Dawn, Austin Texas, Day Two, South By Southwest Interactive Festival. Welcome to an orgy of pop culture, consumerism, criticism, discovery, drinking and Texas Bar-b-que. Tom Emrich of Super Ventures, which invests in Augmented Reality startups, told me yesterday he is already experiencing FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). There are a lot of acronyms around flying around here. I had to look that one up. Cline’s quote about the OASIS describes the vibe of SXSW perfectly.
Massive RPO Publicity, like this mural outside their multi-floor themed VR presentations, are everywhere at SXSW.
On March 29, Warner Brothers is set to release Steven Speilberg’s adaptation of Ernie Cline’s seminal 2011 novel set in the dystopian future of 2045, where the nation’s youth, called “the missing millions”, prefer to inhabit a virtual world, the OASIS (an acronym with a useless and obtuse definition) to an America short of justice and long on poverty, slowly decaying from neglect. The plot concerns a contest created the recently deceased founder and owner of this virtual world, James Halliday, to collect hidden “easter eggs” inside the OASIS. The person who solves the riddle will gain ownership of the Google of the future. Millions of people, including an evil and omnipotent corporation, IOI, and a legion of independent “gunters” (a portmanteau of “egg hunters”) have joined the search. A young gunter, Wade Watts, realizing Halliday was obsessed with his youth in the 80s, becomes a student of the period, and collects the 3 keys needed to acquire total ownership of The Oasis. He is soon the target of IOI. Cline spins an exciting yarn whose detailed vision of virtual reality has become a nerd bible. “This movie,” Rikard Steiber, President of HTC’s Vive North America, told me, “has the potential to define virtual reality in popular culture for a generation.”
It should be no surprise to readers that my first stop, lugging my roll on suitcase, was the massive installation built by Warner to introduce the movie’s virtual reality experiences, which seek to mimic aspects of the of the OASIS. In fact, most of the technology Cline discusses in the book is nearly reality today. I wrote about this in what may well be the most popular post of my brief writing career.
To introduce the world of the movie and its VR spin-offs, Vive, the movie’s exclusive VR licensor, and Warner Brothers have taken over an Austin street corner and created several of the sets of the movie to set the mood for the demos. Cool, exciting, evocative, and expensive and incomplete are only a few of the words that coursed through my brain as I experienced the VR that will surely persist long after Speilberg’s movie becomes part of the humdrum physical world. Movies are made very slowly until they go fast (with a million dollars a day in production expenses, very fast). As a result, the developers of RPO VR’s experiences had mere months to create and launch VR experiences which normally take years to produce. For this reason, the experiences are just the beginning of the expansive vision their ambitious and inspired VR creators envision.
“You can’t launch a movie like Ready Player One without giving fans a chance to step into the world of the Oasis. For the film, we created 8 unique VR experiences ranging from an IOI shooter game on Planet Doom to re-imagined VR versions of classic 80s arcade games like Gauntlet and Brick Breaker. Even Steven Spielberg got into the VR games, battling the IOI and making it to the final level of Planet Doom on his first try,” said the film’s producer, my old friend and colleague Donald DeLine, with whom I worked at Disney eons ago. Indeed, the endless metaverse Vive and its partners have created is remarkably close to Cline’s vision.
One of the wave shooters from “Ready Player One” VR. Free (the internet’s favorite price) on Steam for Vive and Rift. Yes, please!
The simple beauty of Sansar’s “Aech’s Garage” was veiled at CES, where Vive shared it and its soon-to-be-released prosumer Vive Pro in private demos. You’re walking around a massive space whose towering scale and fantastic vehicles invites exploration. That’s all there is to it. Sansar, a massively multiplayer metaverse created by “Second Life”, is a lot more fun with a friend.
Likewise, the Avatar creator allows users to build their persona in the OASIS. With thousands of permutations, users can create a visual alter ego to navigate the endless metaverse in a form exotic, heroic, the iconic (Iron Giant), evil and sexy (Harley Quinn from Batman is featued) as well as the caped crusader himself. Unfortunately, these Avatars cannot yet be imported into the other RPO experiences.
The wave shooters Guantlet (kill zombies in an endless dungeon), Battle for the OASIS (from Steel Wool Studios) and Rise of the Gunters (from Drifter Entertainment) are the beginning of action games based on scenes from the movie. Teleporting around while blasting IOI attackers was unusually satisfying. These short, ten to fifteen minute adventures, will be expanded upon in months to come. In the near term, they’re available on Rift, Vive and in VRcades near you. I played a free roam version of the game wearing HP’s backpack VR PC, targeted to LBVR (Location Based Virtual Reality). HP’s executive in charge of LBVR, Joanna Popper, said free roam room scale is gaining popularity for both public and private PC VR use.
Even pedi-cabs and lamp posts are sporting RPO promotions.
Two other experiences, Smash and Fracture, are highly reminiscent of Vive’s popular single player Arcade Saga, which are a lot of simple fun, but hardly leverage the richness of the movie. Nonetheless, I preferred them to their progenitors.
The piece de resistance, the thing I came to see, more than the fantastic sets and beautiful rooms, was the Distracted Globe Music Experience from TheWaveVR. I stepped into a fantastical space inspired by the RPO OASIS club of the same name. Create your own avatar and groove to 80s music and visuals, dancing and flying to the beat in zero gravity. I experienced this with dozens of others at once as the movie’s star, Tye Sheridan joined the throng as D.J. It was one of the most compelling VR experiences I’ve ever had, although Harley Quinn would not dance with me. Couldn’t really hear what she said, but it was something along the lines of “I don’t want to dance with you.” Like a real club, it was really hard to hear in there.
TheWaveVR’s “Ready Player One” dance floor featuring the iron giant.
“Recreating the Distracted Globe nightclub scene is the essence of what we’ve been working on in bringing TheWaveVR to market. Just like the film, we want to create a place where people can come and experience something beyond magical, while socializing on their terms by creating and interacting as personas of their choice. We had to do all this in a way that would get sign off from Steven Spielberg himself. It goes without saying that getting his nod of approval was a career highlight,” said Chief Creative Officer and co-founder of TheWaveVR, Aaron Lemke.
Franchises in Virtual Reality have extraordinary value because you know who and where you are, and what you are supposed to do there without explanation. As gamers know, too much explaining can kill the experience faster than a slow internet connection.
Just a few minutes ago, Warner Brothers announced the movie itself is receiving a special red carpet screening at SXSW tomorrow. This will certainly be the apex of the Interactive Festival.
As I rolled my battered valise to my Austin-hip (and very cheap) Airbnb airstream trailer (Forbes does not pay my travel), I marveled at how far VR has come in so short a time. Its would-be killer apps, training, simulation, and education, have yet to convince consumers to pony up $2000 for PC VR rig for the home. VR’s promised entertainment applications beyond games (almost all of which do not need to be VR) are elusive, but I have glimpsed them in HTC’s imaginative OASIS experiences. I am ready to be Player One, or even Player One Million. It’s enough to make a grown nerd cry.
Posting 6 hours late as internet is precious commodity in large groups, one of the main obstacles facing VR and AR today, to say nothing of mundane Internet tasks like posting a story to Forbes.com