With few exceptions, there’s no way with today’s virtual reality systems to have a multi-user experience, especially one that involves any kind of action by one or more of the users.
A new technology from the California startup Pantomime is aiming to change that.
Pantomime today unveiled its first app, a virtual reality/augmented reality tool that allows for immersive, networked play across a series of Macs, iPads, and/or iPhones. The company says the app, known as Bug Farm, will also be available at some point for Android, and eventually will be available for Samsung’s Gear VR.
The company is touting its technology as being the first networked VR/AR app that doesn’t require any kind of specialized hardware, like a VR headset. In a demo given to Fast Company, Bug Farm worked seamlessly across six networked devices, with each and every one of them being able to control the action.
Bug Farm itself is a simple virtual playspace where users can knock bugs around, throw them, or squash them. Any user is able to perform any of these actions, which are then visible in real time on any other networked device. At the same time, the devices themselves, and their movement, are visible on any other that is tapped into the network. That means, the company says, that those phones, tablets, and computers effectively become both first-person displays and game paddles.
For now, the tool works only over Wi-Fi networks, with all the action being hosted on one of the networked computers running the tool. But Pantomime founder David Levitt, who has worked with virtual reality technology for many years, says the plan is to eventually extend the system to work over the Internet, with the action being hosted in the cloud.
At the same time, Bug Farm is merely the demo of Pantomime’s system. Levitt says the company’s plan is to license the technology to developers, who can then incorporate it into their own apps.
"I was blown away by Pantomime," says Alok Kejriwal, CEO of online game company Games2Win. "It is just the kind of out-of-this-world experience we are looking to implement in our casual, snacky games."
Pantomime’s technology takes advantage of the many sensors built into computers and, especially, mobile phones and tablets, that can instantly interpret the device’s movement in 360 degrees, and translate that movement into on-screen action. By touching the screen on either an iPhone or iPad, Bug Farm players can simulate one hand or two hands reaching into the virtual world. Pantomime argues that while advanced VR systems like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, or PlayStation VR have touch controllers that bring users’ hands into the virtual space, this element of its tool sidesteps the lack of such controllers for systems like the Gear VR.
On a Wi-Fi network, at least, Bug Farm is an impressive demo of Pantomime’s technology. The system recognizes any movement of any networked device, whether it is flipped upside down, spun around, laid flat, and so on, and any such motion captures the perspective of the device in motion, which is then visible to any other on the network. That suggests that third-party developers will have a wide range of options for incorporating the technology into their own multi-user applications.
Pantomime's multi-user VR is by no means the only way multiple users can interact in virtual reality. Samsung, for example, has an app that allows users to watch videos, like Netflix content, together on the Gear VR. And a popular Oculus Rift demo, known as Toybox, is a two-user experience. But Pantomime believes its system is the first to allow the networking of many different devices without any kind of dedicated VR platform.
How third-party developers will use the system is unknown at this point, but it has a great deal of promise, especially once the technology is available for the Gear VR and other VR hardware.