I'm locked in a maze being chased by human-sized Pac-Man ghosts. My heart is racing but my legs aren't working. I run but don't go anywhere, as if trapped in a nightmare. Up ahead, a pink ghost approaches. I can feel the panic rising as I work my legs, desperate to escape. Suddenly, everything goes black and I remove my headset, blinking in the artificial light of the conference hall. Back to reality.
The UK's first-ever Virtual Reality Festival, organised by London-based university sector college Ravensbourne, was held earlier this month at the university's campus on the Greenwich Peninsula in south London. The first festival of its kind in Britain, VRUK brought together some of the biggest companies in virtual reality to share, discover, and try out the latest technology.
Keen to get involved, I head straight to the Immersion Zone, where queues are already forming in front of exhibits. WizDish is my first stop. The company is exhibiting its ROVR locomotion platform which claims to provide a "profound" immersive experience. Users stand on a caged platform wearing special, ceramic-studded shoes. The shoes act as controllers, in the same way a mouse on a mouse mat would.
Gadgets and tech news in pictures
Gadgets and tech news in pictures
1/23 Bring broken smartphone back to life - as a robot
Do you have an old broken smartphone lying around the house somewhere? Then why not turn it into a robot? That's exactly what YouTuber Mehdi Sadaghdar did in a recent video, after his efforts to bring a destroyed phone back to life disastrously failed. Using the phone's vibrator, a coin battery, a simple switch, a few wires and the bristly part of a toothbrush, he managed to make a simple little toy that can skitter around a tabletop as long as the battery last
2/23 Detachable plane cabin
A Ukrainian inventor has proposed building airliners with detachable passenger cabins that could separate from the rest of the plane and parachute safely to the ground in the event of an emergency
3/23 FA announces it will host the Emirates FA Cup video game tournament
The FA has announced that for the first time ever it will host the inaugural Emirates FA Cup gaming tournament, with video game fans from across the world invited to compete for glory at Wembley Stadium connected by EE. Early rounds will take place in iconic locations in the stadium such as The Royal Box, the changing rooms and the players’ tunnel, with the two finalists set to play the virtual final using Wembley Stadium’s 82 foot screens as they sit in the centre circle. Gamers of varying ability will descend upon Wembley Stadium as the home of football transforms into an epic gaming colosseum set to turn heads and sweat palms in equal measure
4/23 Oculus Rift release date
Oculus has said that it is about to open pre-orders for its Rift virtual reality headset. Some have claimed that the hardware will be the device that will bring virtual reality into the mainstream. And it will start being available from 6 January 2016, the company has said. The company hasn’t said when the headsets will actually start arriving, or how much they will cost. It isn’t clear whether the company intends to announce more details before pre-orders begin
5/23 iPhone stock apps can be removed by just putting them into special folder
A new trick shows a quick way of getting rid of the stock apps that might be cluttering up your iPhone screen — at least for a while. The iPhone comes with a range of apps that are stuck on the phone, and can't be deleted like others. While some are key to the phone — like the Phone app itself — others like Stocks are less well-regarded. But the new trick shows how you can hide those unused stock apps with just a quick trick using some folders
6/23 CES 2016: Four big things set to be revealed
The CES 2016 gadget show is about to kick off, and nearly the entire technology industry has descended on Las Vegas to try and show off the future. Every year, companies and technologists attempt to show that they have seen what’s coming and that they will be there to offer it. Every year, a lot of people get it wrong. This year’s expectations are as big as ever. Every year, CES unofficially gets a big theme that everything’s supposed to be about — this year that’s virtual reality. There is also future for cars, smart home and wearables
7/23 Terrorists could use drones to attack planes and spread propaganda
A government counter-terrorism adviser has warned that terrorists could use commercially available drones to attack passenger planes. Detective Chief Inspector Colin Smith, a security expert and adviser to the Home Office Centre for Applied Science and Technology, warned that small quadcopter drones could easily be used by terrorists for attacks and propaganda purposes
8/23 Goggle-Eyed Lemurs watch TV as part of their reintroduction to the wild
Port Lympne Reserve in Kent, UK, has installed Sony Bravia 4K TVs into its lemur and langur enclosures to show life-like footage to its primates as part of its ‘Back to the Wild’ programme. The charity will trial TV watching on Sony’s 4K TVs as part of this programme in a bid to make langurs more familiar with the new environment
Uber has added a lift-sharing feature to its app in London, allowing people to share their taxi with a stranger in return for a reduced fair. Users will be given 25 per cent off their journey if they say they will let up to two other passengers share their car. Drivers will then receive a message telling them that they’ll be picking up more than one fare, and can plan their route accordingly. London is the second European country to get the feature, after Paris. It was first launched in San Francisco and now most people who use the app do so with the feature
