Imagine pitting yourself against undead hordes and outwitting rebel raiders, or transforming into an ethereal, ancient alien that craves a reunion with your tribe. Zero Latency, a pioneer in free-roam virtual reality gaming, builds all-encompassing VR entertainment experiences that are pure immersive mayhem, powered by Unity.
Founded just over four years ago, Zero Latency was set up with the goal of introducing a unique take on blossoming VR technology: a free-roam virtual reality experience. Following the success of Oculus Rift’s Kickstarter campaign, Zero Latency released a single-player game called Inversion VR, in early-2013.
“We were inspired by Patient Zero, where they got people into a room which had real-life actors posing as zombies, to simulate a zombie invasion,” said Scott Vandonkelaar, Chief Technology Officer, Zero Latency. “We had this crazy idea – to create something better, to create a VR world that enabled players to walk around a real-world, physical space whilst wearing a head-mounted display; having their body as the controller, and mind believing it’s real.”
Getting it off the ground
With this vision, Scott and his team looked to Unity Technologies for the means to develop this new form of entertainment. Using Unity’s industry-leading engine, Inversion VR was initially integrated and operated through the team’s PlayStation – a device never intended for VR. Using Nerf guns as the base, the team slapped on both PlayStation and PlayStation Move motion controllers to mimic virtual weapons. An array of PlayStation Move cameras tracked the subjects in real-time to capture the player’s actions and translate them into virtual movements.
Zero Latency spent the next three years upscaling this new free-roam VR experience through a sophisticated and complex process. With little background in professional programming and development, the team was challenged by the lack of advanced technical knowledge that would let them bring their vision to life.
“Initially, we had a team of six full-time staff with little experience in programming and game development, and we wanted a platform and engine which was simple, user-friendly, and easy to learn so we could get our idea kick-started,” Vandonkelaar recalls.
Uniting with Unity
They turned to Unity for accessibility and ease of use, as well as the familiarity of code used within the Engine (C#). Unity’s simple coding language commonly known and used among developers was a plus for Zero Latency.
With Unity’s introductory courses for absolute beginners, participants learn the most common of Unity’s built in functions, and when to use them and when to write their own, gaining hands on practice through sample projects such as Roll-a-ball and Space Shooter. Unity’s large, active community provided valuable support and advice as the Zero Latency team continued to develop and refine their skills.
Free roam VR experiences, nevertheless, come with another challenge – that of free movement within a physical fixed space. The team needed to rely on perceptual tricks such as “Change Blindness Redirection” to create the illusion of a virtual environment larger than what is physically available. It’s a process that requires meticulous detailing, iteration, and testing of UI to ensure physical representation matches visual, e.g. that the objects you touch in the virtual realm match ones in the environment.
“Thanks to Unity’s versatile UI platform, we have been able to rapidly prototype our ideas in a changing environment, and manage massive amounts of content to overcome physical constraints,” Vandonkelaar said.
And with each new prototype, Vandonkelaar saw the team progressing closer to a full realisation of their vision, and Unity’s flexibility a key part of that.
“Unlike other game engines which sometimes feel more like a template, Unity provided us with a blank canvas, which enabled us to create whatever we wanted. With multiple Unity resources at hand, including video tutorials and the user manual, we were able to build the first working prototypes of the technology in 2014,” Vandonkelar concurred.
To further accelerate production, Zero Latency utilised Unity’s Asset Store. Editor extensions, scripts, 3D models and anything exportable in Unity proved useful to the team, as they were able to seamlessly download and import from the store, straight into the editor, saving time and additional effort.
“We were able to tap on the Asset Store for prototypes and other items throughout our entire development journey, from conception to final product. Various visual effects that helped us shape the environment, from trees, to fog, to water effects, were quick and easy to use. More importantly, we were also able to download and integrate a 360-recorder, which gave us the ability to monitor and record movement and videos of our players for analytic purposes.”
How is Zero Latency doing today?
And years later, Zero Latency’s immersive VR experiences grew to be a great hit with the crowd. As their game scaled from a single player experience to a 6-person multi-player RPG, they continue to require more advanced tools from Unity for creating and managing content. The future remains bright. Currently based in six locations all over the world, including Australia, Japan, Spain and the United States, Zero Latency is set to launch two further locations in the coming months, in Boston and Philadelphia.
Although VR is still a heavily unexplored medium, Vandonkelaar advises new, aspiring developers to not be afraid to follow their dreams.
“Developers should not be afraid to try something new, to prototype their ideas, and just see what happens. There is no one out there who knows everything about VR, and there’s no one who can say what will succeed or fail until it is actually completed. But most importantly, it’s about learning with a little help from Unity – about the platform, what you can do with it and create your own future.”