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Zombie VR showed me how to cut the cord and walk with the dead

The latest free-roaming VR game by Zero Latency showed me I'll be just fine in the zombie apocalypse. My friends on the other hand...

Zero Latency
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Ready, player one. 

Roger Cheng/CNET

When the zombie uprising came, I was thankful for two things. 

One: I was carrying a big gun. Two: My virtual reality headset didn't have me tethered to a uselessly short cable.

As the tech world gathered at the year's biggest technology show this past January, we were sold a future that was high-tech and seamlessly connected. The main show halls at CES in Las Vegas were filled with VR demos running on ultra-fast 5G networks, high-powered laptops running on mobile phone processors and any number of always-on, always-connected smart robots.

Down the road from the Las Vegas Convention Center, at the MGM Grand Casino, I was rigged up to a different vision of the future: free-roam, multiplayer VR, created by Australian virtual reality company Zero Latency.

That people are willing to pony up $50 (roughly £35 or AU$62) for 30 minutes in this game points to a larger trend in the so-called "location-based entertainment" industry (think theme parks, laser tag, arcades, escape rooms). Entertainment is going high-tech, blending the physical and the digital to create experiences users just can't get at home.

For instance, in my new virtual world, I was running through a 3D hellscape of post-apocalyptic ruins, pwning zombies and fighting for survival. In reality, I was with three nerdy colleagues in the bowels of the MGM Grand, covered in panic sweat and shouting obscenities as we ran around a 2,000-square-foot (185-square-meter) black box room.

This was the future of video games, arcades and amusement thrills all in one. And yes, I won.

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Stay away from my precious, precious brains!

Zero Latency

Cutting the cord

The premise of Zero Latency is simple enough: VR, untethered.

Players don a custom VR headset (a modified HDK2.0 headset from OSVR) and a pump-action gun controller, and strap on a backpack fitted with an Alienware Alpha 2 PC. All the action takes place in a no-frills, warehouse-style room, painted black with a white grid on the floor -- what Zero Latency calls its "live-tracking volume."

Players are mapped on Zero Latency's game grid thanks to light-up balls on their headset and gun. 

Roger Cheng/CNET

But this is VR! Physical surroundings don't matter! With the headset on, you're immediately transported to a 3D world, free to walk around like you're living inside a video game. The grid on the floor and two glowing, ping-pong-sized balls on both your gun and your headset (yes, you're going to look like a high-tech anglerfish) allow the system to track you and your fellow players, who show up as digital avatars in the game, so you don't collide with each other.

We're playing through Zero Latency's brand-new, fast zombie game Outbreak Origins. The game opened in Brisbane on Australia's east coast on Halloween in 2017, but is still in prelaunch stage in Vegas.

You wouldn't know it. The game feels slick and completely immersive. After initial trepidation (I rate myself as a Grade-A n00b when it comes to zombie horror) we're on board. Tentative steps turn into bold breaks for freedom. One of our crew pulls a straight-up Leeroy Jenkins and trips over completely flat ground in the process. Our review: A+++ would pwn again.

According to Zero Latency co-founder and CEO Tim Ruse, the free-roaming aspect of the game is what really sets it apart.

"Most people have experienced virtual reality in a static format like sitting in their chair," he told me on the phone in Australia. "When you couple that with walking around, it's really, really immersive."

This goes far beyond gawking at an overheated phone in a cardboard headset, or even the thrill of more high-tech (but still largely static) experiences like Oculus Rift games. The HTC Vive lets you walk around, but the space is limited.

Physical movement supercharges the experience. Why else would we see grown adults willing to strap themselves into VR paragliding rigs or weird VR bird-flight simulators to bring a physical element to their digital simulations?

Visions of the future 

Attractions like theme parks and arcades have long used technology to lure customers -- Disneyland was sending park visitors through space on its Star Tours motion simulator ride as early as 1987.

Companies like Zero Latency are embracing VR "because it enables them to offer their customers another way to escape from the everyday, which is ultimately what amusement vendors provide us," said Malcolm Burt, virtual reality Ph.D. researcher and self-styled "amusement academic."

Now companies like Bandai Namco are opening VR arcades in Tokyo, Utah-based VR company The Void is jumping in on walk-through VR experiences and in China the gates are about to open on the $1.5-billion Oriental Science Fiction Valley park -- a theme park devoted entirely to VR (and giant robots... natch).

These experiences feel cutting-edge to a person who hasn't tried VR, but they're ultimately just a 21st-century upgrade on the concept that drove '80s arcades: They provide the tech and games that you can't install (or afford) at home.

Down the line, when VR adoption is more widespread and prices come down, we may end up spending more time in our homes, Burt said.

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In Outbreak Origins, players use a physical gun in the real world to create the feeling of a first-person shooter in the VR game.

Zero Latency

More than a gimmick

Ruse is less sure. Despite the spec'd-out VR kit and the advanced live tracking, Zero Latency isn't just about the tech.

"Some people think, 'The technology's great, therefore that's enough.' It's not enough," he said, touting the blend of tech, social elements, game design and adventure that he says make Zero Latency unique.

After all, can you stand back-to-back with your mates after dashing to escape the zombie hordes or laugh when fellow CNET reporter Alfred Ng trips while trying to escape the undead? There's no doubt the experience of running around a warehouse-style room with up to seven friends is more immersive then flailing around your living room.

Ever since Disneyland started showing 1950s America a futuristic vision of itself through Tomorrowland, the amusement industry has been selling us a vision of tomorrow, today. Throw in a town like Vegas -- a place where you can watch an underwater Cirque du Soleil show and see hip-hop dancers shoot digital fireballs onstage all before your 9 o'clock buffet -- and it makes sense that this is the place where technology meets thrill seeking.

VR is the future of high-tech amusement for the foreseeable future at least.

At the MGM Grand, I vaunt over my final zombie corpse and start to pull off my headset to celebrate with my CNET comrades: a successful mission, and many miles covered. But we're back in that black-painted room, no helicopters or zombie labs in sight as another tentative group gets geared up for a game.

The zombies might have been digital and the rough terrain might have just been a painted grid on the floor, but those 132 headshots were real. And I won't let anyone forget it. 

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