Exclusive: Visiting ‘Wonderland’ With Trailblazing Startup Playful Corp.

by Ian Hamilton • November 4th, 2016

I’m standing along a rail and there is a red trolley in the distance. It is broken and Daniel Hurd, Design Lead at Playful Corp., isn’t sure why. He pressed the button to call the trolley but it wouldn’t come. It isn’t too far away though, so I decide to leave Hurd and the others behind and just head over there.

My arms swing at my sides (in real life, and in the virtual world) as I move along the rail. I look over my shoulder and realize there is a cat girl following me. UploadVR Staff Writer Joe Durbin is the meat sack occupying the avatar, and it is gaining on me. Our pace quickens almost without thinking about it, and we instantly enter a foot race.

Outside VR two grown men are madly swinging their arms back and forth while standing in place and laughing. Inside VR, it is as if Forrest Gump’s leg braces are flying off. As of now, Joe may hold the world record for a virtual reality foot race.

Image above via GIPHY

The world we visited is called Wonderland and it is a container for a variety of experiments in virtual reality software design from Texas-based Playful Corp. that made this spontaneous moment between us possible. In particular, the software doesn’t use teleportation, or blinking, right now, which is currently the most popular method of allowing free roaming of virtual environments without discomfort. But that method destroys a new kind of immersion — that of social connection — when your friend can suddenly disappear rather than start to walk away.

“We don’t use teleport so you remember the journey,” said Hurd. “You wouldn’t have had that foot race.”

These experiments in social VR saw us fish together, roast marshmallows, pet a wolf, jump on that trolley, before we broke it, sing karaoke, and make our way around this colorful cartoon world together. The Playful team brought Wonderland exclusively to the Upload Collective in San Francisco during VRDC this week for our hands-on visit to the world in four HTC Vives.

The ideas we saw realized in the world are a continuation of a development style at Playful going back to the earliest Oculus Rift development kits that saw the company build dozens of prototypes in a very short span of time to find out what works and what doesn’t in VR. That’s how the company’s first VR game, Rift launch title Lucky’s Tale [Review 9/10], got its start. They used elements from the Unity asset store to accelerate the process, which is also why everyone is a cat girl in Wonderland, for our visit there.

The efforts by Playful echo experiments being run by many companies including Google and Facebook to explore social VR, its best practices, and ultimately what makes a fun shared experience. The “Arm Swinger” method of moving is one of several tests in Wonderland, alongside the idea of a persistent world that can be populated with stuff made by the people who visit it.

For example, at one point four of us packed into a tiny photo booth together, and positioned ourselves for a picture. Outside the booth our portrait was printed out and waiting. I picked it up and placed it on the wall. On subsequent visits to Wonderland it could still be hanging from the wall, immortalizing that shared moment — something each of us remembers as if we had actually been standing in that spot together — enshrined in a portrait of four cat girls.

playful-photo-booth

After we came out of VR we chatted with Hurd and Playful CEO Paul Bettner in the real world. While we were chatting I noticed the room seemed to be moving as if I had stared at an optical illusion or falling Tetris blocks too long.

After a few minutes it went away, but I suspect the feeling was a result of our intense foot race.

We’ll share additional details from our talk in follow up articles. Playful raised $25 million last year and has grown to more than 50 employees, with only a very small portion of them working at any given time on Wonderland. That means much of the company is working on unannounced projects, and the company isn’t restricting itself to only VR development.

They’ve been quiet, but it’s a company you’re going to want to continue to follow as they’ve been building things in private they plan to talk about soon. We can expect to see the next iteration of Wonderland early next year.

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