Preview: Homoculus Sapiens

People are approaching virtual reality (VR) in fascinatingly diverse ways. Many see the Oculus Rift head-mounted display (HMD) in its intended form, as a portal to other worlds to escape into. But equally as interesting are the developers that instead look at the device as an alien technology, loaded with strange new mechanics to excitedly tinker with. One of the most striking examples of this in recent memory is Homoculus Sapiens, a project from developers Michaël Martin and Sylvain Joly of Los Angeles and Swiss team apelab and the University of Art and Design in Geneva that was on display at Gamescom 2015 this month.

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This appears to have started life as an entry into Oculus VR’s official Mobile VR Jam for the Gear VR mobile HMD earlier this year, but now looks to be heading to the Oculus Rift. The developers describe it as an application that ‘aims at serving as a gameplay toolbox’ for VR designers, and it should certainly give its intended audience a few things to consider.

There is no immersion to behold in Homoculus Sapiens, no fabled sense of presence trying to trick you into believing you’ve stepped into another environment. What you have are 4 minigames, 2 of which VRFocus sampled at the event. Each strips its visuals back to the age of Pong, with nothing but white outlines to break up the black screen (not pictured here but instead presented as concept art). This is a title that isn’t interested into doing anything other than exploiting the individual components of VR in some of the most interesting ways yet seen.

One experience, for example, takes advantage of the 3D display found in the Oculus Rift’s second development kit (DK2). It’s a sort of manic catch-them-all experience in which circles fall down one of 3 columns. With both eyes open, it appears that 2 circles are falling at a time but, when the player closes either eye, they’ll find the respective column either empty or with the real circle continuing on its path. It’s then up to the player to tilt their head – and thus the Oculus Rift – left or right to catch these circles with a small platform.

It’s a novel idea that quickly grows from eye-opening innovation to the sort of mini-game that one has to repeatedly practise to get better at. The tilt controls start to take their toll a few minutes in as circles start to appear faster and faster.

The second experience was perhaps slightly more conventional, asking players to quickly locate the source of a repeating sound in a 360 degree environment. Again, the environment is just a blank one that players frantically twist and turn in as a countdown hurries them. Should they be looking in the right direction once it ends they they’ll be informed as much. Admittedly this is an experience that requires very specific conditions to play properly and, in the packed halls of a convention centre, is almost impossible to experience correctly. The concept is sound, however, and it’s easy to see how an exercise such as this could help anyone with the accuracy of audio within their own VR experiences.

Homoculus Sapiens is an entirely mechanics-driven videogame, and not something you’d expect to experience when slipping on the Oculus Rift. Even its menu is an experiment, asking players to use head-tracking to push a ball into a corresponding slot for each mini-game instead of simply selecting them. The Oculus Rift’s launch is set to take players to a diverse set of worlds, but here is something that looks outside the ‘VR’ aspect of the device and showcases how it can be used to play in entirely new ways.

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