For my first genuine shot at virtual reality technology, Earthlight was unbelievably exciting. The game, developed by Melbourne-based studio Opaque Multimedia, utilised the HTC Vive (it also supports Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR) to allow users to experience what being an astronaut would be like on a space station.
The demo started out with me playing as an astronaut waiting for an overhead hatch to open, and filled me with anticipation. I was tasked by my superior over an intercom to secure a node that was causing some trouble on the station. The hatch opened and bright yellow supports, I was told, acted as the signposts to the node. I have an uncomfortable fear of heights and, unfortunately, looking around – especially downwards – was an essential part of the demo. Somewhat reluctantly I immediately looked down and was taken aback; the view was quite impressive. Earth was right below me, with large masses of cloud steadily moving around – it was Earthlight’s “wow” moment. After a quick breather I was on my way, slowly and carefully navigating the support beams as I went.
The controls accommodating the Vive were quite intuitive and the yellow bars used to guide me to the objective translated into a relatively immersive experience. The Vive controllers adapted to my hands’ movement, with the triggers used to grip certain surfaces, and extending my arms translated well into the same action for the virtual arms. What also added to the realism of Earthlight was the lack of latency when it came to directional movement. My ‘astronaut’ hands would make a fist, open, and move almost instantaneously with the trigger on the controllers – for a split second I forgot I was sitting down.
The field of view throughout the level was commendable. I was able to make out the Americas and Africa on the planet below and the accompanying slight rotation of the Earth made the whole experience quite surreal. A few metres before reaching my objective I had a view of the entire space station, with my eye line following the yellow bars all the way to the starting point of the hatch. It was here that I could see panels, wiring and various other outside compartments of the station moving of their own accord, which was something that drew me back into Earthlight. On top of this, there was that everyday banter from my fellow crew members – nothing serious – that added to the overall immersion.
There’s still work to be done here though, as a few issues brought me out of the VR experience; I was reminded that it was just a game. My in-game arms were frequently positioned at weird angles and I was unable to progress through the demo on several occasions due to minor technical hitches.
Despite that, and the evidence of low-resolution textures, this was a great first step into VR for me. Not only because of the sheer thrill of looking at Earth from outer space, but the cliffhanger I was left with after reaching my objective and fixing the node. I was told Earthlight will be released in an episodic format, where the playable astronaut will undergo training on Earth, followed by a space launch in a follow-up episode. Undertaking a series of tasks on the space station, the third and fourth episodes of Earthlight, is when the demo is most likely set.
Earthlight is slated for release in Q1 2016 to the Steam VR program.