If you’ve ever wondered how you’d act in a real-life zombie apocalypse, Zero Latency will let you — happily or unhappily — find out. The Melbourne-based company have developed a system they’re calling “multiplayer free-roam” virtual reality gaming.
I tried it Saturday during the gaming convention PAX Australia, and the results were just what you’d want them to be: Shaky arms, an accelerated heart rate and adrenaline levels that didn’t go down for hours.
“For want of a better way to put it, you’re walking around inside a video game,” Tim Ruse, Zero Latency’s co-director, told me. “It’s a completely new form of entertainment. It’s a physical experience, almost like a theme park ride, but it’s a video game. It’s an interactive experience, but you’re also not using any controller, you’re using your entire body.”
Five of us showed up to fight zombies on Saturday — the rain pounding on the tin roof of Zero Latency’s warehouse not doing much to lessen any nerves we might have had about the coming situation.
Scott Vandonkelaar, Zero Latency’s fellow co-director and the coder behind it all, walked us through the set up. We were kitted out with an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, headphones and a mic to let us communicate, a backpack containing an Alienware Alpha computer, and a weighty gun with sensors the team have built from scratch.
The weapons, which are able to change between assault, shot gun and sniper mode with a few simple buttons, were being held in real life, but would also appear virtually during the game.
The five of us would be playing in a space about the size of a basketball court, while 128 cameras and computers above tracked our every movement thanks to small balls of light on our headsets and guns. Of course, the virtual world would be much larger.
With the headset on, you’re blind to the real world. Vandonkelaar has worked for years developing the processing power to ensure players’ movements are instantly replicated in the game space and on our personal screens.
To keep you spatially-aware during the game, red crosses appear on your headset when you near a wall, and circles if you come too close to other players. Vandonkelaar also emphasised that you cannot run in this game for your own safety — despite the strong urge to do so.
During our 30 minute experience, we would be fighting off zombies in an abandoned building, with the goal of reaching a spaceship that would allow us to escape. Finding green circles would help us progress to new levels, while yellow circles would help players perform an action such as pulling a lever.
Survive the zombies
Standing in a wide circle, we put on our headsets as Vandonkelaar loaded the game. Appearing as male avatars dressed in military fatigues, we had a moment of target practice before we headed into a virtual lift to start facing down zombies.
When the first undead creature comes at you, they feel shockingly close — if you’ve ever wanted to hear grown men squeal, this is your chance. It took us a moment to get organised, but then we set off, traversing well-rendered carparks, dark tunnels and abandoned offices, all with a steady stream of staggering zombies to fight through.
Although the walls and burnt out cars aren’t really there, you step around them — you can’t help it, it’s that immersive. I even gingerly stepped over dead zombies as if they were real. The fact you could hide behind doors and duck down behind pylons just added to the reality of the game’s world.
Vandonkelaar warned us that all players die at least once, but dying became the least of our concerns. At one point, to escape the zombies, every player had to cross a rickety bridge, high up between two skyscrapers. The sense of depth as you looked down was spot on, and Zero Latency even turned on fans in place of wind for an extra sense of terrifying verisimilitude.
You get a kill score at the end, but it almost didn’t matter — I was just glad to have escaped alive. Later, Vandonkelaar told us that at least three people have thrown up from the intensity of the game. While none of us had such an extreme reaction, it did generate sufficient screams and yelps from the group to make it clear the game was hitting home.
There were a few hiccups — my gun got out of sync with the game briefly at the beginning, but Vandonkelaar was able to fix the problem. In general, the motion tracking is spot on. The graphics aren’t incredibly sophisticated either, but when a zombie is clawing you from behind, trust me, you don’t notice.
Notably, people who have gamed all their lives have little advantage. It’s not about button mashing, but about reflexes and how you move around the space. While you won’t find me playing Left 4 Dead, I’d run around Zero Latency’s warehouse again in a heartbeat.
What’s next for Zero Latency?
Zero Latency is incredibly compelling, but you can’t imagine experiencing it in a home setting in its current form. Having the space to roam is too important.
The company seems to recognise this, and in the long term, their aim is to sell the technology to people who want to operate venues similar to laser tag in shopping centres or theme parks, Ruse said. Currently built for six players, it can scale much larger, he added. A complete experience lasts around 45 minutes.
Their model certainly seems promising: The North Melbourne space was intended for research and development, Ruse said, but there was so much interest the company thought they might as well sell tickets. At A$88 (US$63) a session, it’s now booked until February.
“We thought we might try and roll out four or five systems in different venues in Australia, but we’re getting such overwhelming demand from overseas,” he explained. “We could have sold 50 since we opened.”
So far, Zero Latency has built their own gaming content but they’re also hoping to open it up to other developers. Vandonkelaar said they’d be interested in partnering on content with a known game developer, someone like Electronic Arts or Rockstar. “Imagine a proper Call of Duty branded game,” he said. “You could play your game at home and bring all your statistics into the experience. I’m surprised no one else has done it.”
Vandonkelaar also said they’re looking to develop games that might pit player against player, or puzzle and adventure games. The only cause for concern with competitive games is the desire to run is hard to fight, and running in the headset is a no-go due to lack of vision. While a game where you undertake a quest, something similar to the series of tests Harry Potter goes through in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, would be a great use of the technology.
Final verdict? Zero Latency will even make non-gamers want to suit up.