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Versions is the essential guide to virtual reality and beyond. It investigates the rapidly deteriorating boundary between the real world and the one behind the screen. Versions launched in 2016 at the eponymous conference dedicated to creativity and VR with the New Museum’s incubator NEW INC.

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The “Backpack VR” rig lets you walk through virtual worlds wherever you are

backpack vr
The “Backpack VR” rig lets you walk through virtual worlds wherever you are

Doom (1993) doesn’t take long to hit its stride. Before you know it, you’re waltzing around on Mars, shotgun in hand, blowing away all demons that cross your path. Now imagine playing Doom, not sat down in a motionless state, but literally moving around, picking up your feet and walking forward and seeing the action mimicked on the screen. This is, perhaps, the dream of virtual reality. But creator Axel Wolstenholme has taken the idea step further, by taking it out of a constrained room that’s been set-up for VR, and into the larger spaces of surrounding reality. It’s possible due to his Oculus Rift-powered “Backpack VR” project, allowing himself and copycats to shoot their way through Doom’s hellish landscapes in the outside world.

Backpack VR is certainly not perfect

Backpack VR is certainly not perfect. There’s a number of times in Wolstenholme’s video demonstration where the videographer hollers at him to be careful, such as when he nearly walks directly into a nearby hedge or car. It’s also, as Wolstenholme writes in the video description, a quite “cumbersome” set-up. In order to have “free movement” in the outside world, he created a cart constructed by K’Nex (buildable kids toys) and a handy-dandy tripod. Inside the cart is a giant tennis ball, with a carefully placed backwards-fitted mouse facing towards the front. As the user pushes the cart, the ball rolls, and the mouse orients the walking movement in the game.

In Backpack VR, Wolstenholme has a controller in his hand at all times. Luckily, he only needs to use one hand—the right analog stick does just about everything he needs to progress (the trigger, action, and body reorientation—should he get disoriented). It’s connected to his laptop, carefully placed in his backpack. There’s no headtracking movement in the Oculus headset, but it does still inhibit a wide rounded view for the player.

backpack vr
A close-up of part of the Backpack VR rig, from Episode One: Untethered Doom.

In episode two of his video series cataloging the creation of Backpack VR, Wolstenholme made some notable changes to the project. Because of the issues had with manually pushing around the cart, he created a new solution: to attach the cart to his waistband. However, once Wolstenholme started up Quake (1996), he forgot to adjust the mouse settings and found the game’s quick movement per single step to be quite jarring.

In an email to UploadVR, Wolstenholme detailed the changes that Backpack VR underwent overtime, and why he made the project in the first place. “I am not a software engineer,” he wrote. “I just used what was available to me in the Doom[,] Quake[, or] Oculus software in the hopes that it will inspire other people to create hardware [or] software that expands on my ideas.” While it’s highly unlikely that Oculus will adopt Wolstenholme’s unique tactics to allow real-world movement, the fact that nearly everything used to create the strange rig was a household item is highly commendable.

You can watch Wolstenholme play Doom and Quake with his Backpack VR rig in Episode 1, 2, and 3 of his demonstration videos.

Versions is brought to you by Nod Labs,
Precision wireless controllers for your virtual, augmented and actual reality.
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