How to play like a superhero
Company co-founded by Marvel CEO Avi Arad is bringing virtual reality into your hands.
If there's anyone you could trust to make virtual reality possible in a consumer market, Avi Arad would be that guy. The Israeli native made his way in the world of toys and almost singlehandedly resurrected Marvel with movies like "Spider-Man." Now, along with his longtime colleague and fellow Israeli Amir Rubin, Arad has created the company Sixense, which is one of the first to market controllers that work with consumer VR products like the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift.
Their newest product is the Sixense Tracking Embedded Module (STEM) System, a product that consists of hand controllers that allow a user to interact with a virtual environment in a more realistic and natural way.
Sixense is also is letting developers improve and adapt the STEM software, hoping that one day soon it can be used on mobile devices now being developed, like Google's Magic Leap and Microsoft's HoloLens.
The STEM system was well-received when it was introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show this past winter in Las Vegas, with journalists and gamers excited about the system's accurate motion controls.
Avi Arad with Andrew Garfield at the premiere of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Photo: Anthony Harvey/Getty Images)
What inspired Rubin and Arad, who have known each other since they both started working in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, to get into the VR business was a product that seems pretty simple by 2015 standards – the Nintendo Wii, released in 2006.
"When Nintendo released the Wii, everybody laughed at the product" because it wasn't as powerful as the Sony Playstation 3 or Microsoft Xbox 360, Rubin told From The Grapevine.
"We felt that that’s going to be a game-changer because now people are going to be able to be acting in a more intuitive way. If that catches on and proves to be a success, it opens huge opportunities for us, because Avi is an expert on experiences," said Rubin about his friend and colleague, who is the company's chairman. "That’s what he's done all his life, with toys or movies or TV shows."
Once the Wii took off, they realized the demand was there. Now the trick was improving on the device's limited motion control capabilities. "It was the ultimate kind of objective achieved, which is enabling anyone in this audience of many hundreds of millions, billions of fans of the experiences that [Avi]’s been creating, enabling them to experience what it is to be a superhero, not to piggyback on Spider-Man’s shoulder, but be Spider-Man, be X-Men, be Iron Man, be the character. Be whatever character, whatever you want to be, you can experience what it is to be that," Rubin said.
Other companies, like Pebbles Interfaces (which was just bought by Oculus' parent company, Facebook), are trying to create software that allows a person to virtually pick up, move and drop items on screen by using hand gestures. But Rubin thinks that having a control in hand makes the motion that you're controlling more realistic.
"If the character [in the game] is you, and you’ve got the steering wheel, you've got the sword, you've got anything in the hand, if you don’t give them something in the hand with feedback, you will not be able to trick the user to feel that they are in that sense of presence. You will not be able to reach into the subconscious."
Sixense has created software packages that demonstrate how they envision the STEM product could be used. Not only are there games, but there's also an app that lets you walk through a virtual mall and try on designer shoes. "We went to one of the biggest shoe designers in the world and asked them what makes a consumer decide if they want to buy their shoes in the store ..." Rubin said. "They said you need to be able to feel the shoe, the texture. So we are adding now a special mechanism that’s going to give you texture feedback, so you’ll be able to tell if it's suede, or is it smooth leather, or whatever it is."
The hope is to use the STEM technology as a jumping-off point for developers to make tools that go beyond games and shopping. Rubin said that Arad is always thinking about strategy and the practical uses for VR and motion control. "For Avi, it’s about using his expertise in entertainment to better the life of the world and especially the world of the less fortunate," he said, referring to future medical uses for virtual reality. "But his main, main focus and main goal is to revolutionize healthcare," through future training and monitoring apps using Sixense's devices.
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