Technolust is saving us from terrible VR before it’s even arrived

The entertainment biz is overflowing with examples of technology that fell pointedly short of their predicted mark on humanity. Smell-O-Vision, Quadraphonic sound, “Duo-Vision” and even early 3D didn’t revolutionize our quest to entertain ourselves. They’ve remained in a graveyard of footnotes and a gimmicks.

The longest lasting of these tech tchotchkes, 3D films, are the biggest analog to the upcoming VR revolution coming for gaming. Both long-imperfect technologies finally hit it big, after decades of failure, to re-capture the imagination of pop culture.

As moviegoers learned, we should be wary.

From incomprehensible action set pieces full of transforming robots, needless gimmicks, and over-inflated admissions, I can’t remember the last time I tried to convince someone to see a 3D movie without the caveats of “it’s also being shown in 2D” or “the 3D is actually kinda well-done.”

3D films, it turns out, are on the downturn. Since 2008, when 3D movies took in 73% of box-office receipts, attendance has slowed to the point where they’re estimated to account for just over a third of moviegoers’ dollars this year. Analysts don’t see the trend changing any time soon. Maybe we’re finally getting some respite from $20 movie tickets.

Just as audiences had to suffer through unnatural colorized versions of older black and white classics, they also had moments like Dorothy’s vibrant introduction to Oz. 

All of which doesn’t change the fact that some of my most memorable movie moments in recent years came while wearing those cheap plastic glasses. After being blown away by watching the tunnel to the “other” side of Coralines world bore deep into the screen, or gasping at the violent excess of Dredd’s “slomo”-induced ballet of blood, new technology doesn’t always have to be used to fleece audiences, but can be used as just another tool in the kit. Just as audiences had to suffer through unnatural colorized versions of older black and white classics, they also had moments like Dorothy’s vibrant introduction to Oz.

There hasn’t even been a consumer-facing release of the Oculus Rift, but you can already tell gaming is about to get similarly ill-planned VR upgrades to older titles that will do little more than add a third dimension to otherwise standard experiences. Will the fever pitch of excitement for VR wane after mountains of milquetoast VR ports? While none of the major publishers have announced any titles for VR, and Steam has yet to add an Oculus-focused section of their store, modders have taken it upon themselves to begin the wave of what will surely be co-opted by the industry, with ported versions of Half-Life, Left 4 Dead, Mirror’s Edge, and more.

Iris VR‘s recently Kickstarted Technolust is one of the frontrunners of Oculus titles currently in development that aims to create a virtual world unlike the ones we’re used to, while also bringing us one step closer to the cyberpunk dreams of Blade Runner or Alien. With chunky, blurred video screens everywhere and a heavy coat of dust filtering through dimly-lit curtains, Technolust reminds the player that VR allows you to be sent anywhere and anytime possible.

It didn’t start that way, though. Based on Oculus’s suggestions to keep VR titles to remain seated experiences (after all, that’s what the player is doing: sitting in a chair), Technolust was originally conceived as a sci-fi analogue to Papers, Please, using Dredd’s optically enhanced hacker as an inspiration.

Iris’s lead developer, Blair Renaud, explained that he originally started by creating the protagonist’s multi-monitor hacking command center, but after creating a window overlooking the city next to the desk, he wasn’t content to just sit and watch the future happen outside his virtual window. According to Renaud: “I was like, ‘Nope, I’ve gotta get up and walk around this environment,’” leading to the current mix of point-and-click adventuring, hidden objects and mystery that has already lead to some heralding it as one of the best VR experiences yet.

“I have the story written, but once you get in [VR], things evolve,“ said Renaud. “There’s a lot of different design philosophies for VR games now, because it’s kind of like the wild west. I just want to be in these cool environments. I want to relive Blade Runner. I want to relive Total Recall.”

When Sony staked its claim in the VR landscape with their announcement of Morpheus at GDC, it made a point to press upon developers that, beyond simple horror or excitement, VR offered an additional sensation: presence. That elusive, indescribable feeling of transporting to another place is the holy grail of VR. (As a buddy of mine put it, “It’s the umami of games.”) To Renaud, “VR is great for providing these awe-inspiring, memorable experiences because … you’re actually experiencing it more 1-to-1.“ While he has spoken with Sony about bringing a title to Morpheus (either something new or Technolust), it’s obvious to him that VR is where his primary interest lies. “It would be easy enough to just make it for a flat screen but it doesn’t leave the same impression. You need to be in that world; otherwise it’s just an indie first-person game.”

The skylight cemented that sense of presence—of being in a place you could never find yourself otherwise. 

As soon as I took my first glance outside of the same window that spurred Renaud to move his game in directions he didn’t expect, I could understand why. The giant Orion skyscraper in the distance, a gleaming electronic video billboard beaming through the shades, and flying cars streaming overhead through the skylight cemented that sense of presence—of being in a place you could never find yourself otherwise. Games inside Technolust’s arcade area allow the player to hack into the game, which pushes you further down the rabbit hole into virtual VR. As Renaud explains, “So: within VR, you’re going into VR, and from in that, you can hack into the code and go a third level down. And we can do experiments like that, Inception-style things, where it’s layers of reality.”

It’s exciting to see new technology take shape before our very eyes, but it still has a long way to come before we get the real-life holodeck we’re all dreaming of. The missteps along that path should be fascinating. “I built a fortune-telling machine in the arcade, like the one from Big, with a real head on it—my head, photoscanned,” Renaud told me. “When I first set it up I just whipped it up really quickly and set the animation wrong. The head was spinning uncontrollably, and I didn’t know it was going to happen. So I walked up to it in VR just to see my head doing this obscene motion, and I was horrified. It was like Jacob’s Ladder.”