When the Kite & Lightning developers told me they had something to show me that couldn’t physically be demonstrated anywhere else, I was intrigued. Little did I know, upon arriving at their office, that I would be stepping into a contraption that’s been presumed to be a torture device, a jungle gym, and yes, even a “sex machine.”
Kite & Lightning is a creative development studio co-founded by Cory Strassburger, a two-time Emmy award winning visual artist, and Ikrima Elhassan, a visual effects technical artist who’s held research positions at the University of Texas, Intel, and Nvidia. The studio specializes in high tech and interactive content, with experience in the realm of augmented reality, and more recently, virtual reality. Kite & Lightning is responsible for some of the most visually impressive Oculus Rift demos to date, including K&L Station, The Cave, and most recently, the one-of-a-kind Senza Peso.
Reverend Kyle and I swung by the Kite & Lightning office while we were out in LA earlier this month. We were greeted at the door by Elhassan who showed us to the office. As we rounded the corner, we came in view of the machine we were about to step into.
Entering the office, the machine—called ‘Genesis’—takes up the majority of the space. Strassburger told us that passerbys in the office have guessed what the device might be—most frequently, some sort of torture chamber, and occasionally, some kinky sex device. I tweeted a teaser from the office calling it ‘Jungle Gym Sim 2014.’
In reality, Genesis is a virtual reality immersion machine; a huge polyhedron consisting of cylindrical metal beams, suspended in the center is a padded bed for a user to lay on. Surprisingly, the device doesn’t move, instead it relies on the immersive power of audio, visual, and tactile feedback to play with your senses.
Mounted on the bars surrounding the bed are eight powerful speakers and a fan, all directed at the user. Attached underneath the bed are two subwoofers and three tactile transducers. Strassburger told me that the setup usually uses two additional tactile transducers, but they weren’t set up at the time. As someone who has a single small tactile transducer in his couch for gaming, I was plenty excited at the prospect of three large units, not to mention the subwoofers. Despite Strassburger telling me that he wasn’t cranking Genesis up to full power—to spare the other folks in the office—the rumbling was even more powerful than I expected.
For visuals, Genesis is using the Oculus Rift. Kite & Lightning have added some DIY ear flaps to the headband which house small speakers. This allows for more intimate audio (like whispering) to be combined with the powerful speakers surrounding the bed.
A Reality-bending Ride
I climbed up into the bed, with metal beams all around me; I was staring at the ceiling as I donned the Oculus Rift. When I opened my eyes, I was staring at the same ceiling and saw the same metal bars as before, but this time they were virtual. I was looking at a near-exact virtual recreation of the office where I started. Despite being a very terrestrial view, it was one of the most surreal moments of the experience. It felt so aligned that I could only imagine that the virtual version of the room and the virtual Genesis were based on exact dimensions of their physical counterparts. And yet, this was just the beginning of a wild ride.
Before I knew it, the walls and ceiling blasted away, I was left, with the Genesis still surrounding me, flying through the air over a huge ocean. Then things got interesting. The horizon of this virtual experience started to shift. While I started the ride looking upward, the entire world tilted until it felt like I was looking forward. At this point, the virtual Genesis actually flew away, leaving me with the feeling of being suspended over this ocean—upright and uncontained—flying forward.
It’s generally accepted that playing with the horizon in VR is a recipe for simulator sickness, however, this experience pulled it off in an amazing way that left me with nothing but an interesting altered sense of my orientation.
If you’ve seen Kite & Lightning’s Senza Peso—and you absolutely should have—you’ll know that there is a high bar for visuals in the Genesis experience, which Strassburger told me is built in Unity.
After flying over the ocean, I dove down into it—with this sudden shift came powerful vibrations around me, until I was suddenly greeted with a surreal scene. Underneath the water were beautiful luminescent jellyfish with what appeared to be some sort of glowing spirit dancing about the water. The music at this point has become very somber, with the spirit’s laugher reverberating around me.
Suddenly, from the sea floor below, a rocky walkway emerges and I’m transported from the bottom of the ocean to a cold and snowy tundra, once again accompanied by powerful rumbling as the rock came into place. At this point, the fan kicks in to simulate the cold wind blowing around me. The effect is convincing—the air from the fan isn’t actually cold, but I’m almost convinced that it is because of the scene I’m witnessing.
Proceeding down the cold and rocky pathway, I reached what appeared to be a dead end. A glowing orb spirit circled near me and whispered into my ear before flying away through the dead end. The tiny orb becomes a massive sun as the rocky landscape falls away. I’m flying again, backwards this time, above the ocean. A woman starts singing in time with the music and it now feels like I’m in some sort of psychedelic music video with glowing particles raining down around me.
I see the Genesis structure fly toward me and reposition itself around me. The walls and ceiling of the room are floating around me and suddenly snap back in place—only now do I realize I’m on my back again, and have been the entire time.
Reverend Kyle, who also had a chance to try the experience, said this of his time in the device:
The Genesis experience is unlike anything else that I’ve tried in VR. The combination of visual stimuli, immersive audio, and vibrations, took me into another dimension. I truly felt like I was flying through space into another world. If this is the future of VR, then someone needs to give me a DeLorean, because I want this now!
The Genesis structure itself was conceived by Michael Bradford and has been in existence since as far back as 1997. It was designed as an audio-only experience—a sort of reactive musical therapy device. Cory Strassburger of Kite & Lightning acquired the device second hand from a friend who is a good friend of Bradford’s. Strassburger came up with the idea to add an immersive visual component to the experience using the Oculus Rift. He built the audio and visuals in around a week.
Genesis is an immersive experiment—Kite & Lightning doesn’t have plans to sell the thing—but they surely have created something that I think people would pay to experience. Reverend Kyle and I joked that they should have transported the unit right outside E3, thrown a black veil over the thing, and charged $5 a pop for the ride. The powerful audio and rumbling alone surely would have been enough to draw a line of people wondering what was inside.
Experiences like Genesis further the discussion of the VR Arcade concept. Such experiences, which may require equipment that would be too expensive or otherwise impractical to have in the home, could flourish in an arcade setting. Perhaps this is the realm where professional and consumer virtual reality finally meet?