In early December, a small company called Ilium VR launched an Indiegogo campaign to fund the development of Athena, a rifle peripheral designed for virtual reality. Athena offers realistic tactile feedback, coupled with realistic gun recoil and actions to enhance the VR FPS experience.
The virtual reality market is just getting started. Oculus and HTC offer impressive HMDs with robust tracking systems that let you move around, and now that Touch is available, both systems offer tracked hand controllers that take you deeper into the experience. The combination of an HMD and tracked controllers with 6-degrees of freedom movement allows developers to create a wide range of convincing immersive experiences. But there’s only so much a developer can do with a wand controller.
As virtual reality becomes more accepted and people become more accustomed to playing VR games, the demand for additional peripherals will rise. Some experiences, such as using a rifle, demand physical, tactile feedback to complete the illusion. We expect to see a variety of VR peripherals in 2017, but so far, Ilium VR appears to have a leg up on the competition.
Pioneering VR Peripherals
We recently had the chance to speak with Sebastian Sarbora, the CEO and one of Ilium VR’s three co-founders, about the Athena rifle peripheral and to learn more about Ilium VR.
“Ilium VR is a virtual reality peripheral company,” explained Sarbora. “We’re starting with guns because they’re great and they’re fun. They’re a really great way to get into the market. And who doesn’t like playing a really good first person shooter?”
Ilium VR isn’t a new company, but the Athena rifle is its first retail product. Sarbora and his partners, Robert Rouhani (CTO), and Jazmine Olinger (COO) founded Ilium VR three years ago, and they have created a variety of different prototypes in that period. In fact, Ilium VR has already run two developer programs and sent out roughly 50 developer kits to a variety of developers.
The prototype peripherals were built into airsoft guns. We don’t know much about the first run, but earlier this year Ilium VR launched the Persuader developer kit that featured retrofitted sensors to track the trigger, slide, and magazine actuation. The dev kit also featured an attachment on the tip of the barrel that allows you to connect a Vive controller to it.
We tried to get our hands on a Persuader in August, but Ilium VR wasn’t able to supply us with a unit. After waiting for nearly two months, Jazmine Olinger emailed me to let me know that the TSA destroyed the unit that the company earmarked for Tom's Hardware.
“We had two final kits ready to go, one which was for you,” wrote Olinger. “However, we traveled to California recently to film our Indiegogo video and on the flight there the TSA broke one of our controllers and on the flight back they broke the other. And so, we had to take our final two ready-to-ship controllers and keep them in our office for demos and testing. There is some possibility of getting more airsoft guns from the manufacturer and making more, but we are still completely dependent on them, and so far have no further word on when that might be.“
During out interview, Sarbora offered a bit more insight into what happened. According to the executive, Ilium VR bought the last copies of the specific model of airsoft gun used for the Persuader.
”It’s actually interesting,” said Sarbora. The Persuader was a retrofitted airsoft rifle, a Tommy Gun, and we actually hit a limit where we used up the world supply of that particular Tommy Gun. I contacted the factory, and they were like ‘Yeah we'll make them.’ So, we put down a deposit, and three weeks later they said ‘uhh… there’s an issue, and we can’t make them for you. Here’s your deposit back.’”
Ilium VR is now focusing its energy on the retail product. Sarbora said his team took the feedback it received from the developers and early adopters that got their hands on a developer kit to improve the design of Athena. The company is also looking forward to getting feedback from crowdfunding backers. Sarbora said he wants to know what the community expects from this device.
The Athena rifle is designed for use with the HTC Vive and Valve’s lighthouse tracking system. The peripheral features all the input buttons that you would find on a Vive controller and adds a few extra features, such as a mapped slide mechanism and a tracked magazine cartridge. Ilium VR calls the cartridge a “Drop Magazine.” Sarbora explained that when you press the magazine release, the magazine drops “three to four inches,” but it won’t fall to the ground. The cartridge is removable for travel and storage, and perhaps upgrades in the future. “Maybe one day there's a tracked magazine. Or maybe you have a drum magazine that looks like a Tommy gun or something like that,” said the executive.
Ilium VR is among the first 300 companies to license Valve’s Lighthouse technology. The Athena rifle features integrated Lighthouse tracking sensors so it can integrate seamlessly into Steam VR experiences.
Ilium VR also installed a Picatinny rail system onto Athena so you can add accessories to the top, bottom, and sides of the gun’s barrel. Sarbora explained that the rail system is compatible with real gun accessories so that you could dress your Athena up with a laser sight or scope for decoration, but the company has plans to produce accessories in the future. The rail system features electrical contacts so that you can add accessories to the gun that would show up in your game.