10/23 Attempt to build world’s biggest Rubik’s cube ends in disaster
An attempt to build the world’s biggest Rubik’s cube ended in disaster when the puzzle exploded as it was turned for the first time. One of the masterminds behind Coren Puzzle, a YouTube channel dedicated to custom puzzles, live-streamed the final assembly of the 22x22 cube. The video was the culmination of seven months of construction, which included a month of deliberation on how to build the mechanism at the centre of the device
11/23 New battery chip could let phones charge in minutes
The maker of a new chip claims that it could reduce the charging times of phones to a few minutes, and could prevent dangerous explosions. The tiny chip could be embedded into batteries of all sizes and monitor how healthy and charged they are. That in turn would mean that the batteries would become much safer and quicker to charge, according to the scientist that developed it. Unhealthy lithium-ion batteries can be at risk of exploding or catching fire, as well as gradually losing their capacity so that they run out more quickly. Those problems may become even more important as people move towards electric cars or other vehicles
12/23 Facebook on iPhone gets new fast-loading Instant Articles
If you've noticed articles on Facebook loading a little quicker recently, that's because the new Instant Articles have been launched to all iPhone users. Instant Articles load up to 10 times quicker than a regular article, and have some enriched features - such as unobtrusive autoplay videos, zoomable high-definition images and interactive maps
13/23 Halo 5 patch
Gamers looking forward to playing Halo 5: Guardians on its release on 27 October 2015 will have to wait to download a 9GB day one patch before the game's multiplayer mode can run properly. Those without the patch won't even be able to play multiplayer at all until it's downloaded, in yet another case of a blockbuster game needing a patch on the day of launch
14/23 New HTC Desire 626 handset launch
HTC has launched its latest Desire 626 handset with the Sense 7 software which automatically detects whether you’re at work, at home or on-the-go and alters its theme to suit your location. This advanced technology intelligently analyses your favourite photos to modify the look and feel of your apps, allowing you to modify the colour scheme and backgrounds – the ultimate in personalisation
15/23 Nasa confirms Mars water discovery
Nasa has announced that it has found evidence of flowing water on Mars. Scientists have long speculated that Recurring Slope Lineae — or dark patches — on Mars were made up of briny water but the new findings prove that those patches are caused by liquid water, which it has established by finding hydrated salts.
16/23 Customers wait in line at the Apple Store in Paris to get their hands on the iPhone 6s
Several hundred camped outside the London store in Covent Garden. The 6s will have new features like a vastly improved camera and a pressure-sensitive “3D Touch” display
17/23 Bloodhound SSC: The most powerful ever made is shown off to the public
The car is displayed at Downing Street, when the team visited David Cameron to demonstrate the project
18/23 Lunar eclipse threatens Nasa technology
Artist's rendering of Nasa's LRO spacecraft, which will have to withstand a rapid drop in temperature during an upcoming lunar eclipse that could lead to it shutting down
19/23 Mobile phone bills could rocket up after Ofcom announced that the fees it charges to phone operators will be trebled
The regulator will now charge far more to phone companies for using the mobile spectrum — and though it says that fee will not be passed on to customers, experts have said that prices are likely to go up
20/23 New iPhone 6s rose gold
Apple has released a bright pink new iPhone 6s — likely the only way that you’ll be able to tell that someone has the new handset. The company released the new phone with much fanfare, but almost all of the changes — a new camera and pressure-sensitive display — were on the inside. The only new noticeable addition to the phone’s look is the very pink rose gold colour, and a tiny “S” on the back. The new handsets will be released on September 25
21/23 iPad Pro
Apple has launched a huge new iPad, which it hopes can bring the tablet to offices and designers. But it unveiled it with an Apple-designed stylus — an idea that was famously mocked by late Apple founder Steve Jobs
22/23 Apple TV
Apple has introduced the new Apple TV
23/23 Apple Pencil
Apple has introduced the new Apple Pencil
"It's like having diamonds on the soles of your shoes," says chief technology officer Charles King as he helps me steady myself on the platform. The shoes are slippery, like trying to walk on an ice rink. I slide around trying to find purchase, eventually stabilising myself using the railings. The game is like Pac-Man but life-size. "Try and avoid the ghosts," are Charles's final words to me before he clamps the headset over my face. Within seconds, I'm standing in the dark maze; my path lit by small, bright lights. My direction is determined by moving my head and I spin this way and that, trying to figure out which way to go. To move forward, I have to slide my feet back and forth on the slippery platform, like running on the spot but without lifting my feet. I last about 10 seconds before a ghost appears to gobble me up.
