mounting straps aren't ideal for such a physical VR experience, and I had to readjust the headset every few minutes to line up the viewing sweet-spot. Hopefully, the team at Zero Latency redesigns the mounting system entirely, so that the headset doesn't move, no matter how physical each player gets.
There are also a couple of buggy spots where the tracking wigs out, instantly confusing my sense of balance in a way that I might associate with a few too many beers. But overall, these are minor inconsistencies in an overwhelmingly amazing gaming experience. Zero Latency and, by extension, VR totally transcend what is meant by immersive gaming. Considering how powerful this early experience is, it's no surprise to hear that the team at Zero Latency is already in discussions with other partners to export the technology around the globe.
According to Ruse, "The version you play today is commercial version one, in terms of what we are going to box and ship early next year to different venues. We've got people overseas who are interested, all over the place. It's just sorting out who will be the best partners."
The team is also considering changing the game experience from a purely cooperative game to one that involves adversarial combat. "We built this elaborate and really good fun co-op mission," Ruse explains, "but sometimes the best 10 minutes people have is shooting their mates at the end."
If this is day one of the VR revolution, I can't wait to see where we are in a few years.
Road Trip 2015
reading•Zero Latency: The VR revolution begins in Melbourne, Australia
Sep 27•Chasing the Silicon Valley dream is harder than you'd think
Sep 25•Target turns to tech to bust out of its big-box image
Sep 24•Israeli military uses tech as its protective edge
Sep 24•Up close with the Israel Defense Forces' F-16I and Iron Dome (pictures)