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Intelligent Machines

When Virtual Reality Collides with Reality, It’s Surreal

A Portland startup called Wild is combining virtual reality with elements of the physical world.

Bringing in real props that you can touch or grasp could make virtual reality feel more realistic.

In 1962, cinematographer Morton Heilig patented his Sensorama Stimulator—a bulky virtual-reality machine that showed 3-D films on a personal display while pumping in smells, sounds, and the sensation of wind.

Startup Wild combines virtual reality with real objects. This composite shot shows the view from inside a Gear VR headset and in the real world.

Heilig was never able to popularize the sensory-immersive Sensorama; it remains a curious footnote in the history of virtual reality. But a small startup based in a Portland, Oregon, garage could have better luck.

Since March, Wild has been building an experience that combines virtual reality with elements of real life. Visitors wear a virtual-reality headset and headphones, so they’re surrounded by 3-D virtual images and accompanying sound effects and music. But the 3-D scenes include instructions to do things like reach out to turn a doorknob and open a door, and when you do, you find it’s not just a digital rendering of a door but a real door and doorknob that you must open and walk through to navigate from one virtual room to another.

“We like the idea of combining the physical space with virtual reality because it grounds the user in the experience more than just floating through the ether,” explains Wild founder Gabe Paez. 

Wild hopes companies will want it to build these kinds of mixed-reality experiences for trade shows or events, and can imagine it working as a sort of theme-park ride, too.

For now, Wild’s attempt at joining the two is just a prototype: a space carved out in the middle of its office, roughly constructed with two-by-fours, divided into two rooms with that aforementioned door between them and a handful of other elements—a window, a lever, and a light switch. All these bits of reality are matched up with several virtual scenes the company has created and which run on a Samsung Gear VR headset and its accompanying smartphone, sitting within the headset.

I got a chance to check it out for myself last week. The 10-minute demo was surreal; while I knew what I was seeing and hearing wasn’t actually happening, the elements of the real world that poked through at different points made the digital environment feel surprisingly authentic and interactive. 

For instance, at one point a door was revealed in my virtual environment, and I reached out to grab an actual doorknob. I opened the door, and stepped into different room, which resembled a cabin, complete with a kitchen table onto which popcorn was popping in a rainbow-like arc from midair into a bowl—I reached out and there was really popcorn there, in a bowl, for me to snack on.

At another point, I turned off a light switch, apparently triggering a noisy storm outside a cabin window; wind and mist blew in my face until I walked over and pulled the window shut.

There was also a scene where I had to pull a large lever from side to side; moving it to the right or the left in reality slowed down an endless stream of red sports cars driving past me on what resembled a Tokyo street.

Wild makes this all work by using a bevy of sensors to gather data about where you are and what you’re doing. It uses several Kinect sensors to find your position in space, as well as sensors on the real-world objects—such as the door, from which they can draw rotational data as you open or close it.

Mark Bolas, an associate professor at the University of Southern California and director of mixed reality research at its Institute for Creative Technologies, says such intersections of real-world objects with virtual reality are “grounding moments,” making it more likely that people will believe that the virtual experience is real.

“Every time you have one of those you let go of the real world a little bit more,” he says.

Still, Wild has to work on aligning the virtual world and real objects, among other things. In the virtual world, I had the sense of being taller than I really am, and when I reached out to open that first door, the knob wasn’t quite where I expected; I also often found myself taking tiny steps and reaching out hesitantly to make sure I wouldn’t crash into anything (I didn’t).

Paez says the company is just starting to explore the idea of whether virtual reality can exist in physical space. He says the company is looking into using other motion-capturing technologies to improve tracking.

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