The Skyworld demo shown at Valve's GDC meetings for the HTC Vive begins with a table rising up out of the ground. It flips over, revealing a beautifully animated city, allowing you to walk around the structure while leaning in to peer at any of the many details. Imagine the most ornate example of tabletop war gaming you can imagine, with everything being interactive and fully animated.
I spent way too much time simply looking at the tiny world in wonder, and the way I manipulated the game's menus with the Vive's two motion-sensing wands, including a virtual book that opened in my left hand containing options and selections, was inspired. It felt like the user interface from an elegant RTS game, except it existing in what felt like "real life."
"We got inspired by one of the demos that Valve showed," one of the developers from Vertigo Games told me after my demo. "They had a demo where they had a miniature office where people were walking around, and it looked so cool."
"It was so fascinating when I played that demo. So when Valve asked us if we could do a demo together with them, the first thing we thought about was we had World of Diving. It started out on the [Oculus Rift] DK1 and the DK2 runs at 75 frames per second. Valve comes along and says 90 frames per second, and we say, 'Crap, how do we optimize World of Diving?' And also the whole-room space with diving doesn't make any sense to me."
What did make sense was the idea of a sort of board game, where information could be shared in menus that react to the player as they walk around and use the two wands to control each turn. You don't have to understand video games to learn how to play; everything is intuitive and easy to understand, and it's all based on single button presses and touching different items around the board.
Skyworld is a tech demo for now, but it will be made into a full game to be ready when the Vive hardware launches later this year. You will need space, though, as the smallest version of the table requires about a meter and a half of room to walk around. Vertigo is thinking of adding a sort of telescoping pointer to the wands as well in virtual reality, as many players were uncomfortable with the idea of walking up to, and then into, the table to select things on the board.
I didn't have enough time to get a sense of the rules of the game, but I did activate the dragon at the top of the mountain and had him attack a village below. I leaned in to watch the creature swoop down and set fire to everything in his path. It felt like playing with an amazing set of toys, one that could do anything, and was at my command. This is the sort of experience that's physically impossible any other way, and I'm already thinking about which room in my house could become my VR room.