“If the crowd funding campaign is massively successful, we have a plan to get people all these great attachments that we can produce,” said Sarbora. “Like an under-barrel grenade launcher/shotgun where you actually pump it and then it pumps in the game. Or a scope that you mount on top, and you can adjust the dials so that you can change the optics in the game. Or a flashlight or laser sight on the side that you actually press a button to turn on and off. These are all things that electrically, and in terms of software, we can provide. We're just, right now, focusing on the core Athena product. And if it becomes massively successful we're going to reward our backers with those products that they can have.”
Ilium VR created an SDK to accompany the rifle peripheral. The company built the SDK for the Persuader, but the same software works with Athena. The SDK allows developers to integrate the extra features of the rifle, such as the slide and the optional Picatinny accessories. Without the SDK, almost any SteamVR FPS game will support the basic functions of the gun.
The SDK also maps out where the slide, trigger, and magazine are on the controller so that developers can place those features in the correct spot on the in-game model. Sarbora said that other than those three key components, developers have free reign of the gun model’s design.
With the Persuader developer kits out of production and the Athena peripherals a full year away, it may appear futile for new developers to support Athena. We asked Sarbora what developers can do if they want to add support for Athena to their games. He said that Ilium VR would handle new developer requests on a case by case basis. Small independent developers might have to wait until closer to the retail release, but larger studios will have the opportunity to receive early prototypes.
“I will say that just because the Persuader is no longer out does not mean it will not continue to have a developer program. Maybe developers of the program will get Athena when we have early prototypes back that are ready for manufacturing--Depending on how high-level they are. We are still internally producing all sorts of prototypes. We’re producing all sorts of low-level production runs of different types of rifles and controllers all the time,” said Sarbora.Many of them are going to be in a slightly different. We've made shotguns. We’ve made sniper rifles. We’ve made revolvers. We've made all sorts of interesting things. And so, just like the Persuader and our first developer kit, they're meant to be low volume, and they're meant to go out to game studios exclusively. And it will be an application process that we’ll have to accept them because of the volume and time that we have.”
Ilium VR is offering the Athena Rifle at a discount through an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. You can purchase the early bird package for $260, which includes a single Athena rifle and a bundled game. Two of the developers that already have Persuader dev kits agreed to be part of the Athena campaign. Backers get the choice of receiving a copy of Nest from Invrse Studios or a copy of Arizona Sunshine from Vertigo Games. If you miss out on the early bird package, Ilium offers a $300 package that includes the gun and both games. Following the campaign, Athena will sell for $300 without the bundled games.
Ilium VR is targeting December 2017 as the shipping timeframe. We asked Sarbora why the campaign has such a long lead-time if Ilium already has experience producing prototypes. The executive explained that there are several reasons for the long-lead time, but primarily he wanted to ensure that the company had enough time to ensure that Athena meets customer expectations.
“We want to make sure that we are doing a good amount of long-term testing for these so that when someone buys, Athena and they get it shipped to them, it's not going to last a year or to two years,” said Sarbora. “They’re going to have five or six, or ten years before they have to send it back for repair. We want this to be really sturdy, and we want to test it out and make sure that there are no problems with it.”
Sarbora doesn’t necessarily expect the production process to take a full year, though. The yearlong lead-time is mostly to give the company a buffer in case something goes wrong.
“We may ship earlier than that,” he said. “But we don't want to have the same problem that all these other crowdfunding campaigns do, where they tell you that they're going to release in six months and then it ends up being a year, eighteen months, or whatever. We're telling you twelve months because no matter what, you're getting Athena by the end of the twelve months. That’s our promise.”
The only way that Sarbora foresees a delay is if the Indiegogo campaign isn’t successful. Ilium VR is seeking $100,000 from Indiegogo backers, but so far it isn’t going well. The Athena campaign kicked off on December 5, and so far, the company has raised less than $4,000. Sarbora estimates that production could see as much as a six-month delay if the campaign isn’t successful.
“We want to bring the controller out to the market, and we know that given enough eyes on the campaign, it will be successful,” said Sarbora. “Crowdfunding is just one strategy to bring it to market, and there are more strategies that we can take on to actually bring this to people. If the campaign doesn’t successfully fund, we have some restrategizing that we have to do, but we still want to move forward with Athena.”
Update 12/22/16 at 2:33pm PT: Corrected spelling error of Invrse Studios' name. Added link to Invrse's website.