Virtual reality startup demos prototype at Berkeley

“Project Aether” puts the player in a virtual forest.

In a three-dimensional virtual forest, archers pop up in the distance and aim their bow and arrow in the player’s direction. In a five by seven-foot square space viewed through a headset, the player picks up rocks from the ground with two controllers and throws an air punch in the direction of the attacking archers.

More Equal Studios, a Berkeley-based virtual animation startup, demonstrated this prototype last Saturday at the Virtual Experience Convention held at University of California, Berkeley. It was one of 11 companies, who were there to introduce students to virtual reality technology, which puts users in immersive computer-generated environments.

Called Project Aether, the company’s demo was an immersive combat arena game that puts players in a dusky forest where they fight intruders with a number of offensive and defensive strategies. Hand gestures summon objects like rocks, pillars and walls or a head nod moves the player from one spot to another.

The game employs a sophisticated gesture recognition system based on machine learning, a way to automate programming with data, so the game recognizes what players are trying to do through gestures and motion.

“A lot of VR games these days require you to press a button for something to happen,” said co-founder Zain Nayer. “This one you really immerse your body. If I raise my hands up, a rock comes out of the ground.”

Participant at Virtual Reality Experience Convention punches a rock in an offensive move.

The emerging platform has received increased attention since Facebook bought VR headset company Oculus VR for $2 billion in 2014. The demo by More Equal Studios is one example of the technology’s potential to change various fields from the arts to medicine and gaming.

Kevin Yin, another co-founder, explained that the company made a breakthrough with its motion gesture algorithm, which can be applied to various training programs, exercising programs, and anything that requires movements or gestures.

Nayer, Yin, Charles Niu and several others founded More Equal Studios earlier this year. They said they were inspired by a game they liked to play called League of Legends, where players summon superpowers and battle against an opposing team.

Co-founders Charles Niu, Kevin Yin and Zain Nayer (from left to right).

In September, they demonstrated their concept to wide acclaim at PAX West Seattle, a popular gaming convention

Users filled out surveys to give the developers an insight to what worked and what didn’t work.

“We’re all developers so sometimes we miss things,” said Nayer, adding that it was helpful to get insight from people, who had never tried VR before.

VR is widely expected to be the next big technology, but the high cost of the equipment remains the biggest impediment to wider spread adoption. Currently, popular headsets cost between $600 and $3000. The most popular, HTC Vive is $799 and Oculus Rift $599, while Sony PlayStation VR is slated to release a headset for $399 on October 13th. Most headsets also need a powerful PC system to run content, which can cost from $999 to over $4000. The cost of the full setup is out of reach for most consumers.

Still, More Equal Studios is optimistic about the future potential of the market.

“We’re not going to wait for everybody to get a headset, we’re going to inspire them to get a headset,” said Yin.

The company is currently working on adding multiplayer functionality to Project Aether. The founders said some big players in the industry have shown interest in their product. Yin said they also want to enter the VR market through e-sports, a competition sports arena facilitated by video games.

“In a world where everyone had VR, we would do well,” said Yin.