Israel is making a big mark in the virtual reality world — for real. Israeli game maker Side-Kick is one of just 20 companies worldwide picked for Samsung’s new virtual reality headset, GearVR. Samsung unveiled the headset Wednesday at IFA, the world’s biggest consumer electronics show — and named Side-Kick’s “Romans from Mars’ game, renamed “Romans 360,” as one of the charter apps in a virtual reality app store Samsung is setting up.
In the VR world, you get a chance to be and do things you could never attain in real life. In this case, you use a super-powered laser to fight off 3D aliens in Roman gladiator gear who try to invade the earth and advance on you — the lone defender of the planet. Picture the old video game “Space Invaders” with much better graphics — but you’re shooting at the aliens rushing at you in 3D, instead of the video game’s version, in which players shoot down spaceships dropping vertically.
Unlike VR headsets available until now, the GearVR device is lightweight — just a few hundred grams. Instead of having all its electronics and sensors on board, users attach Samsung devices (as of now, the newly introduced Galaxy Note 4, but other models could be used as well). Phones are housed inside plastic enclosures which contain two lenses, creating a full VR headset. Depending on the app, GearVR could make use of the phone’s camera, microphone, speakers, GPS, networking capabilities, or other features — with apps to be developed for a wide range of uses, including fitness, medical needs, office uses, and others.
To play Romans 360, you attach the phone to GearVR, and use your head to navigate the “screen,” which appears as a 3D open field. To start the game, or to shoot a Roman Martian, you simply look at the creature. The system uses head tracking to detect where you are looking. A laser beam will soon burst from your virtual weapon, and the alien “explodes” before it reaches you. Like with other shoot-’em-ups, Romans 360 progresses through gradually more difficult levels until you’re faced with a full-blown invasion — for which you need quick head reflexes, turning this way and that, to fend off.
“This is the first consumer-friendly VR device, and we’re honored to be a part of it,” said Yitzchak Wolkowicz, marketing director for Side-Kick. “It’s not heavy, and not complicated — the only physical interface GearVR has is a touchpad on the side, which can be used to jump start various actions, depending on the app.” In Romans 360, the touchpad is used to speed up shooting, but is not required for normal play.
VR tech has been around for several years, but until now has interested only geeks — and despite the promise of the technology, “the geek market is not going to make it mainstream. If Samsung or anyone else wants to do that, they have to develop a device which is easy to use, consumer-friendly, easily accessible, and affordable,” Wolkowicz said. He would not speculate on Samsung’s plans, since Side-Kick is actually partnering with Oculus, which is partnering with Samsung, but “the fact that they are setting up an app store seems to be an indication that they see this as ready for the consumer market.” Samsung has not announced how it will distribute GearVR, or how much it will cost.
Contrary to rumors, Samsung is working together with, not in competition with, Oculus, which this year came out with the first commercial virtual headset. California-based Oculus makes the Oculus Rift headset that puts users “in” a game — providing an approximately 100° field of view, stretching the virtual world beyond peripheral vision, providing an immersive experience. In an interview with The Times of Israel, Dov Katz, Oculus Senior Computer Vision Engineer, said “some people try to compare the Rift’s VR experience to a 3D movie. While there are elements of 3D involved, the effect and experience are far different, because in the movies, the effect is external — meaning that you are just watching it — while with VR you are totally immersed in what is going on.”
Besides the Rift (which is clearly not meant to compete with GearVR), there is no other device on the market with the capabilities of GearVR, although there are several VR devices out there, notably from Epson and Sony. “Neither of them compares to Samsung’s,” said Wolkowicz, noting that they’re heavier, harder to use, and don’t have the phone-supplied sensors and networking capabilities GearVR has. This year Google announced its Cardboard project, which is in its geek infancy. Although it, too, uses phones to supply power to a headset, at this point users have to build their own headset (out of cardboard, magnets, Velcro, and other stuff), and develop their own apps, using Cardboard’s SDK.
When the Rift came out last spring, Oculus released an SDK, and it’s that software development kit that Side-Kick used to develop Romans 360, said Wolkowicz. The current version of the Oculus technology is better than the Rift when it was first released, and the addition of the smartphone’s capabilities to the GearVR definitely raises the performance bar for VR systems.
Still, admits Wolkowicz, Romans 360 is an early version of what VR is going to be capable of — in fact, is already capable of from a hardware perspective. “It would be a relatively uncomplicated matter to add networking capabilities to Romans 360, so two players could compete, with each seeing their own and/or their friend’s screen,” Wolkowicz said. “All that needs to be done is to write the software that would integrate networking or any of the phone’s other functions into the VR app. For example, you could use the phone’s built-in camera to integrate your physical surroundings with a VR scenario” – so you could experience Romans invading your living room or front yard.
Side-Kick is a veteran developer of games for desktops, mobile devices and even Kinect-equipped Xboxes. Established five years ago, Side-Kick’s collaborations in the tech- gaming field include projects with Intel, eeDoo China, Leap Motion, Extreme Reality, PrimeSense and others. The company’s CEO is Guy Bendov, a serial entrepreneur who has founded or led half a dozen Israeli high-tech firms. He also founded GameIS, a non-profit group that promotes the Israeli interactive games industry.
Commenting on the Romans 360 launch, Bendov said, “Romans From Mars, our flagship game, is expanding beyond the initial smartphone and tablet version. Romans 360 is a testament to Side-Kick’s commitment to producing games which are both ground-breaking technology-wise, and focused on emerging markets. Samsung Gear VR represents the future of mobile immersive gaming experiences.”