Nomadic review: virtual experience that you can touch

In the middle of a shopping mall, I stand at the edge of a fenceless balcony. Warm wind blow across my face. I dodge an attack drone as it bumbles through the pitch-black sky. Keeping my sweaty grip against the gun’s trigger, I pull a rusty-looking lever. Flames leap into the air and billows of smoke shroud the entire city.

This is not a scene from a dystopian movie, nor is it a sneak peek at the next episode of Black Mirror. Strange as it may sound, all you need to go through what I described is a headset and backpack. Brace yourselves for Hong Kong’s first tactile virtual reality experience.

The California-based startup Nomadic blends virtual experiences with the physical environment. In other words, players can not only see but they can also touch everything that appears before them. For example, when the operator told me to pick up a gun from a drawer, I physically opened a real drawer with a real prop gun inside.

During the setup, I notice numerous small black boxes scattered along the ceiling. Nomadic tells us there are almost 30 sensors throughout the space to track the player and props for real-time visual, auditory and touch feedback.

Camera for positional tracking.

What fascinates me the most compare to other VR experiences is the sense of physical interactivity. When I point the flashlight at the television, I see the reflection. When I press the elevator button, I feel my body ascending — while in reality I am at the same spot.

“When you press the button, you feel like the elevator is going up. It actually has a motor on the bottom that vibrates under you, so you feel that motion,” says Jonathan Tam, representative of Li Ka Shing’s Horizons Ventures, a major investor of Nomadic.

This is one of the reasons why Nomadic VR is an up-and-coming startup in the VR scene. Since June, it has raised HKD $46.8 million in seed financing.

In order to complete my mission, I need to get to another building and pull a lever that stops the drones from attacking the city. To do that, I had to walk through a wobbly wooden plank from one rooftop to another as I battle the stomach-churning height below.

Nomadic isn’t the only company doing this. While competitors like The Void focus on creating large-scale experiences, Nomadic aims to provide compact and modular sets. This way they can create new virtual content with little modifications on the physical sets. Take the 20 by 30 feet set in Whampoa as an example. It was assembled within a day.

Other high-end VR solutions are usually quite expensive for the general public. With the price of a movie ticket, Nomadic aims to provide an alternative form of public entertainment in malls and retail spaces besides shopping and going to the cinema. “In the U.S., there are so many dead malls that need revival, and this experience is going to drive a lot of traffic,” Tam says.

Whampoa is still an unfamiliar destination for many people in Hong Kong given the arrival of its new MTR station only last year. Tam says this makes the city a good testing ground for Nomadic to collect data. According to the organiser, the game attracted around 2,000 players over the past two weeks.

Clubhouse team at the event.

However, the game has its limits — you can only go through the experience alone. Targeting families and group customers, Nomadic is working on a multiplayer feature that enables six to eight people to share the experience together. For me, there’s no better feeling than the sense of achievement I get after walking out of a haunted house with friends. After all, as the American traveler Christopher McCandless famously noted, “happiness is only real when shared.”

When it comes to movies, some people prefer good aesthetics; but most prioritise a great story. The same goes for VR experiences. When you step inside the game initially, the excitement of trying out new technology is overwhelming. But as this kind of experience becomes common in the future, it will need more sophisticated storytelling to keep the audience emotionally engaged. This is why Nomadic hopes to collaborate with movie studios and game companies for better content and experience design.

Tam: “For example, it can give you two options — maybe two doors — that physically lead you to the same place. But in the game, they lead you to a completely different world.”

What’s next? The startup wants to push this new technology towards mid-America, where people have less exposure to virtual or augmented reality experiences. Tam says Nomadic is planning to launch in the U.S. during the fourth quarter of this year.