Seattle-based startup Holospark’s first virtual reality application debuts today at $5 on Steam for both Rift and Vive. Update: It also launched on the Oculus Store, too. Judging by their first work, this is a company you’re going to want to get to know.
The first VR project from Holospark is called the The Impossible Travel Agency, which both aptly describes the experience itself while encapsulating the promise of the medium. VR can take you to places you could never go, and that’s made pretty clear when you’re standing on a mountaintop as a manta ray-like creature flies past and an otherworldly ritual unfolds all around.
The Impossible Travel Agency draws its inspiration from theBlu and Fantasia. Of course, a musically-driven virtual world like this isn’t new. We recently saw the expansion for La Peri launch, for example, which features a ghostly ballerina in a very different Fantasia-inspired narrative. But Impossible Travel Agency features a new trick we’ve never seen in VR before.
If you buy the app and check it out, you’ll listen to a nice classical song play for about six minutes. You’ll see an almost spiritual narrative, that I won’t spoil, playing out in your immediate surroundings as well as the air and far away mountains. The flowers at your feet, for example, change colors like a music visualizer, and the lightning in the clouds below strike based on beat and pitch. It all comes together in a way that makes everything in this impossible world seem connected, like the planet Pandora from James Cameron’s Avatar. The included audio track is timed beautifully to this story but the new trick we’ve never seen implemented quite like this is that you can swap out the track for your own music, and the audio-reactive narrative responds accordingly.
“If you want to experience our story set to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, for example, you can mute our music and set the story to last 42 minutes and 59 seconds,” teased John Tynes, executive producer on the project. “As the final notes of ‘Eclipse’ play, our story will conclude right on schedule.’
Spark of inspiration
The startup formed almost 14 months ago but they’ve been in stealth mode till now. Funded privately “in order to create games without publisher interference”, according to the company, Holospark has roughly 30-40 employees but most of them worked over that time on Earthfall, a traditional co-op shooter being shown for the first time at PAX this weekend. The team that built Impossible Travel Agency, however, was only about half a dozen people working over a couple months, according to Tynes.
“What we wanted to do is make our first project great,” said CEO Russell Williams. “We got everybody together and said what’s a great project we can do?”
The core team, led by Russell, worked together previously at Flying Lab Software on massively multiplayer online game Pirates of the Burning Sea. Tynes is a game designer, producer and writer whose early career was in tabletop roleplaying games. He started working in video games in 2002 at Flying Lab before going to Microsoft Game Studios where he worked on projects including South Park: Let’s Go Tower Defense Play and Kinect Sesame Street TV. He also ran the company’s student developer program. In January, Tynes joined Holospark to build the VR team. He connected with art director Bruce Sharp, a freelance painter, illustrator and animation teacher who was already at Holospark after more than 20 years working in games dating back to his start at Sierra Online in 1993.
Game designers not making a game
Mirroring a sentiment we’ve heard from many others, including director Jon Favreau, the team found inspiration in a demo of the room-scale version of Wevr’s undersea title theBlu. It was enough to convince them to try their hand at discovering this new medium’s strengths.
“We see other companies rushing to do exactly what it is they know how to do,” Russell said, describing Impossible Travel Agency as an exploratory attempt to answer the question “what’s really interesting about VR?”
So while they have decades of combined experience in game development, Impossible Travel Agency is not a game. In fact, its interactivity is very light — you can essentially run your hands through the flowers at your feet and that’s about it. That’s not to say they didn’t try more advanced interactivity, but you don’t necessarily stand in awe and visually explore your fantastic surroundings when trying to poke and prod everything around you. For example, at one point they thought about letting you control a flock of bird-like creatures by pointing at it with your controller.
“It was kind of a rabbit hole,” said Tynes. “And what if people decide it’s a game where you make birds fly around? What we want to deliver is an emotional experience.”
Introducing Holospark to the VR community
Instead, Holospark settled on using the power of the Unreal game engine to develop a beautiful environment alongside algorithms that could introduce some randomness and reactivity to the world.
“If interactive storytelling was such a great thing,” joked Sharp, “we’d have hundreds of years of guys yelling out at a play ‘hey, kill the guy.’”
The joke cuts to the core of the challenge of VR development in 2016. There’s only a limited amount of time and money to build something and, for some developers, a game like Job Simulator makes more sense; Something with high interactivity that lets players mess with practically everything around them. Others avoid the challenging problems of realistic interactions with objects, simulated movement and physics in favor of spending time artfully developing a beautiful environment that people don’t so much as touch, but take in with a deep breath.
Impossible Travel Agency is primarily the latter.
“We want to create a new memory for you about your favorite music,” said Tynes.
The company is already working on a larger VR project they’ll talk about later this year that may attack some of these other questions. For now, Impossible Travel Agency is debuting from Holospark for basically the cost of a cup of coffee at Starbucks as a statement directed at the early adopting Rift and Vive owners. Any good VR developer knows the way you get people to understand your capabilities is to put people in a headset and show something cool. For Holospark, that day is today.
Impossible Travel Agency “is a place you can go back to again and again,” said Tynes. “It changes every time you go back.”