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X-Men, Pacific Rim and virtual tornadoes: How Hollywood used Oculus Rift at Comic-Con

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

At San Diego Comic-Con this past weekend, attendees could pilot a mech from Pacific Rim, explore the mind of the X-Men's telepathic leader Charles Xavier, be decapitated by the Headless Horseman and be swept away by a tornado. It was all thanks to the Oculus Rift, which brought big (virtual) experiences to small spaces in a cramped convention hall.

While video game companies like Ubisoft went the opposite direction, building real-world recreations of Assassin's Creed in the form of an obstacle course that mimicked the game's parkour-style traversal, Hollywood studios turned to virtual reality to dazzle Comic-Con attendees.

Legendary Pictures, which showed trailers for Duncan Jones' Warcraft and Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak, created its VR experience exclusively for Comic-Con. In a custom VR demo built in Unreal Engine 4, players got to witness the film's first kaiju fight from first-person. Strap on the Rift headset and a pair of headphones, and you're transported to the cockpit of a jaeger mech where you mentally link — or "drift" — with your co-pilot. You're then attacked by the monster known as "Knifehead" who rips your co-pilot out from the cockpit.

The jaeger pilot demo is brief — it runs about 90 seconds — but it's impressive. Developer Reel FX worked with closely with Legendary and got movie-quality assets from Industrial Light and Magic to craft an accurate experience. Actors Ellen McLain and Charlie Hunnam recorded new voiceover work specifically for the demo.

Built over the course of a three-month period, the virtual demo is an astonishing recreation of a Jaeger cockpit. And it's unlikely — or at least unclear — that anyone outside Comic-Con will ever see it.

"We said, 'Let's make something cool for Comic-Con,'" said Ethan Stearns, production resources director at Legendary. "We've wanted to do something with the Rift since we saw it at CES... so we worked with Oculus to get it done."

"The Rift is really opening up not only games, but other VR experiences as well," said Stephen Hess of Dallas-based Reel FX, calling it "a big sandbox" for developers to play in.

Hess said Oculus VR has "really gone the extra mile" to help developers with prototyping and connecting studios like Legendary and Warner Bros. with developers who create virtual reality experiences. That was evident in the availability of Oculus Rift dev kit 2 hardware on the show floor. Every company showing Rift-based VR experiences on the Comic-Con show floor was using a Rift DK2, which started shipping in early June.

Perhaps more impressive from an immersion standpoint was Warner Bros. Pictures virtual reality experience for Into the Storm. Based on a climactic scene from the upcoming natural disaster movie, attendees experienced more than audio-visual stimulation. A pair of fans delivered gusts of wind that grew in intensity as a virtual tornado drew closer in the demo, and chair with built-in force feedback delivered rumbling kicks. The demo's seating even had handles built in, so attendees had something to hold onto, should the experience start to feel too real.

For some it did, said Suzy Ryoo, senior project manager at Ignition Factory at OMD, the company the created the demo with Vancouver-based developer Thinking Box. Ryoo said that some attendees felt like they were actually getting wet as they were getting battered by the virtual storm.

Oculus Rift demo

Warner Bros. plans to take its Into the Storm VR demo on the road, both domestically and internationally, to give more people the chance to experience its custom-built Oculus Rift disaster.

Even though it was lower fidelity than the Jaeger pilot demo from Legendary, the Into the Storm experience immediately felt more immersive, thanks to the added external sensation. Sitting in the Jaeger was such a passive experience that there was a disconnect between what was happening on screen and what the demo was trying to convince me was happening.

Sometimes, a small connection can make a big difference, as shown by 20th Century Fox's X-Men virtual reality experience. In the demo built by Capture Interactive, attendees got an audio-visual recreation of the inside of Professor X's mind as he explored the psychic plane. Viewers had to hunt down the mutant Mystique via psychic projection, which was, with the exception of looking around, mostly a passive endeavor.

But Capture Interactive put a single joystick on the wheelchair that viewers sat in during the demo, and for many, that was enough to connect what they were doing physically to what they were seeing. All they had to do was move Charles Xavier's wheelchair forward, and they were hooked, said Capture Interactive's Jonny Lerner.

Lerner said the X-Men VR demo was longer than what other company's were showing — in excess of three minutes. That helped sell the immersion, he said. "Some people are so mesmerized by the demo, after we take the Rift off and ask them what they thought, they can't speak," he said.

Waits for the X-Men demo, like the Jaeger pilot demo, were long. People lined up at booths for appointments to play with the Rift and many were turned away. Lerner hopes that his team will be able to release the X-Men demo on the internet or in some other form, but knew of no plans to share it with the public.

For now, it appears those Hollywood-commission VR demos will be like most other things at Comic-Con: exclusive to fan willing to make the trek to San Diego to wait in long lines.

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