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CCP is changing the virtual reality game using ... Kinects?

I reach out and slap the side of a space ship that's floating in front of me, and it spins around as if it were mounted on a vertical pole.

I can look inside by leaning forward and placing my physical head inside the side of the ship, and even hear the thrumming of the engine or the soft beeps of the control room. It's like a living model that can be explored both inside and out.

A ghost walks up to me from the side and says my time is up. We shake hands briefly, and it feels like I'm interacting with a character from Lord of the Rings who was wearing the One Ring. Real objects in this virtual world have the same shimmery, windblasted look as those films.

I remove the virtual reality headset and I'm back in a large room in Rejkyavik, Iceland, demoing CCP's latest virtual reality experiments. I wasn't holding a controller, nor was I pushing any buttons. All of the body tracking was handled by an off-the-shelf device: Microsoft's Kinect.

How this happened

CCP has a seven person team in its Atlanta offices working on these virtual reality experiments, which we described in a past story.

It's unlikely any will be turned into a full game any time soon, but the team's job is to come up with best practices and ideas for virtual reality so when the time comes they can put something they're sure of into full production. For now, many of the experiences rely on the Kinect for the controls and motion tracking.

"When I first saw the Kinect, I saw this great opportunity to put yourself in the game, and be a part of the game. I got really frustrated because the game we saw on the Kinect ... they didn't get it," Adam Kraver, an architect in the VR Labs in Atlanta, told me.

"The Kinect 1 was a pretty heinous, low-resolution thing, but it was really compelling when you could look around and see your room and reach out and touch your furniture," Kraver explained.

In their early experiments they could see the furniture in the room, and even avoid kicking cats that may be wandering around the apartment or lab. It was a way to interact in VR without holding a controller, and the ability to make out your environment and those around you made it much safer than other solutions.

vr labs

Microsoft's second pass at the hardware was much more successful. "Not only is the Kinect 2 currently the best product we've gotten our hands on to do this sort of thing, the SDK for it is fantastic, it's actually a really powerful piece of hardware, even though you have such rudimentary views of the world, it still just works," Morgan Godat, the executive producer of CCP Atlanta told Polygon.

The effect of using the Kinect 2 for motion capture and interactions is much stronger than I expected when I was told this is how they were handling controls. People from CCP would walk up to me while I was playing in VR, walking around and enjoying the world, and we could talk to each other normally when I saw their ghost-forms appear.

We shook hands, tried a high-five and it all worked. It was a wonderful melding of the real world and the virtual, and the shimmery effect of the Kinect let you know at a glance what was a virtual object, created in high-quality computer generated graphics, and what was a real thing in the room with you, which would look like a gray object.

"It's such a strange effect, even when you're not in VR, it begins to make that headset very transparent. It's almost like it's gone and you're looking at them and having a conversation with them," Godat said. It goes a long way to making the virtual world social.

The latency issues

Many people had brought up the Kinect as a potential virtual reality device, but I had always rejected it out of hand, the latency always seemed way too high to be effective. CCP's experiments proved my wrong.

"It's a couple of frames, you're capturing at 30Hz ... the latency is not ideal," Kraver said, causing Godat to laugh.

"What a polite way to put it," he said.

The secret is that the head-tracking is nearly perfect when you're using the Oculus Rift Development Kit 2, so the body tracking has a bit more room for error, especially since you can see the entirety of your body.

Simulation sickness happens when there is a disconnect between what you see and what you feel, and the use of the Kinect matches those up very well, even though there is a slight lag.

"We've haven't had any single person to date, in these demos, complain about motion sickness. I am a motion sick monkey, I get real sick, real quick, and as soon as I look down and see that body, even that crude representation ... everything makes sense. Everything is rooted," Godat said.

We could talk to each other normally when I saw their ghost-forms appear

The team is upfront about the fact they're not working on anything that will be a mainstream product any time soon. But the technology is compelling, and it's using off the shelf parts. The important thing is that if a product, such as the HTC Vive, takes off and becomes mass market,

CCP already has a team working on a retail virtual reality game with known ideas; Valkyrie is a sitdown experience where you pilot a spaceship. The Atlanta team is working on things that are a bit more experimental, to explore what the world of virtual reality may look like in the next decade.

They were able to get there with Kinects and Development Kit 2s. They've had to forget what they used to know about everything from controllers to interfaces, and the Kinect was a big part of that process.

"The screen is old now," Godat said. "This is an entirely new way of thinking about things."

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