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Feel the wind in your hair with 'How to Train Your Dragon 2' on Oculus Rift

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

If you've ever wanted to experience the sensation of flying on the back of a dragon, DreamWorks Animation had you covered at New York Comic Con 2014.

In an effort to promote How to Train Your Dragon 2, the studio put together a unique Oculus Rift experience that combines the immersive virtual reality technology with some real-world augmentations to put you in the shoes of the film's protagonist, a young Viking named Hiccup, riding his dragon, Toothless.

The booth at NYCC 2014 was a Viking vessel with four demo stations featuring Toothless-branded Oculus Rift headsets, as you can see in the photo above. A joystick let you direct Toothless to climb, dive and turn. And a special seat put the user in a hunched-over position, similar to the way you'd sit on a jet ski, to simulate the posture of riding on a dragon. (You can see a photo of the setup below.)

In the demo, Hiccup and Toothless fly above the sea near the Isle of Berk, encountering some other dragons in the air and streaking past some natural stone structures peeking above the surface of the water. The session only lasted for about a minute and a half. It didn't allow for any of the stomach-turning somersaults that fans of the How to Train Your Dragon films will be familiar with, but it was an exhilarating ride nonetheless.

'How to Train Your Dragon 2' Oculus Rift setup photo (Poly wm) 851

Two physical aspects of the demo rig brought major enhancements to the experience, really doing a lot to deliver on the sensation of riding on a dragon. A vibrating motor beneath the seat kicked up during maneuvers like turns. And more notably, a fan pointed at the rider's face simulated the effect of the wind rushing past you. In addition, vertical fins in front of the fan directed the air in accordance with the direction in which the user was turning Toothless.

Those elements served a dual purpose, according to one of the developers on the project. Ashwin Nagavelli, QA lead at DreamWorks' DreamLab, told Polygon that in addition to making the experience more immersive, the vibration and the fan "drastically" reduced the demo's potential to induce motion sickness. Nausea in virtual reality tends to arise as a result of the dissonance in the brain between what the eyes perceive and what the user physically feels. That's less of a problem, said Nagavelli, when you actually feel the wind in your hair as you're flying.

According to Nagavelli, DreamLab spent four to five months last year developing the experience using the Oculus HD prototype, the version of the headset between the first and second Development Kits. That included more than a month's time on clouds alone. In most games, clouds are just window dressing, but "we just didn't want the plain" experience, said Nagavelli. So the studio created clouds that would realistically fade in and out as users flew into and out of them; it was the first thing we tried, and the effect was impressive. Nagavelli also said that the models of Hiccup and Toothless in the VR experience were actually derived from the assets used in the film; after all, DreamLab is a part of DreamWorks Animation.

Unfortunately, the How to Train Your Dragon 2 VR demo won't be released publicly; it was designed solely to promote the film, and at NYCC, to promote the movie's release on home video next month. But DreamWorks is building another VR experience, and that one will be available for anyone to try. DreamLab will launch a demo alongside the upcoming Samsung Gear VR for Penguins of Madagascar. It will allow users to watch the film's trailer in a desert setting from the movie — along with some of the titular flightless birds. Penguins of Madagascar opens Nov. 26.

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