A snapshot of the mixed reality world of Magic Leap. (supplied)

Robots coming through the walls: Hands on with Weta’s new mixed reality game

Weta Workshop has just released Dr Grordbort’s Invaders, a game for Magic Leap, one of the most ground-breaking pieces of mixed-reality technology on the market. So what’s it like to play it?

Imagine putting on a headset in your living room and seeing a portal open on your wall, bringing you into an incredible other-worldly landscape. The portal acts like a window into this alien world, and as you approach it you can shift your perspective to see more of the world beyond the borders of this portal. You stand to the right side of the portal and your field of view shifts to show more of the left side of the landscape, where you see a gangly yellow robot approaching.

Suddenly, it lifts its hands and fires some kind of energy projectile at you. Instinctively, you step backwards to avoid the bolt and watch as it harmlessly sails past you. Now you have a new problem – the robot’s head suddenly emerges through the portal and into your living room, its hands gripping the sides as it lifts its legs over the threshold. The robot is now standing in your living room and steadily walking towards you – its arms outstretched menacingly as it side steps your furniture.

In your hand, you’re holding a sleek black controller – but in your eyes it looks like a ray gun straight from the pages of a 1950s pulp sci-fi magazine. Intuitively, you raise your arm and fire the ray gun at the robot. It leaves an angry welt of melted steel where you hit it on the arm, so you fire several more shots at the same point until the arm explodes. But still it marches forward. Exasperated, you raise your aim and fire several shots into the robot’s head, which dramatically explodes as the robot crumples to a heap on your living room floor.

The author sets his ray guy to ‘destroy’

This is the core experience of Dr Grordbort’s Invaders, the first game from Weta Gameshop, Weta Workshop’s game division. The headset and controller that make this fantasy a reality is the Magic Leap One, an augmented reality device that after years of hype was finally launched into this US market in August.

Mixed reality, also known as augmented reality, is the process of integrating digital displays, effects and scenarios onto your real-world environment. This can be done through projections or through a camera, but the most innovative work in this field is using headsets. Unlike virtual reality headsets where your vision is entirely obscured by a screen, augmented reality headsets use a transparent visor on which digital displays are layered onto your real-world surroundings. Devices like the Google Glass simply use a small monitor which sits in front of your eye. However, Magic Leap’s approach is far more futuristic. The Magic Leap One device uses a proprietary light field technology that projects images straight onto the retina of the user.

Until launch of the Magic Leap One, the device and associated software like Invaders were under the heaviest lock and key. But now, with both available in the American market, Weta Workshop invited me in to play through the game and experience the mixed-reality of Magic Leap One first-hand.

After years suffering VR headsets’ unwieldy bulk and complexity of set-up, my first surprise was discovering just how compact and light both the headset and its computing unit are. The entire unit is run off a battery and computing pack that is scarcely wider than a mug and is designed to be clipped to your belt or back pocket. After doing so and putting on the headset, the whole set was so weightless that it was quite easy to forget I was wearing a device at all – until robots started crawling through the walls.

Booting up Invaders, the first thing I did was establish the parameters of the room – guided by the familiar tones of Lucy Lawless. To do this, all I had to do was walk around the room and look at the floor and walls, as well as any obstacles like tables and couches. As I did so, the room was enveloped in a blue texture over everything that had been mapped – a texture that was eerily similar to the liquid that envelops Neo at the start of the first Matrix movie.

With the room mapped, the game begins with a jovial robot called Gimble – voiced by Rhys Darby – popping out of the wall and floating before you. I was struck at once with the quality of the image I was seeing; Gimble was fully realised, with detailed textures covering all the numerous gadgets and gizmos making up his floating bulk. I was most taken by the steam emanating from Gimble’s jetpack as he hovered in front of me. The particle effects looked so real that I’m not sure I could tell the difference between those jets of steam and the ones coming off my showerhead at home.

Although there is a slight haziness to the images the device projects, the objects and characters are still detailed and corporeal enough that you could swear that you could reach out and touch them – which in a way you can, with the Magic Leap controller.

The controller, a sleek curved object which sits snugly in one hand, had until this point been simply a way to interact with menus. Now, before me on a stand sat a groovy-looking ray gun. Intuitively, I reached out and suddenly the black controller was transformed into a ray gun.

That word ‘intuitively’ sums up well my experience of playing Invaders. The interplay between this fictional scenario with my real-world surroundings and own motor skills makes the whole experience innately intuitive. For instance, if an enemy is walking towards me, the game doesn’t need to tell me to walk out of the way – my lizard brain instinctively knows to avoid hulking robots that look intent on ripping my spine out. After decades of rewiring my brain in order to control characters in video games with controllers, it is incredibly empowering to use my own evolution-gifted skills of walking, ducking and weaving in order to play a game.

Weta Workshop’s Sir Richard Taylor himself playing Dr Grordbort’s Invaders.

The scenario I described in the opening of this article illustrates the bulk of what you do in Invaders. You take on missions which see you overcoming waves of invading robots from killing you in your own home – with each proceeding mission upping the difficulty of the types and frequency of robots. At the beginning, you are coolly swivelling around on the spot, calmly dispatching robots as they emerge. By a few hours in, you are running for your life around your living room, desperately trying to survive long enough to collect robot parts and overcome cleverly integrated puzzles through the portals in your walls.

It is a simple gameplay loop that in a traditional video game might feel limited – but in mixed-reality feels all encompassing, which I guess in a lot of ways it is. In fact, I wondered if anything more complicated than this loop might be overwhelming in such an immersive setting. Regardless, despite its simplicity, I was never bored and was always excited at the end of each mission to jump into the next.

Despite how engaging Invaders was, there were still a fair of technical hiccups and limitations which hampered the experience at times. There were occasionally frame skips and stutters, particularly when loading between different segments of gameplay, and moments when objects would load through a table or robots would clip through furniture. However, these issues with the game were rare and paled in comparison to the wonder created by this mixed-reality experience.

More concerning was some of the limitations of the device itself – the biggest being the confined field of view offered by the device’s projections. All the wonders I have described experiencing through the device could only be seen if regarded through the middle two quarters of my vision, with the top and bottom quarter of my vision simply displaying the world as glasses would. That means that you need to angle your vision properly in order to really take in the digital goodies the device has to offer. This field of view is sure to grow with each new iteration of the device – but for now, with version one, it is limiting.

But, ultimately, I didn’t walk away from my hands-on thinking about these hiccups and limitations. I walked away thinking about the insane fun I’d had blasting robots to smithereens in a living room and the energy and sweat I had expended leaping around the room on my own two legs for once. Most of all, I was thinking about the enormous potential there is for mixed reality gaming. I mean, this is essentially the ground floor for the medium and if this is the quality of experience and technology at the beginning, my mind whirls with excitement thinking about what we can expect as it improves in the coming years.


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