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Preview: Starport

Virtual reality (VR) should be connecting people. It should be allowing best friends, separated by oceans, to stand face-to-face, shake hands, and enjoy each other’s company without barriers. Sadly, right now, there are plenty of those barriers to break down. The technology is viewed by some as isolated and cold, while the discussion of how to realistically interact with VR experiences seems destined to continue for some time. It’s going to years for VR to truly bring loved ones together without the frustrations of distance. Until then, developers are creating solutions to allow people to interact in meaningful, memorable ways that go beyond phone calls, texts and video messages. Starport is one such solution.

Developed by Otherworld Interactive, VR fans may remember seeing Starport in this year’s Oculus VR Mobile Jam on the Gear VR mobile head-mounted display (HMD). The software essentially offers a number of VR hangout spaces where two players can meet up and casually compete in minigames or work together in light-hearted, collaborative experiences.

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Users are able to select a puppet-like avatar which their friend will see standing across from them and vice versa. That avatar will mirror the player’s own head movements, gazing in the same direction as them. The idea behind Starport, then, is that you don’t play in silence; while you might not be able to shake your friend’s hand you can still either sit with them in the real world or talk over services such as Skype. Think of it as a sort of revival of the instant messenger, the kind that required you to sit down for a session to talk with someone and not just casually text away on a smartphone throughout the day.

The first of the two experiences that Otherworld Interactive had on display at E3 2015 was a rocket-blasting minigame named Astrobump. Players both sit on their own missile-spouting turret and use Gear VR’s head-tracking to take aim at various asteroids that bounced around the arena in front of them. With a target in sight, a player would lock on by holding the Gear VR’s touchpad to open fire. The more asteroids you destroy, the higher your score. It’s a surprisingly tricky title to master, as targets split into smaller sizes when hit, quickly filling the environment and becoming harder to lock onto.

While Astrobump proves to be an entertaining social exercise of sorts, it’s the second, more collaborative title, CastleBuild, that really showcases Starport’s potential. This is effectively a tiny slice of Minecraft, providing players with a rotating platform that they can drag a marker across using head-tracking and then place a block down in its location. It’s a playground in which you might chose to see who can build the highest tower, or work together construct whatever comes to mind. It’s a liberating and expressive experience that invites experimentation. It’s easy to picture spending as little as 30 minutes enjoying someone’s company in this sandbox.

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The key to Starport is its laid back atmosphere. It’s the kind of title that has an immediate click to it, as simply putting on a Gear VR alongside the developer and toying with its breezy distractions as he explains the mechanics demonstrates its worth. The title is really background noise in the very best sense, evoking the browser-based games of chess that friends might share when chatting in instant messenger. Obviously it wouldn’t be possible to multitask typing in VR, but advances in the likes of Skype mean that’s no longer necessary.

Expansion is going to be key to this title’s success. Otherworld Interactive has other minigames in the works and hopes to include more players in the future, with the amount of avatars on offer also set to grow. There’s also set to be support for other HMDs. These are all things that Starport needs, and it’s great to hear that the developers are taking them into consideration. It means that, until VR tech really does allow a husband in America to meet up with his wife in Europe, VR fans will have a hangout spot of their own.