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Exploring virtual worlds with Zero Latency

Date

Adam Turner

Built around the Oculus Rift headset, the Australian-developed virtual reality system transports you to another world. By Adam Turner.

Fantasy world: Using Zero Latency you can run around mountains, fly helicopters and even slay zombies in dark alleyways.

Fantasy world: Using Zero Latency you can run around mountains, fly helicopters and even slay zombies in dark alleyways. Photo: Supplied

Cautiously stepping to the edge of the cliff, I look  over to the mist-covered mountains in the distance. Then I steal a glance down at the sheer 200-metre drop and instinctively step back. Primal survival instincts kick in and with heart racing it takes all my willpower to creep forward and finally step over the edge into the abyss.

The ground disappears from beneath my feet and I'm only saved from certain death by the fact that I'm really standing on the concrete floor of a suburban garage – safely tucked away in the back streets of Melbourne. Even though I know my senses are lying to me, the world around me seems all too real thanks to the latest advances in virtual reality.

It's more about our accurate tracking system, which lets you walk around the room.  

Tim Ruse

Zero Latency is the brainchild of three Australian friends working in their spare time – software engineer Scott Vandonkelaar, IT project manager Tim Ruse and IT forensics expert Kyle Smith. Starting with the Oculus Rift headset, they've spent roughly $15,000 and many late nights over the past 18 months building an entire virtual reality suite. The result is a truly immersive environment – complete with a virtual armoury – where you can run around mountains, fly helicopters and even slay zombies in dark alleyways.

Caution: Standing on the edge of a cliff, primal survival instincts kick in.

Caution: Standing on the edge of a cliff, primal survival instincts kick in. Photo: Supplied

With the headset lifted from my eyes I return to the empty garage, standing in the middle of an open four-by-five metre space. In the virtual world I could see this space marked out with a faint white guideline, indicating where I could safely walk without fear of bumping into the garage walls. As you approach the edge of the safety zone, a virtual wall materialises to warn that you've strayed too far.

It's this white guideline that gives you the confidence to leap into the virtual world  in front of you. When you first slip on the headset, you expect to be plunged into a disorientating world where you'll hesitate and stumble. But the virtual world's accurate sense of depth and perspective, means your brain quickly accepts it as real - to the point where natural instincts kick in such as the fear of falling.

Along with the lightweight Oculus Rift headset, venturing into the virtual realm requires carrying a 4.5 kilogram backpack containing a whisper-quiet computer. The device is light enough that you soon forget you're wearing it. The computer draws the world around you, updating the view through the headset fast enough that there's no perceptible delay as you spin around in circles. Headphones with a built-in microphone complete the immersive environment.

The 1280x800 pixel resolution of the Oculus Rift headset isn't quite sharp enough to let you forget that you're standing in a computer-generated world, but the next model Oculus Rift will offer full HD resolution, says Zero Latency co-founder Tim Ruse.

''The resolution isn't the most important thing when it comes to creating immersive virtual reality," Ruse says.

"It's more about our accurate tracking system, which lets you walk around the room, whereas most other virtual reality headsets require you to sit still."

Slipping the headset back on, the green grass reappears under my feet. My every move is followed by four pairs of cameras fixed to the corners of the garage, which report back to a powerful 3D graphics server. This server builds the virtual world, tracking my movements and sending commands wirelessly to the computer strapped to my back. The design lets two players enter the virtual world side-by-side and software engineer Scott Vandonkelaar says the Zero Latency system could easily cover 350 square metres.

The rugged outdoor terrain helps demonstrate the power of the technology, while the founders see its potential expanding to anything from immersive gaming and military training, to architectural walkthroughs and virtual conference calls.

To back the next round of Zero Latency's development, they're running a Pozible fundraising campaign – setting up the virtual reality suite in a Melbourne warehouse and letting the public buy tickets to play.

For a taste of what players have in store, Vandonkelaar walks across the garage and hands me a plastic rifle. I can't see him through the headset, all I can see is a virtual rifle floating over the grass towards me. The world shifts ever so slightly as we calibrate the physical rifle with the virtual world. I fire off a few rounds into the distance and with the click of a button the rifle transforms in my hands from an M4 carbine assault rifle to a Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun.

Basic training over, I'm transported from a sunny mountainside to a dark alley. Zombies emerge from the shadows and I prepare to stand my ground, but a groan to my right alerts me to the fact that a second group of zombies are closing in from the side. I back into a corner, spraying fire in both directions as the bullets echo off the walls of the buildings and metal rubbish bins.

The safety of the suburban garage feels a million miles away. Even though I know my eyes deceive me, my heart pounds and fear rises as I keeping moving to avoid the advancing zombies. As they draw within arms reach I call for a time out, deciding that it's  wise to retreat to the safety of the garage. Virtual or not, Zero Latency can offer a little more realism than you bargained for.

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