My hands are sweaty. The gun I'm holding is heavy. I'm stressed already. I feel like I've been running for hours. "Where are they?" "I don't know. Why is it so quiet in here?" The dark room we're in is deathly silent, eerily still and incredibly dark. The flashlights mounted on our rifles barely light up the end of the hall we're walking towards, inching forward and stepping around the floor-to-ceiling shelves that throw shadows up against the walls and continue to frighten the hell out of us.
Nothing actually happens. We make it through the room without incident, but that doesn't make it any less upsetting. It's not quiet for long. There's another, definitely zombie-filled room right in front of us. This is Zero Latency, a full-motion virtual reality space in Melbourne, and it's awesome.
Zero Latency VR caught our attention last year, as a Pozible campaign to crowd-fund a much smaller venue, but has been in the works since the middle of 2013. Two years on from that initial idea and the first concept of Zero Latency, a lot has changed — the 50 square metre room has changed to a much larger and more versatile 450 square metre warehouse, for one — and Melbourne's most immersive virtual reality space is about to open to the public.
Two years is a long time in the tech world. The team didn't even have an original Oculus Rift DK1 development kit when they started working on the idea for Zero Latency. Now, on the verge of opening its doors to the public as a fully-fledged gameplay experience, Zero Latency's virtual reality rig is based upon the second generation of the Oculus Rift, the DK2. When the consumer version comes around some time in 2016, they'll be able to upgrade their rigs easily and accommodate the more powerful hardware. But even in its current form, Zero Latency is an experience that you'll enjoy, that you'll remember, and that you'll want to try over and over.
In a cold, stark warehouse in the middle of North Melbourne, behind a roller door, it's a completely different world.
Zero Latency's Pozible campaign in early 2014 asked for $25,000 to bring the idea to life — at that time, a two-player experience in a small room. By the time the campaign finished, an impressive but not Star-Citizen-spectacular $30,000 had been raised. Armed with loftier aspirations, the team tracked down a much larger tranche of venture capital investment and aimed for the six-player game as it exists today. Six guys form the backbone of Zero Latency, all bringing different skills to the table — level design and 3D work, electrical engineering, project management — and two years of trial and error, extremely hard work, and good luck have paid off.
Tim Ruse is the face of the brand — he's the organiser, the story writer — "if it's not hardware or software, I'm doing it". Scott Vandonkelaar is ZL's coding brain — he has been modding games since the original Counter-Strike and Monster Truck Madness; the company's first funding actually came from a corporate mobile app he wrote. James De Colling is the game and CG producer, with a background at Atari Melbourne and Grasshopper Manufacture in Tokyo. Hunter Mayne is the computer hardware guy — he's in charge of the network build and the design of the backpack PCs, as well as designing and fabricating the controllers on the CNC mill. Kyel Smith is the team's hacker — anything from soldering circuit boards to welding the overhead camera tracking rig. The ZL team also includes Danny Armstrong, previously at 2K Australia and THQ and having worked on Borderlands 2, who takes care of virtual reality environment's game audio.
But there's also another very important figure. Zero Latency's angel investor: Carthona Capital raised the company's round, lead by a man called Dean Dorrell. "He read about us in the paper — the coverage from our crowdfunding campaign. He contacted me on a Sunday night, was down that Thursday, and we had a term sheet on the table the following week," Ruse says. "The stars really aligned, as Dean is a big believer in VR and our product, and brings some pretty heavy contacts and business experience to the table. He's pretty much the fourth founder of the company."
As well as investor money, an unlikely tech industry source also offered an olive branch — Alienware. Ruse: "We reached out to Alienware and got in contact with Jeff Morris in February of this year. He got it straight away, and shipped us a load of free Alienware Alphas and some infrastructure — servers and switches — as a way to sponsor the project. I guess it's a supplier relationship in a way, but it's more than that. Alienware is passionate about VR, and helping innovation and young companies get started. They are more than happy to put their hardware where their mouth is too." In the back office, Zero Latency has a quote from Alienware and Dell boss, Michael Dell — "I'm sold" — printed on the wall.
There's a lot more to Zero Latency than an Oculus Rift headset. That headset has to get its video feed from somewhere, so running the show is a custom-made backpack with an Alienware Alpha small form factor PC, hooked up to the Rift and a pair of headphones with an integrated mic for voice communications. Alienware donated the machines to Zero Latency after learning about the project, and the company is keenly watching to see how successful the venture is. Motion tracking is handled in much the same way as a PlayStation Move controller, with a internally-lit ping-pong ball for the cameras to see.
