Virtual Reality as we know it today is filled with many references to Star Trek's infamous Holodeck. The ability to step into a totally artificial world and have it feel real is something nerdy kids like me grew up with, and we want VR to live up to that promise eventually. We're nowhere near being able to step into a room and have it effortlessly feel like another world, but the folks at Sandbox VR have a system to help make us feel one big step closer.
And, unironically, they're doing it with the help of Star Trek: Discovery.
Step into the Holodeck, sort of
Star Trek: Discovery Away Mission is one of several experiences offered at Sandbox VR locations, all using the same core tech to function. That core tech starts with unique tracking sticks you're asked to put on your wrists and feet as soon as you arrive. Once you're all set up with this starter hardware, you're invited to choose your avatar for the game and then ushered into your VR room.
Up to four teammates walk into a massive green room, where they are then suited up for gameplay. The room is mostly empty, save for a few large fans on the wall, and a rack of hardware hidden by a curtain. As you stand in the middle of the room, your attendee brings you multiple individual pieces and helps you assemble them. You get a haptic feedback vest, a backpack PC, an Oculus Rift CV-1 headset, and a set of over-the-ear headphones. For this experience, you also get a phaser and a tricorder. However, you wouldn't recognize either as such outside of the headset. On the outside, these look like a fairly toy standard blaster and flashlight with tracking sticks on the ends.
What Sandbox has done here is fantastic because it removes all of the awkwardness you usually see in VR.
The set up process takes a solid fifteen minutes and includes a video walkthrough of the entire experience. The app shows you where the boundaries are so you don't walk into the walls, shows you how to interact with the other people on your team that you can now see and hear in VR, and gives you some basic combat training. And by the time you're ready actually to play the game, you're ready to go.
When the experience ends, the hardware is removed, and you're asked to step into another room and await the results of your mission. Here you're invited to see the results of your fight, which includes accuracy in combat and how well you used your Tricorder. Everyone on the team gets ranked, and then you're shown a highlight reel of your time in the headset.
This is where things get fun because you're shown in-game renders of your combat and what you were saying when things got particularly heated. And at this moment, that's where this starts to feel like you're peering into the Holodeck. What you're seeing is your actual movements in this virtual form and shown this clever highlight reel. What Sandbox has done here is fantastic, because it removes all of the awkwardness you usually see in VR. They emailed it to you so that you can share with your friends. By the time you've left the building, you're able to share just how much fun you've had.
Joining the Away Mission
After setting you up with a shiny new Tricorder and Phaser, Cadet Tilly stands before you and gets ready to send you on your first Away Mission. As you move around in the real world, you can see your arms and legs move in the VR environment as well. You can jump around, lift one leg, and even walk around and touch your team members. It's effective, but a little on the clumsy side. As you can see in the screenshot above, the arms don't always look entirely natural. There are some small issues with height as well, with shorter players looking down and seeing their avatars kneeling when they're actually standing straight up.
There are other VR rooms which offer haptics to help everything feel real, but the experience Sandbox VR offers is unparalleled.
This isn't the only place the software feels a little awkward. When teleporting from place to place, there's a pause in the software as the next section loads, and it's full of stuttering in the UI that can be more than a little disorienting. It's not a deal-breaker by any stretch, but clearly, there's room for polish in this experience.
Your mission takes you through solving puzzles, fighting Klingons, and saving the day just in time to look into space and see Discovery do its thing against a Klingon warship. As you travel through the game, the software and hardware combined does an incredible job making you feel what's happening. As you teleport, the haptic vest tingles and makes you feel like you're moving. When an alien cave serpent wraps itself around your torso, you can feel it move all around you in the most creepy way possible. When you fall down an ice shaft, the combination of moving air and haptic feedback genuinely makes you feel like you're falling. There are other VR rooms which offer haptics to help everything feel real, but the experience Sandbox VR offers is unparalleled.
Your total gameplay is about 20 minutes and honestly feels more like a proper Star Trek experience than most full Trek games released over the last decade.
You owe it to yourself to check this out
While imperfect, Sandbox VR is something noticeably different from the other VR rooms available in many places today. Prices for a 30-minute game range from $35-$40 per person depending on the time of day and many of the experiences support much more than the two-person experience I had. Sandbox VR locations are listed on their website, so if you have one in your area, you should consider checking it out. And if you're a Star Trek: Discovery fan, you should go out of your way to check this out.