There’s a famous scene early in the original Star Wars where future Jedi Luke Skywalker is training in the ways of the Force, using a lightsaber to deflect precision shots from a small floating droid. Out of all the things you could hope to do in virtual reality, wielding a laser sword like that would probably rank pretty high for most—especially if you could move your physical body around in the digital space and feel like you were really there.
The most intriguing possibility in virtual reality is movement, but the wires that tether many VR headsets to the computers that run VR software are a barrier in the way. Atomic VR was founded to untangle the thorny problem of making virtual reality wireless, a lofty technological goal that’s been too hard to hit as VR companies like Oculus continue to internally develop higher and higher resolution headsets.
That hasn’t stopped the two-man Seattle startup from working out their own solution: a lightweight prototype vest carrying a compact form factor PC that hooks directly into an HTC Vive virtual reality headset, allowing users to roam around in a real space of up to 12 square feet. Armed with the Vive’s wireless controllers—which mimic hand movement in virtual spaces—strapping in to Atomic’s “saber” demo transports you to a small arena where you can dual-wield one of pop culture’s most iconic weapons.
As it turns out squaring off against a bigger and more aggressive version of the training droid (now armed with homing missiles and its own defenses) requires some deft maneuvering. Blade swinging and deflections aside, you might easily find yourself ducking and juking just before countering or to avoid incoming attacks (often unsuccessfully, but still, you feel the impulse).
Acrobatics like these are common in games, but it’s hard to understate the difference (not to mention the physical limitations) of performing them with your own body. A few minutes with the droid and you’ll likely come away with a whole new appreciation for performers that make action like swordplay look effortless in games and movies. It’s no surprise that a VR demo like this one can be quite a workout.
That’s exactly the point, says Atomic CEO Mike Lenzi.
“The [Nintendo] Wii and the [Microsoft] Kinect were very novel, popular types of motion gaming and they started some really cool ideas,” he says. “But as you know with [Wii Sports], you think you’re swinging a tennis racket—pretty soon you’d be sitting on the couch with a bag of Doritos twitching your wrists, getting a hit every time.”
To really sell immersive, believable virtual reality requires a headset with position tracking that’s low-latency, meaning any head movement is accurately translated simultaneously into a virtual environment. Past attempts used rudimentary sensors or cameras to identify motion on a much broader level—essentially replacing the act of using a controller with, say, rotating a device or waving an arm. Atomic goes a step further than past motion gaming tech in its sophistication.
Atomic plans to take advantage of the big commercial virtual reality push coming this year, with companies like Sony, HTC, Valve, and Oculus/Facebook all planning to release their own VR headsets soon. Atomic’s tech works with the HTC Vive, though Lenzi isn’t sure about the viability of making other headsets, like the Oculus Rift or PlayStation VR, wireless yet.
On paper, Atomic utilizing HTC’s gear is simple enough that it may seem obvious. To digitally pinpoint a user’s position and motion in real time, Vive uses wireless tracking devices which project lasers that can read sensors attached to various body parts—in Atomic’s case, the Vive headset, controllers and vest. Compared to a normal VR setup, which wires a headset and tracking camera directly into a computer, the form factor PC attached to Atomic’s vest acts as a vessel for data streamed from a desktop (yes, VR’s resource-heavy systems require a second computer as well). That frees users up to move around within range of the tracking devices, making the wearable ideal for fitness-oriented applications.
Lenzi thinks virtual fitness could potentially appeal to some as an offshoot of esports, not to mention challenge expectations for what someone can do when exercising. “You could gameify biometric data,” he says, giving one example. “I can go down to my local gym, pay a membership fee and run on a treadmill or I can go slay a dragon or fight a drone.”
Either way Lenzi is well aware that the high cost of high-performance gear is a significant barrier to entry. While consumers can already try out VR with a handful of smartphone-designed headsets like Samsung’s Gear VR, most don’t support position tracking. Nothing compares to the real thing, even if Lenzi isn’t expecting huge sales the minute Atomic’s kit is commercially released.
“We’re not drinking the Kool-Aid for VR, saying everybody’s going to have it like an iPhone—it’s not going to be that way,” he says. “It’s going to be high-end gamers that are going to buy this stuff at first, and then even then we think it’s going to be quite a big expense initially. It’s not going to be overnight.”
There are other issues too: you can’t see the real world with a headset on (“You’re effectively blindfolded,” Lenzi says) and there are space concerns over playing something like the saber demo. Atomic added transparent colored grids here, intuitively appearing in the virtual training droid arena if you venture too close to max range of Vive’s tracking devices.
They also made a range of other programs to demonstrate the breadth of what VR can do. For tight quarters, there’s a Fruit Ninja-style slicing game (which quickly exposes how hard it is to keep the sharp side of a blade facing the right direction when swinging), a Jenga-ish sim where the Vive’s controllers stand in for your hands and a movie monster “ride”, to name a few.
Atomic’s slate of apps is still in development—Lenzi makes sure to clarify the saber demo will probably end up taking the less instantly recognizable form of a morphing particle weapon in its final iteration—and isn’t necessarily being designed exclusively for the company’s core software. Lenzi says Atomic has been shopping around their prototypes to various manufacturers in Asia; at the same time he wants the company to continue making new VR games and apps while continuing to improve performance on the backend.
“Maintaining framerate is king,” he says.
Nor does Lenzi tie Atomic’s success exclusively to games. Companies have shown interest in industries ranging from automotive to architecture, where engineers and clients could simultaneously examine dimensional models of building sites, for instance.
“Clients are able to understand complicated 3D environment concepts much quicker in VR,” Lenzi says. “You show someone a blueprint, without training most people don’t get it—put the goggles and they get it and can respond.”
Large spaces like police training facilities, theme parks or entertainment centers seem like logical places for wireless VR. To accommodate bigger floor plans like these, Atomic’s system works with a beefier camera system that’s typically designed for motion capture in movies or games, with a maximum range of around 50 square feet.
“[Large installations] don’t want to mess with cables,” Lenzi says. “If they’ve got basically a commercial VR console that navigates to whatever they need when you press the power button, that’s a no-brainer.”
Power consumption for large-scale uses might prove tricky; right now the batteries powering Atomic’s various prototypes (they’ve created backpack and camera bag styles in addition to the vest) last about 45 minutes a pop, though they can be swapped out for fresh ones on the fly.
Of course, with the constantly evolving nature of tech, Atomic’s initial wearable fix may be out of date sooner rather than later.
“It could be that in a couple years there will be a new type of wireless—maybe you won’t have to wear the pc anymore,” Lenzi says. “But it won’t necessarily leave you not wearing any type of technology. If you think about [touch-based] haptics and body tracking, those things still have to be on your person. But we’re still trying to figure out what the threshold is.”
In any case, Lenzi is optimistic that eventually VR will find its foothold.
“We think it’s a compelling scenario that people will find a solution for—if they want it bad enough,” he says.
Steve Haske is a freelance writer whose work can be found regularly on Vice and Motherboard. He lives in Seattle, WA and tweets from @afraidtomerge.
RELATED: GND Weekly with Andrea Rene: E3 News, Free Games and GameStop Takes a Leap