The gear that the guys at Zero Latency use is a mix of off-the-shelf hardware that has been adapted for the very specific purpose of portable virtual reality, and handbuilt, bespoke, customised circuitry and electronics that the team has learned to build as they've gone along. The camera and location-tracking sensors, for example, are the Playstation Eye for the PS3, but a ring of eight of them, facing outwards and feeding data to slaved PCs that then report player tracking to a central game server that controls the world. 128 cameras in total are used across the warehouse.
The guns aren't exactly generic Wii Zappers, though. Zero Latency has an on-site ShopBot CNC mill and workshop area — hidden off to the side of the game space — that it uses to create prototypes and iterate on its multipurpose in-game controller, taking the form of a metre-long rifle. That gun weighs a hefty 2.5kg — the same as an Armalite AR-15, or close enough — and is one of the key elements in creating that sense of reality about Zero Latency's gameplay and the presence of its zombie-filled world. The team is continuing to experiment with haptic feedback, too, to heighten that experience.
Nothing is simple about tracking a player — or more than one player, since Zero Latency supports up to six gamers in the one world simultaneously — and then translating that tracking into movement in a game world, then showing that movement on a player's virtual reality goggles. 10 or 12 PCs, dozens of cameras, kilometres of network and power and USB cabling; it all adds up to a surprisingly, genuinely, incredibly immersive and realistic virtual reality experience. I think it's the biggest compliment I can give to say that all of that hardware disappears as soon as you put it on.
I'm a virtual reality sceptic, and always have been, but I'm also willing to try new things. I've tried the Oculus Rift DK1 and DK2, as well as both iterations of the Samsung Gear VR, and I can safely and surely say that Zero Latency is the best and most captivating and immersive and present virtual reality experience that I have ever tried. I ran through one 45-minute gameplay session with one of Zero Latency's directors, then jumped straight back in for an hour-long session with Gizmodo editor Luke Hopewell. The same mission and game world each time, but markedly different experiences — once as student, and once as teacher.
Zero Latency is a zombie game, with an entirely simple mission — get into the basement of an undead-infested building, turn on a pair of generators, then escape. (Simple, right? That's what we thought.) The version we played was still in beta, missing its voice-overs, with audio still in the works, but even in its unfinished state it was utterly awesome to play. With the headset on and turned up loud, the sounds of gunshots feel genuine, the fear is real. Just about the only thing that's missing is some kind of haptic feedback to represent recoil and the vibration of the weapon firing.
It's genuinely extremely fun, as zombie games go, and it's stressful too. I don't want to spoil the gameplay, but suffice to say it's similar in style to Left 4 Dead, with objectives to achieve and swarms of zombies to cut down along your way. Zero Latency is made for teams — two players is fine, but it'll scale zombie numbers all the way up to the current six-player maximum. The zombies usually travel in packs, but there are lone wolves that can be even more trouble. You don't even realise that there's a zombie sneaking up behind you until it's on you, and clawing at you, and that means you spin around firing wildly, stepping back and almost falling over yourself in fear — just like (I'd imagine) it would happen in the real world and in a real zombie apocalypse.
The guys are constantly tweaking the difficulty in the lead up to Zero Latency's public debut — at the start, it was incredibly hard, to the point that players were dying after three seconds in the world. They think they've got the ratio about right at the moment — a zombie will go down after eight assault rifle bullets to the chest, although headshots are a surefire thing. The shotgun, and the sniper rifle, although difficult to use, are even quicker to dispatch zeds, but require ratcheting the rifle's pump action. The rifle's grenade launcher is massively OP, for what it's worth, but that's part of the fun — and it only reloads after a long cooldown. An ammo limit on the primary weapons would make things even more stressful, and might be an idea for a potential hardcore mode.
What's incredible is how real it feels to be walking forwards with a virtual reality headset and a pair of headphones on, and have that replicated instantly and perfectly and realistically. You see objects in the game world and avoid them, even though they're only virtual 3D objects of no physical, tactile substance. You get an on-screen, minimap-esque reminder and audio cue for when you're walking near a real-world wall, but ZL has only had one person actually crash into one (an investor — oops). Here's the thing — virtual objects become real. In the opening level of the game, there's a street sign that has fallen over onto the roadway. It's not in the real world — the floor is flat, there's nothing there. But I still stepped gingerly over it. Everyone does exactly the same thing.
