As frequent Tom’s Hardware readers know, even though we’ve enjoyed copious VR demos of late and are free to describe them in loving detail, we’re rarely allowed to show any footage or images of the experiences. That changed at Mobile World Congress, where we were allowed to shoot the IEEE’s Mars Rover demo.
Yes, that IEEE. Why is the IEEE doing VR? There are two reasons: Primarily, the group believes that shared VR experiences will be a key element of widespread VR adoption. It’s hard to disagree with that assessment — and really, if you think about the concept of virtualized spaces, engaging with others within them is a fundamental use case. In addition to the fact that it enables more powerful interactions for people working on projects together remotely, it sounds thoroughly enjoyable, doesn’t it? There are other companies working in this space, including AltspaceVR.
As to why the IEEE chose to show what it can do in multiplayer VR with a Mars rover demo, it’s simply because many of the engineers engaged with it formerly worked on projects for real space missions. Therefore, the Mars Rover experience is a love letter, if you will.
Mission On Mars
Two of us got the chance to navigate through the Mars Rover demo. In the video, you’ll see our Editor-In-Chief, Fritz Nelson, but I had a go at it as well.
There are three participants at a time. Each of you is seated and dons an Oculus Rift DK2 headset and some headphones. You each get a right-hand joystick and left-hand thruster. That sounds terribly exciting, but you’re limited to moving in one of four directions on the joystick and forward and backward with the thruster. (In other words, there’s no Martian sniping to be had.)
A captain (a fourth party who is not in the virtual environment with you) doles out instructions. Each player has four tasks to perform, so there are 12 total. When the demo begins, you’ll get a notification on your HUD that a given task must be performed, and only you can see it. Usually that task is one that you aren’t able to perform yourself, so you have to tell a teammate to do it. That requires you to shout the task out so that a teammate will hear you and perform it; meanwhile, your teammates will be shouting out instructions that you (and your other teammates) need to perform. If the tasks are not performed in a timely manner, the mission will fail and everyone dies.
In my run, none of us actually spoke the same native language. Correctly assessing my monolingual gringo-ness, the captain asked, “Alejandro, do you speak English?” He did. I apologized for my terrible Spanish, in terrible Spanish. “Mi español no es bueno,” I admitted sheepishly. Our other compadre spoke enough English for all of us to get by.
And get by we did. The Mars Rover experience is an on-rails experience, so it rolls along no matter what you do. It was surprisingly difficult to read each task that popped up, process if it was one of mine or one of my teammates, and either fix it or shout it out to the crew, all while listening for instructions from my teammates on my objectives. And, of course, I had to perform my tasks, too.
Our stellar crew was able to solve all of the little problems as they arose, and we made it out alive and with our vessel intact. Our captain congratulated us on a job well done.
The Mars Rover demo was simple, and although it was fun, it’s not the kind of thing I wanted to do again and again. But for the IEEE, it seems that this is really just an engaging proof of concept. Is multiplayer VR feasible? Yes. Can it be fun? Sure. Could it work locally as well as remotely? Indeed.
As I mentioned earlier, the IEEE isn’t the only group working on multiplayer VR — that is, fluid, active, unpredictable experiences, not just games where you shoot things together — but it does see a (near) future where people can collaborate on projects, communicate with each other, and otherwise engage within virtual environments.
Update, 3/8/16, 1:24pm CT: Globalcore worked on developing this experience.