Lights are flashing around you in the cockpit. Where are you? This isn’t where you were a moment ago. You swivel your head and notice a symbol on the screen in front of you has a timer bar and it’s running out. You take in your surroundings: a winch-like device to your right. Three screens in front of your face, and control panels with odd images all around you. You put two and two together and scramble to find the button whose image corresponds to the screen. Then the light in the cockpit goes out. You peer frantically around and discover that you have to use the winch to crank the generator in order to keep the computers and lights online. The symbol on screen has changed again, you dive for the switch that matches the screen, you scooch away from the sparks as they swirl around you, and you realize that the game is over.
I waited in line off of the main drag at Pax East with excitement singing in my veins. This wasn’t a big virtual reality booth like Oculus or the HTC Vive, rather, it was a small booth with two available chairs for visitors. The Massachusetts Digital Games Institute (DiGI) created Intern Astronaut for the Samsung Gear VR, and had it available for testing. Now, the reason for my excitement wasn’t due to the nature of Intern Astronaut, but for the medium in which it was built. I’ve had a long standing love affair with virtual reality. My first experience was well over two decades ago at an indoor amusement park in Massachusetts with my father. We were strapped into heavy plastic vests, outfitted with a bulky helmet and given a ‘pistol’ (a mirror image of the NES peripheral). Then we were cordoned off in our own individual play areas, and set loose in a platformer/Counter Strike scenario floating in the black void of space. I recall being amazed at the time, though now I realize that the experience was missing a great deal. This experience left me with a lifelong desire to escape: fantasy and science fiction novels, video games, television and movies, I love it all. But through it all, I’ve been searching for a complete disconnect from this reality (not permanently, just a vacation). The best media offerings provide the immersive disconnect I look for. It’s a brief separation, and the book or game needs to be holistic, allowing me to understand the characters and world that I’m living in. These days, I don’t find that feeling frequently. The advent of affordable VR has changed that. What I typically spend hours and hours cultivating was thrust upon me on the last day of PAX East.
From the moment I placed the Samsung Gear VR headset on, I was disconnected. It was a visceral, immediate separation from reality. This was what I’d been looking for. The game I played, Intern Astronaut, is not an amazing, or complex, game (though it is well thought out), what it is, is immersive. I.A., at its core, is a game of memory (just like the matching card game). You are presented with a screen in front of your face with a symbol on it, and surrounding your chair is a variety of control panels with switches, buttons, and dials, with their own symbol. At once you are thrust into the midst of the game: something is going wrong in the space craft, and (apparently) you are the only one who stop it from exploding (or crashing, the lack of narrative isn’t helpful for those of us who want to know). None of this is explicitly stated. The only information you are given how to use the buttons on the VR headset. Massachusetts DiGI used the touch pad on the side of the visor as the sole method of interaction with the game. It works well: tap the pad to press a button, swipe up-down or left-right to flick switches, or spin your finger in a circle to twist a dial.
TL;DR, if you’re looking to get into VR, and have a Samsung phone (models S5 and up), this is super affordable way to experience it without shelling out $600+ for an Oculus or Vive. For you smartphone owners who haven’t drank the Samsung Kool-Aid yet (seriously, guys, what are you waiting for?), you can also pick up a Google Cardboard kit for around $25. It won’t be as finely tuned for touch interaction, but it’s a good alternative. I’ll see you in AltSpace.
Click here to check out Intern Astronaut, you can follow @mass_digi for updates, find the Samsung Gear VR here, and Google Cardboard kits here (don’t forget to download the Cardboard app, if you go that route).
Written by Zach Dickie from the Rooster Teeth Community