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I shot down drones and jumped between rooftops -- in VR

The startup Nomadic wants to build VR rooms where you experience in a whole new way the virtual world you see. Its setup changed the way I think about VR.

I was standing on a rooftop of a multistory building in what felt like New York when it happened.

I'd been exploring a room when a TV report said drones were attacking the city. A man suddenly crackled through on the radio, telling me to grab a gun from the filing cabinet near the door, head onto the roof, and start defending the city.

Soon, the humming of drones filled the skies, and I was shooting them down. I must have notched half a dozen when my radio buddy told me to walk across a narrow wooden plank that led to the roof of another building. I'd get more instructions on the other side.

Time was of the essence. Drones were invading.

I walked over to the plank and froze. "What if I fall?" I thought, looking down at the alley below. I cautiously stepped onto the rough wood. It wobbled. So did my stomach.

Then I reminded myself of an important fact. "Ian, you're on the ground in a warehouse north of San Francisco. You're wearing a virtual reality headset. You're in a video game."

Even so, I took an anxious breath and walked across. When I made it, I actually felt relieved.

I've done a lot of stuff in VR over the years. I've dodged bullets, I've scuba dived a shipwreck and come face to face with a giant blue whale. I've even summited Mount Everest.

But I always knew it wasn't real. That is, until I put my foot on that wobbly board.

That feeling I had is called "presence," and it's when a computer-generated world is so convincing your reptilian brain kicks in. For a split second, the game world feels real.

That unprecedented level of escape is what the tech industry keeps promising will help it remake the way we use computers.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who spent as much as $3 billion to buy industry leader Oculus VR back in 2014, has said VR could remake the way we learn, the way we go to the doctor and the way we're entertained. He's not alone.

It's been a year since the $598 Oculus Rift was released, followed by other headsets from HTC, Sony and Google. But people aren't buying that VR gear in droves -- yet. About 12 million VR headsets were sold last year, according to forecasting data compiled by Statista. By comparison, more than 139 million smartphones were sold in 2008, the first full year after Apple's iPhone ignited consumer interest in that mobile tech.

Those figures have helped spark a debate about whether VR is about to change the world. There's a chicken-and-egg problem though: Companies can't create apps for a tiny market forever. And the apps and presentations out there so far haven't convinced people like you and me to buy VR gear.

"It needs more stuff to do," said Patrick Joynt, a researcher at consultancy Frank N. Magid Associates and a self-professed VR fan. He believes that when there are enough apps, movies and experiences available, people will buy into VR tech.

Theme park experiences like what I tried might offer a fix, giving people a way of seeing what VR is truly capable of. At least, that's what walking the plank gave me.

Putting the R in VR

The company that placed me on that digital roof is a San Rafael, California-based startup called Nomadic.

Unlike the young, hoodie-wearing coders Silicon Valley is known for, this year-and-a-half-old company is filled with industry veterans from the worlds of video games, theme parks, retail environments and Hollywood special effects. The day I paid a visit, many of them were wearing jeans and button-up shirts.

What Nomadic wants to do is trick me into believing for a split second that I'm in the game. And the company thinks it can make money by selling me a ticket to its VR experiences over and over again.

Nomadic hasn't finalized pricing yet, but its first public room should be up and running by the end of the year.

"There are so many great opportunities in VR," said Doug Griffin, the company's CEO and a veteran of Industrial Light & Magic, Electronic Arts, and a film startup that was bought by Walt Disney.

His expertise is in motion capture technology, which lies at the heart of Nomadic's technology. It's typically used in movies and video games to track stunt performers or actors as they act out scenes. Artists then translate those performances into computer-generated characters. Wave a stick around in a motion capture room, and with the help of a computer you can turn it into a Star Wars-style lightsaber.

These immersive worlds look barebones in real life.

Nomadic

Nomadic takes these sensors and combines them with a VR headset, a backpack computer to power it, and a specially built room with objects littered throughout. Almost all the objects talk to the video game you're playing so you see them in the game world.

The way it comes together is that I put on my headset and I'm in the dark. Then I'm handed a flashlight in the real world. I point it around and suddenly I can see in the virtual world. I walk in the real world until I see a boiler in the virtual world. In the real world, a heater blows air at my face. And if I reach out, I can grab the rail between me and the heater.

Still wearing my headset, I walk a little farther and come to a stool. I kick it in the real world and it moves in the virtual one. I touch the filing cabinet next to me, too; I can even open it and grab the gun inside.

It's a more immersive experience than I've ever had -- the gun, though, was unconvincing on one point: like weapons in many movies, it magically didn't run out of bullets.

Griffin shrugs at my nitpick, saying his tech may help revolutionize theme parks, movie theaters and malls. Nomadic says it'll be able to change story lines and experiences with relative ease, thanks to the modular design of the rooms -- like puzzle pieces that can be swapped out every 90 days so customers try something new.

Having that moment of true escape, where my brain was actually tricked into believing I was somewhere else, was very cool. It reminded me of the feeling of "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey," a ride at the Universal Studios theme park in Florida that was so immersive, it almost made me feel like I was piloting a broomstick right beside Harry Potter. People pay hundreds of dollars and travel thousands of miles to have these experiences.

And if we all start buying VR headsets for our homes? Griffin's not worried. I live in a one-bedroom apartment, so I'll never have the space to set up a special room like the one Nomadic is building.

"When the home market takes off, it won't be like what we can do," Griffin said.

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