Game of Thrones might be fantasy, but the characters are so deep and the betrayals so gripping that it feels real. And, thanks to Oculus Rift, I just experienced a brief slice of life in the Seven Kingdoms. It was awesome — but I'm glad to be back in our reality.
For the second year in a row, HBO will be hosting a travelling Game of Thrones exhibition, and the first preview of the multi-city nerd extravaganza is happening right now in New York. Inside, there's a prototype of one of the most thrilling Oculus Rift experiences I've ever had.
Called "Ascend the Wall", the virtual reality scenario places you in the carriage of a lift that's scaling the 213m wall of ice in Game of Thrones. You know, this massive thing:
The overall experience is super immersive, even if there's not a lot you can really do. I stepped into a cage-shaped booth and strapped on the original Oculus Rift 720p development kit — rather than the new 1080p prototype. An exhibit staffer set a pair of over ear headphones on my head, and almost immediately I was transported to the icy northern border of the seven kingdoms. The gate to the lift carriage slammed shut and a rickety sounding winch started hauling me to the top of the fortification, as howling winds whizzed by.
As you can see in the GIF above, it's really easy to get lost in this particular VR experience: I was swaying back and forth trying to keep my balance because in virtual reality, I could practically feel the creaky lift swaying back and forth. At several points during the roughly two-minute ride, I couldn't help but reach out and grab the bars of the cage for security. You can look around in every direction, and as the lift gets further and further off the ground, my fear of heights kicked in, and I had to stop looking down. It felt that real.
When you get to the top of the lift you hear the three horns, which signify that White Walkers are coming. The winch starts to go in reverse, and you go down a lot faster than you came up, and I was suddenly afraid that despite the urgency, we were going too fast, and that the winch would lose its hold and send me plummeting to my death. A nightmare come true.
It was intense.
The experience crafted by HBO is really cool, and there's a fair bit we can learn about the uses for VR and Oculus. On the one hand, "Ascend the Wall" is sort of a curious use for the kit. Generally, we tend to think of the VR as being as a tool for the future of 3D gaming: You'll be able to look every which as you fly around in starfighters. Applications that rely on your agency. In this case, it's a little more of a guided tour type experience in which you can look around at what's going on, but not necessarily control a whole lot of it. And even without that level of control, it works.
The sound design also helps make the whole thing such a strong experience. Film directors have known this for a long time: If your movie sounds insane, it does a lot to help really sell crazy or outlandish visuals. The same goes for virtual reality; Thanks to the howling winds and groaning winch, I really felt like I was scaling the wall.
After stepping foot in that cage, it's easy to see how the Oculus won't just be for games, it could be used for entire cinematic experiences. What if you could watch an entire episode of GoT in a 3D experience like this. You could look around, but not interact with what was happening, a bit like the long cut scenes in RPGs. It'd be resource intensive to make, but it would work.
Because HBO's working with just a 720p Oculus kit, the look of the icy scene wasn't especially sharp or high resolution, but it also wasn't choppy. The reality was convincing, even if it didn't quite look like the reality I'm used to. Good visuals don't necessarily need to be realistic visuals. And it's worth noting that the visual authenticity of what I was looking at wasn't as important as the continuity — as long as the image didn't glitch up, I was immersed.
According to reps from HBO, the Game of Thrones Exhibition I saw is a very small part of a larger show that'll be travelling to Austin (for SXSW), then later to Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Oslo, Toronto, Belfast, and Vancouver. (Yes, you can sit in the throne!) Company reps promised that the Oculus exhibit would be expanded with direct input from the show runners and the Oculus developers.
As for the current showing, the GoT exhibition is by far the coolest attraction within Time Warner Cable Studios, an extravagant and frequently tacky publicity event that's happening this week, part of the throbbing hubbub that's been happening because the Super Bowl is in town. TWC expects some 25,000 of its customers to attend — and if you didn't RSVP yet, it's hella sold out so forget about it. But if you somehow get the chance, don't pass it up.
Here's more from the GoT exhibit:
Pictures: Nick Stango