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Zero Cool as a Blade Runner: Technolust demo is virtual reality's best living diorama

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If Deckard were a computer hacker instead of a Blade Runner, his apartment would look much like the first environment of Technolust, an upcoming PC game made exclusively for virtual reality.

The room is covered in screens and pop culture ephemera. You can look out the window at the giant video billboard and watch the advertisements cycle. Dust motes float in the air. There is an entire hidden movie to watch and enjoy if you have the time.

Until, of course, you get a certain message, with a very specific attachment. Then everything changes. That comes later, for now I just want to talk about that apartment. Those first rooms. The game will come later, for now the free demo may be one of the most impressive virtual environments I've ever seen.

Someone lives here

"I think about Star Trek. What do people want to do in a Holodeck? Picard wanted to play detective, Riker wanted to hang out in a 20’s Jazz Club, Data played Sherlock Holms," Technolust developer Blair Renaud told me. "Nobody wanted to strap on an AR-15 and die a hundred times ala Call of Duty. I wanted to be a revolutionary in a future-retro cyberpunk dystopia."

The demo I played was only a brief look into what will ultimately be a three plus hour long interactive experience. It feels like being inside a living diorama, as if you’re visiting an amazing movie set that requires no artificial four wall for the cameras. Creating these environments in virtual reality requires a different way to think about design: You have to imagine living with these spaces. What would that mean for the character? 

"So that’s where I start. Create a world. Turn off the artificial ambient light, cover everything in shadow and dirt and you’re half way there. Then I put on the Rift and look around. I think to myself: "What would I expect to see in that spot?". Maybe it’s an old pop can. So I throw down a pop can," he explained. "Maybe a thought crosses my mind: 'It would be crazy if X happened right now.'  I write down the thought and try it out. I imagine it’s a lot like writing one of those live dinner mystery theaters."

Technolust made it onto Steam after just 36 hours of the Greenlight process

The world is filled with pop culture references from horror and science fiction films, and it’s fun to try to discover them all. That’s the bifurcated dog from Return of the Living Dead! That’s Marty’s hover board shoved under a piece of furniture!

The goal is to make an environment that you can explore and interact with, complete with constant references to pop culture both obvious and niche. Some of these Easter eggs won’t be implemented until the Rift has positional tracking; you may be able to bend down and find an item taped to the underside of a table, for instance.

"I’m very eclectic in my interests and hobbies and my mind is blown when I see a reference to something I know is obscure," Renauld said. "Like that recent cameo by 'Bub' from Day of the Dead in the Walking Dead series. I’m sure only a handful of people caught it, but I guarantee all of them jumped out of their chairs with excitement, pointing and shouting ‘BUB!’"

One of the references did, in fact, jump out at me; the e-mail you receive includes video from the now legendary Max Headroom signal intrusion video. In 1987 someone figured out a way to take over a television signal and for a short time were able to broadcast a disturbing video of someone in a Max Headroom mask. I can't explain why, but it remains one of the most frightening pieces of video I've ever seen.

The footage is slightly not safe for work, and the reference is fairly obscure, but that’s the point. If you follow hacking culture to the extent that you recognize the small bit of footage, you’re the target audience for the game.

I spent more time than I’m comfortable admitting just existing inside the room. You look up and watch the flying cars zoom over your skylights. There is a circuit-bent Speak and Spell that may have a larger role to play in the main game. There are secrets to find and fun things to see inside what appears to be a very limited environment. The space feels lived in and real in a way that doesn’t happen in most games; being able to design an apartment from the inside, and then explore it in virtual reality to figure out what makes sense, is a powerful way to convey a theme and sense of place.

Technolust is still live on Kickstarter, and is funded at $45,000 of the $30,000 goal. "The budget is very modest. Sadly because there is such a small amount of VR hardware out there at the moment, it has to be," Renaud said. "I’m basically asking other developers and hard-core enthusiasts to fund me." There is evidence the game may have wider support tha the team is letting on, however: It made it onto Steam after just 36 hours of the Greenlight process.

The final game was no doubt by interesting, but the power of that apartment shows the power of designing for and around virtual reality. The demo, which is available now if you have a Rift dev kit, is filled with fan service to science fiction and fans of virtual and real hacking.

"The Max Headroom signal intrusion is like that for some. Most probably won’t get it at all, but it still feels like part of the world," Renaud explained. "Maybe it will pique their interest and they’ll look into it. Regardless, it’s something that I can use that I can guarantee nobody will claim ownership of and I have those that do recognize it right where I want them."