PAX West: Earthlight Demo

Friday, September 9, 2016

This was the year of VR demos at PAX West (née PAX Prime) for us here at Somnam. Among the most notable was the Earthlight demo by Melbourne, Australia based developers Opaque Media.

Your odds of becoming a US Astronaut are better today than they ever have been since the "The Mercury Seven" were first selected in 1959. Even so, the hurdles are incredible and only a total of 536 people (as of 2013) worldwide have been to space. It's rare experience available to a select few, but Opaque Media has managed to bring part of that experience to a much wider audience.

Earthlight is a single player VR title that takes place on and around the ISS. We played a small section of the game involving an EVA to repair a panel on the exterior. Using the motion controllers, I moved my hands from rail to rail, trying not to look away from the station. The developers guiding us through the demo told me I could push out with the controllers to push myself farther away from the station and look around, but I was reluctant to do that because I knew it would be disorienting. As a seated experience, you get a surprisingly good sense of weightlessness. I thought that I would still feel rooted to the ground from the chair, but the immersion was incredible.

When I finally did look around more, I could see other sections of the ISS, the vast black nothingness of space and a gorgeously rendered Earth "below" me. As disoriented as I felt, it was hard to look away. It's such an incredible sight and as often as I've read accounts of what it is like to see Earth from space, I wasn't anywhere near prepared for what I saw.

I continued to move myself along the rails hand over hand until one of the developers told me to rotate my hand. When I did, my whole body in the game shifted and the rails I had been grabbing from right to left were now oriented like a ladder. Of course, it was another part of being in zero-g that my brain didn't work out on its own. direction and orientation are all relative from up there, so turning my wrist meant turning my body.

By the time I reached the panel, I felt like I was finally getting the hang of it, grabbing rails and handholds easily and taking moments to look down at the shining blue orb, watching it shift from day to night. Then the panel I was working on burst open and I was flung out away from the station. I had nothing to grab on to and no safety tether to keep me from drifting away. I was doomed. Even though I knew I was safe in that chair, it was one of the most terrifying moments I've ever experienced in a game.

Earthlight will eventually have a full story that players will experience, but for now, the developers have this small experience to show off what they are working towards. The small team hopes to create a game that gives people an opportunity to see what it is like to work in space and the kinds of dangers only astronauts face. It is a fragile existence out there that demands careful patience and reasoning under the most stressful conditions I can imagine. There is no release date set yet, but I think we are all really looking forward to seeing where they go with this.