I tried to reach down and pet a cat that wasn’t real.
And with that, 15 seconds into a 15-minute walk through the virtual reality world of “Wonderfall: Tale of Two Realms,” I was sold on what Hyperspace XR has built and continues to build at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center.
In a 3,000-square-foot corner of the longtime facility, Hyperspace’s interactive exhibit is part of the broader Startup in Residence program in which the Science Center is offering space to startups as a way to show off local creativity and innovation to guests. Hyperspace is also looking to show off for and attract a broader investor audience as it has turned to the crowdfunding site Wefunder to raise as much as $1 million.
Hyperspace CEO Jeff Ludwyck — who shared his vision on GeekWire’s “Elevator Pitch” last year — and a team that has grown to more than 20 have been creating both the real-world physical walls and pathways and the in-game experience of “Wonderfall” for a year and a half. Plywood marked with neon tape disappears in game to become the buildings and rooms in a small village. Haptic touches including fans, heaters and vibrating floors are sprinkled throughout, along with touchable props such as books, a spinning globe and a bench to sit on.
“You can’t have this at home,” Ludwyck said during a visit this week. “You’re standing on real cobblestone. Every little trick cements that immersion, without even really noticing. People come in all the time and go, ‘I felt like I was actually there,’ compared to sitting in your home where you know your coffee table is right there.”
Hyperspace relies on inside-out tracking and has partnered with Microsoft on its Windows mixed reality platform.
“Wonderfall” follows the story of a young girl named Elena inside the fantasy-magical experience. An experiment goes wrong for the would-be inventor and users get to help her fix it as she looks to re-establish contact with her parents in another world. Fifteen minutes of the 30-minute story arc are complete right now. Users do not have fully formed avatars — just virtual hands and a floating head — and there is no dual-player capability yet, so the interaction with the story is yours alone.
Wearing a Samsung Odyssey headset and a high-powered HP Z VR backpack, I walked through with my 11-year-old son, Henry, to get a better feel for how the experience might appeal to the many schoolchildren who visit Pacific Science Center.
Throughout the 15 minutes (which costs $15), I listened as Henry reacted and exclaimed over different aspects of the virtual world, shouting repeatedly over the dialog in the headset for me to “come here and check this out!” as we explored parts of the set at a different pace.
Some of the more captivating touches involved the ability to catch virtual elements in our hands, such as firefly-like bursts of light or a small rotating planet or a little darting purple creature. Reaching toward certain stacks of books also released 3D illusions such as a dragon, a demon and a clipper ship — all swirling past our heads.
“We tried to put sounds in different locations so you’re constantly trying to find things and look around the environment, and I noticed you guys basically got everything,” Ludwyck said after he watched our walk-through while not wearing a headset of his own.
After following Elena out onto a virtual dock, where it looked like we were suspended high in the clouds, the experience came to a close and pronounced that the adventure was “to be continued.” It is here that Hyperspace will extend the physical set and the virtual game another 15 minutes in the months ahead.
“So coooool,” Henry said as he removed his headset. “I wish it didn’t end!” As a normal kid who already struggles with disengaging from traditional video games, he clearly wasn’t ready to step back out of Hyperspace’s virtual reality.
Hyperspace’s goal is to provide the platform for developers to create their content on and to get other venues to build out similar spaces. But the plug-and-play nature of it all could evolve greatly — and keep Ludwyck from expressing his carpentry skills late into the night.
“We’re working with an outside manufacturer to build modular pieces so that a venue could have a kit, basically, of parts that could shape together for a bunch of different experiences,” Ludwyck said. “Walls, flooring, doors, props, all that stuff will be part of an almost LEGOs for VR.”
Ludwyck said they have three venues lined up and three projects with outside development teams. He said Hyperspace has the team, the technology, the location and new locations and just needs to “hit the gas,” which is why the formerly bootstrapped company is keen on raising a round right now. According to the Wefunder page, the company projects being in more than 50 venues in five years.
“We want to create an open platform that allows everybody to jump in,” Ludwyck said. “I mean, you should see the list of people … theaters, aquariums, all kinds of random groups are saying, ‘I want to build something like this, do you have the know-how and technology and everything to to do that?’ We’re excited to enable those.”
Hyperspace’s Science Center experience has attracted more than 5,000 “travelers” so far. Other startups showing off their entrepreneurial process include Peeka, which brings children’s books to life in VR, and Curio Interactive, which spent about a year at the Science Center, and will continue to use the space to demo its interpretive exhibits and educational products.
“It’s cool because it matches really well with the Science Center,” Ludwyck said of his company’s work. “The whole mission of the Science Center is igniting curiosity and we do it all the time here. Whether a kid is interested in technology or maybe art side or creative, they get to go into this other world in their brain and go, ‘Man, I could really do this someday. I could build out fully virtual and physical worlds. So I think that’s what’s been so exciting about this.”