Remember the days when interaction meant a paddle dial and a bouncing electronic Ping-Pong ball? * Well, we’ve come a long way baby, and nothing says progress like Vivid Group’s latest virtual reality release, Meteor Storm.
Featuring a patented technology called Gesture Xtreme (GX), this multiplayer VR game uses blue screen backgrounds and video cameras to project a real-time 3-D image of each player into a digitally contrived gaming landscape. The interface that tracks the players’ motions is so fast that movements between reality and the on-screen environment are simultaneous and flawlessly smooth. Up to six players try to block and intercept flying space rocks as an intense meteor shower hurtles towards earth.
Released this month, Meteor Storm sports a hefty price tag of roughly US$15,000 with average additional fees of between US$12,000 to US$19,000 for custom-made hardware.
Designed for science centers, museums and trade expos (comprising 60% of Vivid’s business), as well as arcades (a growing client sector that currently makes up 20%), the new game joins a stable of over 400 VR units that Toronto’s Vivid Group has developed since its inception in 1986. The company’s slate includes titles like SharkBait (an arcade-ish game in which players tickle dolphins and collect starfish for points, while avoiding sharks and electric eels like the plague), Soccer GX, Virtual Volleyball and a hockey-based unit called ShutOut that’s featured in Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame.
GX systems have the marked advantage of not requiring players to hold or wear anything. Says Vivid Group president Vincent John Vincent: ‘Our games are the perfect attraction for public venues-you can move thousands of people through, kids can go crazy with a lot of interactive visuals and sound, but nothing gets broken and there’s no headgear or handheld equipment to clean.’ GX units can be found at Disney’s Epcot Center, Smithsonian Institutes, some Discovery theme parks and the Kids Quest chain of arcade entertainment centers.
Later this year, Vivid plans to release a virtual reality PC package for the mass market that will revolutionize the way CD-ROM games are played.
The company is working on developing deals to bundle its US$49 TiltGX software with video cameras that mount on top of computer terminals and retail separately for US$100 to US$300. Players of the soccer-based game will initially try to score goals against a computer opponent by tilting their head to move their on-screen body. But according to Vincent, the game will quickly evolve so that users will be able to compete with one another via an Internet connection, and as consumers become used to the at-home VR technology, Tilt GX will also be modified so that players can stand in front of their terminals to project their whole body into the game.
Speaking of ‘getting into the game,’ Vivid is planning to realize that long-running console game marketing promise sometime in the year 2000 when it partners with one of the U.S. vid game giants (Nintendo, Sega or Sony PlayStation) to release a VR camera/software bundle that should sell for around US$150.
The coolness of these new-age play apps aside, Vincent emphatically believes the true test of a technology’s mettle lies in its ability to adapt for practical applications outside the interactive gaming world. ‘It’s not enough to just pioneer the technology, you’ve got to take it as far as you can, as fast as you can, or you’ll get left behind.’
Vivid has managed to find financially viable niches for GX systems in a number of different arenas, including TV production, physiotherapy and virtual conferencing, a far-out concept that’s being touted in high-tech circles as the second coming of the Internet.
With a grant from the venerable institution of Industry Canada, Vivid is working in tandem with similar groups in the other G7 nations to construct a broadband server with a mega-modem for projecting live images in real time from several different locations into one 3-D environment. ‘It’s like video conferencing, but on a broadcast TV level. So movements are fluid, and there’s no choppy time gap,’ explains Vincent. ‘The games are certainly fun to produce, but this application will take communication and interactivity to a whole new plane.’
On the tube side of the entertainment biz, Vivid created a US$250,000 foursome of ‘virtual game sets’ for a bizarre hour-long game show that aired for one season during prime time on Japan’s Tokyo Broadcasting Systems (TBS) in October 1996. Varikin-7 (Virtual Reality Kinki Kids 7) showcased a recurring cast of seven Japanese teens who were given point-earning tasks to complete in arcade-like alternate universes designed by Vivid. In one segment, players had to outrun a giant black spider in a Technicolor flower garden setting, all the while singing karaoke at the top of their lungs.
The game show potential of GX was recognized in the TV industry Stateside in 1992 with the premiere of Nickelodeon’s daily series Nick Arcade. Targeted to kids ages six to 11, Arcade enjoyed a hearty five-year run on Nick before being sold into international syndication. The show, which still airs in Canada on YTV, features a two-story virtual activity gauntlet, courtesy of Vivid, that kids race through to beat the ticking clock.
Vivid games like ShutOut and Gravball, which require players to bend and stretch their bodies to prevent goal scorage, are also a natural fit for physiotherapy and rehabilitation. Patients, especially wee ones, get bored by the repetitive and mindless manual exercises traditionally used by practitioners of this craft. But throw them into a colorful virtual environment armed with a fun task, and they’ll ‘work out’ for hours. A recent U.S. study that tested the effectiveness of using Vivid games in rehab centers showed that some patients recovered as much as 200% faster under the GX regimen.
The impending CD-ROMification of Vivid’s title roster starting next year, coupled with the subsequent price drop, will likely result in skyrocketing interest from the educational market. In fact, the company already has a couple of learning games in the bag. The Science of Oz, developed in 1997 for Charlotte, North Carolina-based Discovery Place, uses yellow-brick-road backgrounds licensed from Warner Bros. to teach young kids about primary color mixing (i.e. yellow + blue = green).
Aimed at a teen demo, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry’s Star Trek Federation Science Transporter Room enhances spatial conception abilities by asking users to pair abstract objects with their shape-appropriate containers in a licensed Star Trek holodeck setting.
According to Vincent, licensed properties attract kid crowds like honey attracts bees- ‘A licensed name or setting always creates a bigger draw because the public immediately identifies with fame.’ Because young boys, in particular, tend to idolize sports celebrities, the NBA provided the perfect hero hook for a Vivid hoop game called Full Court Slam. Developed for the University of Kentucky’s Basketball Hall of Fame last November, players can pound the courts against NBA stars who also happen to be U of K alumni.
* Pong, for all you non-geeks