AvatarVR, virtual reality as we had not experienced it before

AvatarVR, virtual reality as we had not experienced it before


"Should I jump?". My companion, a faceless soldier wearing a curious imitation of the Halo suit, carefully leans over a column too small to fit two. He has his arms outstretched to find balance and looks forward, while I try to shed light on him with a torch, trying not to fall below myself. "Dunno, yes but be careful", I say not too convinced.

We are in an old abandoned temple, but a breath of wind enters from one of the collapsed walls that catches me unprepared and almost throws me off balance. The beauty is that everything around us is not real. The column, the stone walls, the ravine below, the Halo suit and the flame of the torch. All fake. Except the wind, that's true but we'll get there later. The rest is part of a virtual reality experience shared between several people within the same large room.

The arena is about forty minutes by metro from the center of Milan AvatarVR is the name of the structure that will open in Vimodrone, just outside Milan in June; a space of 200 square meters in which groups of people can try different cooperative and competitive experiences in virtual reality. In recent years, several cities around the world have seen the birth (and shut down following the global pandemic) a large number of these plants, but only relatively more recently have we seen them arrive in Italy.

AvatarVR itself is linked to an international group with other activities abroad. Invited by the managers of the structure to try the room in preview, we launched into two different demos which, net of a few hiccups and the limitations of a technology that evolves and updates rapidly, combine virtual and real to create an absolutely immersive experience. unmissable for any video game enthusiast who has ever dreamed of being physically in a digital world.

The entrance

One day gamers will overcome their fascination with neon and colored lights ... but not today. of AvatarVR has a very discreet entrance at the moment, which is located right next to an outdoor gym. Lost, I ask for directions, and luckily a huge forearm - which was attached to a guy intent on doing squats - showed me the correct entry.

I weighed just for a few moments the idea of ​​joining the gym, when at the entrance of AvatarVR I am completely enveloped in pink neon lights that want to suggest the idea of ​​a cyber club. At the back of the room, hanging on a wall, are the equipment required to play in virtual reality and provided by HP: a (obviously) Reverb VR headset, a VR Backpack - one of those PCs to be worn on the shoulder as if they were backpacks - and two pairs of sensors that wrap around your hands and shoes for arm and leg tracking. The staff of the structure helps participants to wear everything correctly, and then lead them to the room used for the VR experience, a huge room surrounded by cameras and with a couple of large fans and heating lamps positioned on one side.

While I am pleased to note that I can wear the mask and visor without my breath fogging my glasses, someone somewhere in the room presses a button and the black space I am in turns into an area illuminated with the VR game posters available. Meanwhile, the other journalist and I finally materialize in our respective avatars, ready to try the first of two experiences at our disposal.

Temple of Diamond Skull

In virtual reality, with those guns, you feel Rambo. Seen from the outside, well ... Starting the first of the games, we find ourselves outside a ghostly temple, lit only by moonlight and the light of a torch. This - which is connected to a small truncheon placed in the real environment - can be physically collected and used to illuminate the rooms and corridors of the structure. Players can hand it over, drop it, pick it up or spin it freely.

It is essentially one of the props that aim to make the virtual experience even more immersive and tangible. In practice, the game is quite simple, almost banal: it is a series of corridors and scary rooms in which environmental puzzles require players to physically move around the scene in search of clues and objects to interact with, in a way not too different from a classic escape room. What is surprising, however, is the way in which the technology of AvatarVR manages to deceive even those at home who have a virtual reality headset and are widely used to playing games in VR. In terms of immersion, moving around with classic analog sticks or through a teleporter system has nothing to do with moving (almost) freely in a large room.

Master Chief, that's where you went! The fans placed in the room serve to simulate the wind at certain times of the game, while the heating lamps will give a feeling of warmth as you approach a flame. The level design is crafty and, through circular paths and a system of elevators, it gives the feeling that we are moving in a much larger environment, when in reality we are walking in circles in a small portion of the room. And at a certain point the brain falls into it, believes in fiction, and it doesn't matter how many hours you spent playing Half-Life Alyx: suddenly you get the feeling that the elevator is really moving, you lose your balance while there. it moves on a very narrow bridge and it is lowered to avoid hitting the head against a beam that in reality is not there.

"The spoon does not exist", they said in the Matrix, but when in doubt I lower myself. As the first tests were made in preview compared to the official opening, something still needs to be calibrated: the sensors positioned on the hands allow you to imitate the movements of the arms in an extremely credible way, but in the absence of finger tracking the fingers remain in tension despite being held an object such as a flashlight. The same goes for the two sensors on the feet, which if by mistake they are put on the other way around they end up inverting the two legs and ... it's not a good show, trust me.

Patient Zero

The room can be divided in two to allow more groups of people to play at the same time The second demo is much more adrenaline. In this case the prop to be held is a 4kg shotgun to be used in a shooter called Patient Zero. The goal is simple: 2 to 5 soldiers must be able to enter a secret bunker, reach the laboratory and download the data regarding the virus that has turned everyone into dangerous zombies. In addition to having an important weight that makes it more credible, the rifle has feedback that allows you to simulate the recoil of the different weapons, a different resistance to the trigger, a button for reloading and another that is used to change weapon.

From the sniper rifle to a submachine gun, passing through the gatling, the chainsaw and the inevitable shotgun. For Doom fans, this is without a doubt the funniest weapon: the exaggerated feedback of the prop, coupled with the ability to move freely around the room to control your distance from the zombies, really give the impression of being in the midst of an undead apocalypse. There are no particular ideas here that invite the two players to collaborate, and they are simply asked to survive while waiting for a wave to end, for an elevator to come, or for the data download to finish.

The presence of friendly fire makes you want to pay particular attention to the position of your companions, while the limited number of bullets for each weapon forces you to pay enormous attention to each shot, so as not to waste it.

From a small control room, the staff can control what people see, communicate with them, or activate help or events in the game. Between the two experiences, Patient Zero is undoubtedly the most adrenaline-pumping and fun, but it is the first to have the greatest potential. The idea of ​​proposing games that cover larger spaces, perhaps using props in a more ingenious way or presenting more elaborate puzzles, is what allows a structure like AvatarVR to constantly renew itself and without the logistical problems of traditional escape rooms.

The intention of the organizers is, for the coming months, to add new types of games, PvP experiences and other adventures, but also to gradually update the technologies used for more precise experiences. Who knows in just a few years how many steps forward will be made, but for the moment - despite all its limitations - that of Vimodrone is a virtual reality experience that we recommend to those near Milan to do at least once with a few friends.

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