All work and no play make Jack a dull boy, so they say. Also, travel broadens the mind. August is of course a big holiday season so with the aim to learn some things and to continue to be able to shine, we just had a family holiday to Florida.

As we have often commented during our IoT team calls at 451 Research, there really never is any downtime. Us techies can’t help but look at things and ponder how they work.

This holiday was no exception. Florida has lots interesting things, but of course the Orlando theme parks of Disney and Universal are a major draw. I am not going to rattle on about every ride and experience but there were a few things that stood out that are worth sharing.

You remember Avatar, don’t you?

Disney’s ecologically focused Animal Kingdom has an impressive themed area called Pandora, based on the planet that features in the 2009 blockbuster movie Avatar. It’s a planet with a complex intertwined ecosystem, floating mountains and lots of blue people.

The area itself is very well done and very convincing, but it was the Avatar: Flight of Passage ride that was the highlight. We actually joined a queue that said wait time 210 mins – I won’t go into the weirdness of Disney’s Fastpass system, but we were not using that. The ride also seemed to have some technical glitches as the queuing went on a bit longer. We were inside out of the boiling sun and/or the pouring rain and we all had iPhones with WiFi so time passed, sort of.

I am not going to give any spoilers but the ride sees you bonding with a Na’vi avatar who in turn is paired with a Banshee, a giant flying dragon. The dragon takes you on a very impressive ride through the floating mountains and forests for a few minutes. You sit astride a saddle device with handlebars and a harness that locks across your shins and back. You are also wearing 3D glasses styled as protective bug eye goggles.

A large curved screen shows a very high definition (apparently 10K at 60fps) movie of Pandora in 3D, not in an eye wrenching type that some experiences hit you with, but very smooth and comfortable. The banshee unit pitches forward and backwards a little and leans but the majority of the movement is on screen and is utterly convincing.

However, it’s the subtle extras that you almost don’t notice that add to the experience. The Banshee you are riding breathes, which you feel pushing in and out on your knees. Smells of the forest and of a hot underground area are pumped in, along with mist and wind, but all very gentle. It is not full of tricks for the sake of it.

Haptic feedback, along with audio, on top of any digital visuals is really important and hopefully we will get more of that in-home based VR and AR as the technology develops.

Aren’t you a little short for a Storm Trooper?

Another experience that I had been looking forward to trying for a while was one run by a company called The Void. They produce multiuser VR experiences, but ones that you are free to walk around in. A number of these VR installations around the US, including one in Orlando at Disney Springs (they have also been in London, but I missed it).

We went in as a family of four to try the Star Wars experience. You wear a harness containing a PC and then a variant of an Oculus VR headset. We were directed into a small room and took a corner each, flipped the headsets down, then the VR kicked in.

We had all turned into Storm troopers – the system was tracking our body movements and even our relative heights. It was a very cool moment as we all looked at one another, waved and pointed whilst talking over our headset intercoms.

We were asked to climb into a shuttle and sit on a bench. Now normally in VR you have a clear play area as you don’t want to bump into anything. The Void, however, maps real world installations, like a bench, into the VR. You see a space shuttle’s metal bench but can actually sit on it. This combined with the freedom of movement and the presence of others is a powerful experience.

Before long we were in the heat of a battle, having reached for blasters which were on a rack and we actually held in our real hands. As one of the team punched away at buttons to open a blocked doorway, the others saw off the attacking troops, before we bundled through the virtual doorway (but one at a time as it was actually a narrow gap in reality).

One part of the experience is on a balcony, and it’s a long way down, but a real handrail is there to hold on to or duck behind for cover. As a VR aware family, we have all played and experienced it for a long while, but the buzz we all had from this was impressive!

The Void originally started with a Ghostbusters experience and now have others, such as Wreck it Ralph, too, so some great licensing choices. I look forward to seeing more installations like this over here (again)!

50th Anniversary of the moon landing

We did of course also visit the very real Kennedy Space Centre. This was especially good for the 50th Anniversary of the moon landing, which I watched as a 2-year-old with a cardboard box on my head pretending to be Neil or Buzz.

The scale of the rockets that powered the Apollo programme are always breath-taking. It’s impressive that they managed to get to the moon considering the level of technology they did not have. I can recommend you watch the new Apollo 11 film that has put together all the footage to see all the things that could possibly have gone wrong including the teeth gritting moment the tiny navigation computer almost gave up and Neil Armstrong took over to land on the moon.

I was pretty convinced I would be in space by now as growing up we seemed to be on a trajectory for that. We seem to have stalled a bit so I will have to make do with virtual interplanetary experiences for now. That and building the Lego version of the Lunar Lander that now has pride of place in our dining room.

That’s my planet

As we arrived back from our trip I was excited to see that the wonderful No Mans Sky was receiving a major update across all platforms. On the PSVR and on PC, the game now supports VR, plus loads of other interesting additions. I am a fan of NMS by Hello Games, because it is ridiculously clever. It is an entirely procedurally generated universe of planets, in which each one has its own ecosystem of flora and fauna.

In many games even the largest maps are built by design teams, but that eventually becomes restrictive. There is only so much that can be built by hand, but NMS is generated from maths. You land on a planet which is built for you on your arrival, but importantly this universe is consistent for all players, despite its huge scale.

We explore, claim and name planets, build outposts, mine for, dive for and collect resources. It used to be a fairly solitary experience, whilst the universe and discoveries were consistent, but now it is possible to organize and gather at a specific location.

The scale of the environment is mind blowing, just consider 255 galaxies, each with 4 billion regions containing over 122-star systems made up of up to 6 planets. Each of those you can land on and explore where different animals and plants, bases and alien life forms exist, all procedurally generated.

It got a mixed reaction on release 3 years ago as some considered it not as teaming with life of other players as the trailers suggested, but the company has stuck by it and continued to make massive advances, without resetting everything in order to start again.

The latest release, adding VR (for free), is a really fantastic move. It felt like it should support VR all along, but clearly, they already had enough to be dealing with. They have offered multiple ways to engage in VR with both smooth movement and turn and snap teleporting. There are different interfaces using in-hand motion controllers versus standard console joy pads.

It is all very well done, and I have already spent a good few hours both exploring and just taking in the scenery. I have the game on PSVR and on Xbox but will probably buy it for a 3rd time now to run on the PC VR rig. Yes – I think it’s rather good!

It’s just VR and AR

It was suggested to me that AR is just that funny thing on your phone, and I couldn’t help but think of all the variants of experience that both AR and VR can give. These three examples, just in entertainment, have very different recipes of things that make them special.

The Avatar ride is physical motion and haptic feedback, with 3D imagery; The Void has pure VR, total immersion but placed in a physical location to add to the reality; No Mans Sky has an almost infinite world to explore without moving anywhere – NASA shows the potential we have to do that for real!

All these things I certainly imagined when I was a kid growing up in the early days of gaming, and I am so far not disappointed in the virtual experiences, though I still wouldn’t mind going to the moon for real, please!