If you ever find yourself in Seattle sometime soon, you ought to take time to visit the Pacific Science Center. It’s got a lot of VR and AR exhibits right now, not least of which is the beta for Wonderfall: Tale of Two Realms.
Wonderfall is currently the main project for the Science Center’s startup-in-residence, Hyperspace XR. It’s been operating since July of 2017 with the goal of creating “an immersive, multi-person VR adventure,” with a team that’s grown from three to 25 staffers over the course of the last year and a half.
This past weekend at the regular Seattle VR meetup, Wonderfall was on display on a first-come, first-served basis. Those who waited in line got to strap on backpack-mounted HP Omen computers, linked with Samsung Odyssey headsets with extra batteries mounted on the sides to explore a 15-minute demo of the forthcoming project.
Without a headset, Wonderfall is, at time of writing, a small maze of unfinished wood, various props, speakers, heaters, and doors. With the headset, you set foot into a small, quaint Victorian-era village, where you happen across a scene outside a magic shop. A young woman, Elena, has just inadvertently destroyed a cart with an unwise experiment. It’s got an engine on its back that’s venting a strange pink mist, represented in the real world by a dryer; step in front of it, and you can feel a warm breeze across your face. The fence in front of you that’s separating you from the woman is a real fence, which you can rest your hands on in both the real and virtual worlds.
A few minutes later, after an incident involving a freak tornado, you’re exploring Elena’s uncle’s shop. The books are real objects that you can touch and feel, with additional effects attached when you do so in VR. One glows suddenly when you move near it, before revealing an illusion of a dragon that zips around your head. There’s a “puffball,” a little magical creature, hiding in the shelves overhead, and a secret door hidden behind a nearby bookcase.
All the while, you can listen in on a conversation about the world you’re in, the situation you’ve ended up in, and what’s going to happen next. As it turns out, Elena has a knack for doing this kind of thing, as she’s starting to outgrow the village in which she’s grown up, and the “accident” you walked in on was just a symptom of something much bigger.
Your hands are visible in front of you as you walk around the maze, and you can interact with various objects by reaching out for them without any need for gloves or controllers — similar in practice to how Nomadic tracks objects in their environments. After an event a couple of minutes into the level you also gain the ability to hold your hands up, palms out, to cast spells and move distant objects around. Also, perhaps most crucially, it lets you pet virtual cats.
What it reminded me of, more than anything, is Myst. Wonderfall plays with perspective and reality a lot, complete with at least one sudden transition into a totally new virtual environment. There’s a bit where you walk through a doorway that’s still partially occupied by a ghostly bookshelf. The additional tactile element that had been in play up until then, where I could reach out and grab almost anything I saw in the game’s world, meant that I expected to smack my face directly into a physical object right up until I didn’t, and was able to move through it.
Currently, Wonderfall lets multiple players go on the adventure together, but they can’t interact with one another or cooperate on objectives. Other players are visible in VR as white floating balls wearing sunglasses. (That got a little creepy at the start of the map, as backup headsets were hung on the wall behind the starting point. In VR, it looked like the developers had put up a couple of trophy heads.) In the final version, there are meant to be puzzles to solve, using your spells to manipulate elements within the game’s world.
The first scene is set in a single area in Building 4 of the Pacific Science Center, with work underway on the site of the second scene, in a 1,500-square-foot area directly behind it. When the whole thing’s done, it’s intended to be a full-scale ticketed attraction to the Center, meant to bring in tourists and regulars. What’s there now is already a popular exhibit in the Center’s AR/VR room.
For more details on Hyperspace XR and Wonderfall, visit the official website here and don’t forget to read our impressions of other location-based VR attractions such as The Void’s Star Wars and Wreck-it-Ralph experiences, as well as the exciting Jurassic World game at Dave & Busters.
Let us know what you think down in the comments below!