Project Timetravel VR

Posted May 4, 2014 by Edmund in VR Software

Palmer Luckey has repeatedly stated that education will be a important application of the Rift.

While Titan’s of Space sits at the top of the class for bringing Astronomy to life, there hasn’t yet been a big influx of engaging experiences that teach the likes of History, Geography or Literature. Enter, Project Timetravel, high school teacher R. Elliot’s attempt to bring History to life through VR.

oculus rift time travel 2Despite its educational aims, Project Timetravel is not overly stuffy. The premise is playful; you have created a hack-job time machine, allowing you to travel to four different time periods to witness key historical events. Its greatest success is in not bogging the player down in text and other overtly educational materials. Opting, rather, to focus on creating a sense of presence and place, in both space and time, to get you absorbed enough to engage in tangential learning.

You begin in the present day, in your garage, which is nicely detailed – complete with workbench, car and a whiteboard, reminiscent of something from the movie Primer. The time machine itself looks more like technology from Star Trek than something cobbled together in a garage, and a trick has definitely been missed by not using some sort of psychedelic visual effect as you travel between time-periods. Not only would this be cool, but in fact, at the moment, it is currently a jarring transition as the screen freezes while your destination is loading.

Project Timetravel features four different locations – a Palaeolithic cave, Roman Pompeii just before the eruption of Vesuvius, an Anglo-Saxon monastery at the time of Viking raids, and London during the Blitz. What makes these locations particularly engaging is that after a set period of time, a catastrophe occurs giving the sensation of being caught up in events.

oculus rift time travelThe Palaeolithic cave is claustrophobic and has some nice details like stone spears and a buffalo  skull lying beneath a cave painting of the animal. The disaster in this time-period is an earthquake that shakes the cave ceiling. It is the most genuinely frightening of the events,  due to the low ceilings of the cave, but at the same time it is probably the least historically significant.

The Roman Villa in Pompeii, AD 79 is well modelled, with all the statues, vases and mosaics you might expect. Vesuvius looms ominously over the scene and the eruption itself is dramatically done – with smoke billowing out of the volcano at first, followed by ash beginning to engulf the villa and blot out the sky. It would be nice to see some Roman citizens and slaves going about their daily business and then reacting to this incredible disaster, but alas, the villa is empty.

The Monastery in AD 793 looks authentic but it is disappointing you can not go inside. While the grey sky is reminiscent of the Norfolk coast, it is a shame that the sea and approaching longships are not visible. The lack of animated characters is especially noticeable in this time period. We are supposed to be witnessing a Viking raid, but neither raiders, nor monks appear and the Monastery just spontaneously combusts. It is nice to see some animals outside but, again, the fact that they do not move breaks the immersion somewhat.

1940’s London probably works the best within the limitations of development resources. Winston Churchill is giving a speech on the wireless as planes fly overhead. Air raid sirens begin to sound and explosions soon follow. Even as is, this is an evocative scene with some good historical detail. There is room for even more here, as well – perhaps a ration book or an untouched St Pauls Cathedral visible on the horizon?

virtual reality time travelEach of the four historical time periods has merit – they are all both historically interesting and convincingly realised. However, they would all be immeasurably enhanced by the inclusion of characters – it is, of course, very hard to convey history without people. Characters would not have to interact with you, or even acknowledge your presence, in order to significantly increase and sustain interest in the scenes. The developer has mentioned a desire to employ a 3D artist and animator to help flesh out these scenes if he can get funding. I sincerely hope that he is able to do so to further explore the possibilities of this project and to maximise its impact.

The concept of Project Timetravel is a great fit for VR, playing into the platform’s key strengths of encouraging exploration and investigation. The time machine idea provides a captivating framework and context for an endless array of experiential learning. The overt educational value could be increased with a voiceover or companion character, but even now, Project Timetravel could easily justify its presence in the classroom. Followed up by a simple class discussion, it would not take much to draw out memorable lessons from the experiences. It could also be developed in a more game-like direction, involving some problem solving and a narrative, without losing any of its educational value.

The project has a lot of ambition, and the challenges to getting it right are much greater than for something like Titan’s of Space. But a lot of the groundwork is here. If Project Timetravel continues to develop by adding new locations and more human detail in re-enacting the historical scenes, then there is no reason it couldn’t be used by schools across the globe in the not too distant future. For those of us already out of school, Project Timetravel is still one of the most promising location-based experience concepts available for the Rift and one I will be quick to show newcomers. I also wouldn’t be surprised if this time-travel premise becomes a staple of VR Adventure games for years to come.

You can download Project Timetravel here

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About the Author

Edmund

Edmund Ward is a philosophy graduate who has focused on aesthetics and cultural critique in the information age. He grew up with 'the dream of the holodeck' and is prone to get very excited by new innovations in natural user-interfaces. Edmund is currently looking for volunteers to look after the glucose drip that will sustain his "fleshform" (as he insists on calling it) when he migrates permanently to VR.

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