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Virtual Reality You Can Touch: Nomadic Wants to Bring VR Experiences to Malls, Movie Theaters

Headsets, immersive computer graphics, and… flashlights? Nomadic, a Northern California-based virtual reality (VR) startup that came out of stealth mode Thursday, has been busy working on bringing everyday objects into VR — and now, it’s getting ready to show the world what adding a real door, a stool, or said flashlight can add to immersion. “Reaching and touching anything is the most magical part,” said Nomadic CEO Doug Griffin.

During a recent demonstration at the company’s office-slash-warehouse space in San Rafael, California, Nomadic’s staff handed me an Oculus Rift VR headset connected to a portable backpack that housed the computer capable of rendering the company’s VR experience without the need for any additional wires. Also essential to explore the demo: A real-life, bulky flashlight with a real button, which in turn triggered the same flashlight in the virtual world.

That flashlight wasn’t the only physical object incorporated into the VR experience, which one could explore by walking around just like in the real world. A set of leaky pipes let off some real hot air, a file cabinet actually had to be opened to retrieve a real-feeling gun replica, a virtual reality door could only be operated with an actual doorknob. All the while, all of these objects were rendered perfectly in the virtual world, where shooting drones were flying above and city lights were shining in the background.

And then there was that wooden plank, which I had to walk over to get from one rooftop to another, avoiding a steep and scary drop into a back-ally, and which actually wobbled under my admittedly shaky feet. “I’ve done it 40 times, and I still get that feeling in the stomach,” said Nomadic’s head of growth Kalon Gutierrez during an interview afterwards.

Nomadic isn’t the first company to add physical cues to virtual reality experiences. But the company does have a novel concept of getting these kinds of experiences out in the marketplace. Instead of building and operating its own VR locations, Nomadic wants to partner with bigger players that already have a lot of real estate at their disposal and are now looking for the next big thing to retain and monetize audiences. Think mall operators, theater chains and the likes.

To make operating VR experiences easier for these companies, Nomadic is looking to build completely modular sets that can be reconfigured within a few hours based on simple instructions. The idea is that a theater or mall space runs an experience for two to three months, and then simply downloads the next one to its computers, completely with an instruction set on where to place doors, furniture, levers, heaters, fans and other physical cues.

Modular, marked ground tiles are supposed to make set changes as easy as building a Lego model. Simple, reusable objects combined with detailed virtual worlds are meant to help bring Nomadic’s experiences to new centers within a matter of days. “Everything we are doing is built for scale,” said Griffin.

To prove its concept, Nomadic build a simple experience that lasts roughly five minutes and is designed for just one player. In the future, the company wants to also enable social VR experiences with multiple players, with each lasting around 15 minutes.

And not all of them will feature shooting drones. “We don’t want to appeal to just the core gamer,” said Gutierrez. Instead, the company also plans for family-friendly experiences, and Griffin said that theaters or malls may one day run multiple experiences targeting different audiences, much like they now show a number of movies at the same time.

However, Nomadic doesn’t want to build all of these experiences itself. Instead, it wants to cooperate with both VR studios and traditional content creators to adapt their stories for this new world, in which VR headsets play as much a role as flashlights and wooden planks. Said Griffin: “We see this as a new medium of entertainment.”

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