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SXSW: Demo of 'Game of Thrones' on Oculus Rift wows virtual reality fans

SXSW: Demo of 'Game of Thrones' on Oculus Rift wows virtual reality fans
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Friday, March 14, 2014 - 3:31pm

AUSTIN, Texas (CNN)- Night gathers, and now your watch begins.

You step into the elevator and take a last look around the courtyard of Castle Black before a bone-rattling ride lifts you 700 feet, depositing you in the whipping wind of the frigid north, high atop The Wall.

Then, as the red flames of torches flicker in the distance, you hear two telling blasts from the watchmen's horns. The wildlings are coming.

For thousands of "Game of Thrones" fans, that brief immersion into the life of a Night's Watch soldier in the HBO show is becoming a reality this week, thanks to an exhibit at the South by Southwest Interactive festival that employs one of the hottest gadgets in tech.

"Ascend the Wall" is part of a traveling exhibit promoting the wildly popular fantasy epic, which returns for its fourth season next month. It's built using Oculus Rift, a virtual-reality headset that has captured the imaginations of gamers since its $2.4 million debut on Kickstarter in 2012.

Designed specifically for video gaming, the Rift provides a 360-degree field of vision, allowing wearers to view, and react to, their surroundings in a realistic manner. The device's capabilities were inspiring to Mike Woods, creative director of Framestore, the London-based visual-effects company that developed "Ascend the Wall."

"It's whatever you want it to be," said Woods, whose company recently scored an Academy Award for best visual effects for "Gravity" and has another for 2008's "The Golden Compass."

"They know that they're reinventing gaming," he added. "There are, literally, endless possibilities."

At the exhibit, which also featured props, costumes and other "Game of Thrones" displays, visitors lined up, sometimes for several hours, for a turn in a bank of booths designed to look like the elevators that carry soldiers on the show's massive, icy wall.

Once inside, they're fitted with the Oculus Rift and a set of headphones, and the experience begins.

The visuals are built using a gaming engine, and the booth's floor and walls are equipped with rumble packs that help create the illusion of movement. A set of air vents complete the experience, flicking on and off to cool the temperature and give the sense that the wearer has, indeed, exited the elevator into a howling wind above.

The end result is impressive. Rift's full field of view makes it difficult not to keep looking over your shoulder, expecting an unpleasant surprise. And when it moves you to the edge of the wall, it's a challenge to not instinctively scramble back, despite intellectually knowing you're standing still in an Austin music hall.

Oculus made at least one big fan with the exhibit: Actor Kristian Nairn, an avid gamer who also happens to play gentle giant Hodor on "Game of Thrones."

"I was excited to try the Oculus Rift ... Wasn't ready for the awesome," Nairn wrote on Twitter after checking it out on Saturday. "I'm telling you, if you are excited about it, (it's) better than you hope!"

In another post, he said he was picturing how the Rift could be used with games such as "Skyrim" and "World of Warcraft."

"They will be perfect for it," he wrote.

Naim wasn't the only one singing its praises. Many of those who waited in a long line to test out the Oculus seemed similarly wowed.

"The Oculus experience at the #GOTExhibit is ridiculously good," tweeted Andy Kinsella, executive producer at Google Creative Lab. "Wanted it to last for hours."

The fourth season of "Game of Thrones" kicks off April 4.

Merging a popular cable TV series with cutting-edge technology appeared to be a winning combination at South by Southwest, where the first five days of the 10-day festival are devoted to film and digital culture.

At times, the wait to get into the exhibit itself (never mind the Oculus experience) was more than two hours. And festival organizers said that, as of Sunday, "Game of Thrones" was the ninth-most popular topic in tweets that also mentioned South by Southwest.

The-CNN-Wire
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