Playing Time Machine Is like Riding the Magic Schoolbus for Real

I’ve met few people as excited about VR as Minority’s Vander Caballero. He stands in front of his Oculus demo station with a grin that borders on manic, telling me about how one of his very first design projects – over fifteen years ago – was a foray into VR. Technology has come a long way since then, and when he saw the Oculus Rift, Caballero knew he had to get in on the ground floor. He and his team found the sense of presence in virtual worlds to be unparalleled; things really clicked when they put players in the same room as a T-Rex and saw them immediately become terrified. Minority had to use that, but how could they capitalize on that awe and terror when their mission statement as a studio is to create nonviolent products?

The answer was to turn the Rift into a time machine, allowing players to leap back into the distant past and examine prehistoric creatures firsthand. As researchers for what will be “the world’s most accurate Natural History Museum,” players need to get up close and personal with dinosaur, scanning them to learn about their biology. To facilitate your research, you have a limited ability to slow time, which you can use to get close enough that the Dinosaurs’ breath might otherwise fog your windshield. You need to complete your scans before your slowdown power depletes, lest the dinosaurs eat you and create a time paradox. This gives the game a potent sense of urgency while avoiding the more gruesome aspects of dinosaur attacks.

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It sounds like a fun but standard educational game in theory, but in practice the experience is breathtaking. Being seated in a pod creates an instant physical connection with your avatar that you wouldn’t get walking around, and thanks to head-tracking animations your in-game body will contort realistically as you look around – an immersion-boosting feature that similar games like EVE: Valkyrie lack. With almost nothing to break the illusion that you’re staring down real dinosaurs, it goes beyond any other piece of edutainment out there. It’s like riding a real live Magic Schoolbus.

In the demo I played, I had to swim dangerously close to a pair of Plesiosaurs and scan them to learn about their mating habits. Framed by the dim sunlight filtering through the waves above, the prehistoric beasts seemed immense, imposing, and most importantly real. Whenever I got close, they would spin around and try to eat me, causing sirens inside my pod to blare. Using a combination of stealth and clever time manipulation I was able to get the scans, but not without a few close calls. Things got especially hairy when I had to scan one of their eyes, a task that put me within a hair’s breadth of their razor-sharp fangs.

I envy the kids who’ll get to grow up with games like Time Machine as part of their education. When I was first learning about dinosaurs, they were trapped within books and cheap cartoons and my imagination. Tomorrows children will get to walk beside them in a way that only Jurassic Park or a real time machine could surpass. On the bright side, I do get to experience it as a gamer, and the tense combination of stealth and exploration fully satisfies on that front.