To say I’m not a gamer would be an understatement. When I was a kid my job was to read all the narrative booklets that came with my cousins’ video games. I’d sum it up for them while they played. Quiz me on any Tekken character’s backstory and I’ll impress, but actually picking up a controller and playing? I’m hopeless.
Virtual-reality, though, isn’t like other video games.
Up until now, VR’s potential has been light years in front of its technology. The idea of popping on some glasses and being able to experience things that are totally impossible in real life is awesome. The reality, so far, has been expensive, cumbersome headsets, foggy glasses, crappy tracking and the odd bout of nausea. Zero Latency, though, seems to have ironed out a lot of these kinks.
The company opened its first free-roam virtual-reality space in Melbourne in 2015. It was the product of years of development from co-founders Tim Ruse, Scott Vandonkelaar and Kyle Smith, who slowly refined their creation while working day jobs in various business and technology industries. Since then they’ve opened up locations in the USA, Japan and Europe, constantly improving and tweaking the software. The result is that Brisbane’s version of Zero Latency runs like a well-oiled machine.
My first thought on arriving at the arena in Newstead is, “I’m definitely going to smack into a wall.” Thankfully, what looks like a conference room turns out to be the reception area.
Before the game starts you get a brief induction on the technology and rules of the game, and geared up with a backpack (which holds a powerful laptop – hence, no wires), goggles, headphones and gun. Then you’re taken into a huge warehouse – roughly 400 square metres – with plenty of room to explore the virtual worlds. This wireless freedom is what makes Zero Latency different from the vast majority of VR experiences so far.
At any one time the space can support two teams of eight. You can see the other players in the game, working together to fight off bad guys or perhaps reach the next level. Zero Latency’s flagship game is the ubiquitous zombie apocalypse shooter, Zombie Survival. Here you shoot zombies, repair barricades and more-or-less try not to die. But the other two titles, beautifully designed Engineerium and problem-solving shooter Singularity, might be more demonstrative of what sets VR apart from other kinds of video games. They’re more about the world that’s created and the way it makes you feel than what you actually have to do.
You can have fun just by walking around. I was worried about being bored, or, in the case of the zombie shooting game, scared, but the reality is the best of both worlds. Your brain gets tricked enough that you feel like you’re experiencing something mildly dangerous and exciting, but you’re aware enough that it’s all fake so you never really get scared. That’s the upside of the less-than-state-of-the-art graphics; anything approaching photorealism would freak most people out.
Co-founder Tim Ruse says that my experience as a non-gamer is pretty common. “Generally, we find it’s more impactful for people who aren’t big gamers,” he says. “If you haven’t played many modern video games and then you enter something this immersive, people find it really impressive.”
Ruse says that most of the time it’s not the technically sophisticated or artistically advanced aspects of the game that people tend to engage with. It’s the simple things, such as Engineerium’s curved bridges and feeling of being up high. “We always get positive feedback on things when we’re giving people a mental challenge – something like height – where their sense of reality is actually skewed,” he says. “People are taken aback by how much it fools their brain, how easily your rational mind can be overwritten.”
Ruse reckons VR has a chance to reach an audience outside of what we think of as traditional gamers. You don’t need to have an instinctive knowledge of how gaming works to enjoy playing. At around $66 for half an hour, it’s more expensive than most forms of group entertainment, but still reasonably priced for a completely new experience. Zero Latency wants to continue developing one new game a year, with a focus on different kinds of body tracking and ways for people to interact with the digital environments.
The idea of putting on goggles and headphones and running around with a gun seemed slightly silly to me (I even made my friend come – if I looked stupid, I didn’t want to be the only one). But all the barriers disappeared as soon as those goggles went on. Everyone was in this new virtual world, shouting and laughing and swearing as legitimately gross zombies swarmed. We were just having fun. While novelty will always be a factor in any new form of entertainment, in the case of VR it feels like the potential for development and improvement is so huge it might never get old.
Zero Latency is now open at 34 Chester Street, Newstead.