The game is built in Unity, and the PCs run Windows, with all the tracking and network code written by Zero Latency in .NET. It looks like a good Unity game does — not exactly Battlefield 4 or Destiny in its visual fidelity, but more than realistic enough to entice you into the game world. For any sceptics that think "ugh, this looks low-resolution, look at those textures, I can see the polygons", hear this — Zero Latency is the best argument I've seen for the importance of gameplay over graphics. Not at any point during my time in the Zero Latency world did I break from the immersion and think that it looked ugly or unreal or unpleasant.
It's the gun, though, that stands out the most as the key tool of immersion, purely because it's your physical connection to a world that's not a chilly warehouse with a concrete floor and a few guys standing a dozen metres away and watching you. When you move the gun in-game, you see it in your VR headset, and that means you can stand in a doorway and stick your gun out and blast whatever's out there. At the end of our playthrough, Luke and I ran a PVP session — just running around an office shooting at each other — and the cubicles meant we could duck down, pop up and shoot, crawl along and literally use the virtual environment to our advantage.
There were a few bugs, understandable since we were playing a beta version of the game that ZL had literally just compiled when we walked in the door. Occasionally, when Luke would select his rifle's sniper mode while I was already looking down my scope, I'd see his target reticle moving around. There were times I could see the polygons of my character's head, slightly obscuring my vision. There were occasional slowdowns, and once we had to wait a minute for a level to reload after a glitch. The hardware isn't perfect — one of the backpacks was "acting up" when we were there, though the team is confident of being ready for launch day.
The motion tracking, though, was damn near perfect. Move your head around, and that motion is nearly instantly replicated on the Rift's low-latency display. Look down at the gun, and move it around, and that motion is replicated with perfect accuracy. It's all completely natural to use, and it just makes sense — when you put on the virtual reality goggles and the headset and take the gun offered to you, you know exactly what has to happen. The sense of presence — it's the best word to describe what's happening — almost completely eliminate the sense that you're wearing a computer on your back and running around in a warehouse with a white grid painted on the floor.
There's the faintest hint of the real world rushing back in when you take off the Oculus Rift after wearing it for nearly an hour. Sitting down with the Zero Latency team for a couple of beers after the second session, and talking about the development of the system, I had a concrete sense of being disconnected from my hands, watching my right hand reach forward and guiding it to pick up and guiding it to my face. That wears off quickly, though, and if that's the closest I get to motion sickness, I think Zero Latency is doing pretty damn well even with the developer-grade Oculus Rift that they're using.
I came away from my two and a half hours of Zero Latency a bit sweaty, a little tired, a tiny bit bewildered, but very much looking forward to doing it again.
Zero Latency's warehouse virtual reality space, and its concept of wireless motion tracking and virtual reality playback, has massive applications beyond the zombie survival mission that we played. Obviously it'll take a lot of time and effort to develop different scenarios, but the potential is nearly infinite. It doesn't necessarily need to be a zombie game. It doesn't even need to be a game. When we were talking about ideas for Zero Latency's VR warehouse, there was an idea to use the space for children's education, or for a wizarding game where you wave a wand around to cast a spell.
The guys are working on tech — they call it "IRL VR" — that will trigger real-world cues whenever players hit virtual checkpoints in the game. They used fans as an example, so when players walk into a windswept outside area there's actual wind blowing against them. But considering a system with tracking data as three-dimensional and complex as Zero Latency, and the development potential of Unity, you could do a huge range of different things; mist for rain, heat lamps for flames or bright sunlight, air conditioning for cold sections, dust for sandstorms... it's all possible, it just depends on how crazy the team is and how far they want to take the concept.
The technology itself isn't at all short of potential. The wireless backpacks and camera-based optical tracking system should be powerful enough to perform in spaces significantly larger than ZL's current warehouse; the idea is scalable too. A concept that started out in a room the size of a small apartment is now in a properly large warehouse, and it could easily get larger. More players are possible, different weapons are possible — Zero Latency has pistol prototypes in development, and there's the potential for other firearms (although that's as much a 3D design challenge as it is an in-game coding one). It's really just up to the time that the Zero Latency team has to spare, and what the public wants to play.
Tickets to a 60-minute Zero Latency session are $88, and are now on sale through the game's website.