It's not all fun and games, though. Charles tells me, once I've removed my headset, that the technology is also being used by architects to show investors virtual versions of their designs. This works particularly well with superyachts, he says. Billionaire buyers can walk around potential vessels making changes and additions before the boats are actually built.
The technology is also proving useful for language learning, where immersion is key. A learner could experience an entire city via a headset and a platform. "There's a company in California that's doing language training," says Charles. "You might be popped in the middle of a French market and told to buy the ingredients for a meal." Next, I move onto the HTC exhibit, where product specialist Shen Ye, 23, is talking visitors through the company's latest VR headset, the Vive, pre-orders of which will open on 29 February. When I ask if I can have a go, Shen points at the two hour-long waiting list. Ten minutes (and a shameful flash of my press pass) later, I'm strapped into another headset.
The Vive uses two laser-emitting Base Stations carefully positioned in the room to create a 15ft by 15ft virtual reality, meaning – unlike the ROVR, where I was restricted to the platform – I can roam around the cordoned-off area, exploring a virtual environment. I'm also given two hand-held motion controllers, which I can use to influence the virtual reality.
The first game is called The Blu. Lowering my virtual specs, I'm plunged underwater. I'm standing on a shipwreck, schools of fish swimming past my ears. Tottering to the edge of the boat, I peer over at the deep blue below. Suddenly, I catch sight of a creature swimming towards me. I cower in the corner as an enormous whale cruises past, shooting off into the depths with a majestic flip of its massive tail. I let out a little shriek of fear; it's all frighteningly real. Then, out of nowhere, a fluorescent green cage pops up in front of me. Curious, I walk through it, crashing immediately into a very real table leg. The cage, it turns out, signposts the edge of my virtual reality. A small voice in my headset warns me not to go beyond it.
The second Vive game is more interactive. Created by Google, its premise is simple: painting. One controller acts as my "palette" while the other becomes my "brush". I can choose different colours and textures, drawing on the thin air in front of me. My painting is 3D, meaning I can walk through it, observing it from different angles. It's incredibly satisfying. The only downside is that – because it exists only in the virtual world – no one else can appreciate my masterpiece.
Outside the headsets, the festival is buzzing with people from all walks of life. Students, gamers, and recruiters are all here to suss out what's going on in the virtual world. One man, who refuses to tell me what company he is from, says he's on site to check out the competition.
Claire Selby, who works for Ravensbourne and helped organise the festival, says the future is bright for virtual reality. "I think the really exciting thing is that it's unwritten," she says. "There's no script, there's no 'you've got to do this', there's no visual language, there are no barriers really. It's like film-making was in the early days."
She tells me the clunky headsets designed by companies such as Oculus Rift and HTC will become slicker. "The headsets now have the potential to become an accessory," she says. "Even Dior has some mocked up." While we talk, she points out a gaggle of students from Ravensbourne who are crammed into a workshop with app company Blippar. She says they're all competing for an internship. "Getting the students involved is perfect," she says.
VRUK is supported by Creative Skillset's Film Skills Fund, which is funded by the BFI with National Lottery funds, through the Skills Investment Fund. There are plans to run the festival next year too, although that all depends on funding. The festival also hosts a range of talks and discussions led by various industry bigwigs such as Ravensbourne alumni Mike Alger, who now works as a VR designer at Google. Most people, however, flock to the Immersion Zone. It's one thing to talk about virtual reality; it's quite another to experience it.
The Teslasuit is my final stop. The world's first full-body smart feedback suit lets you "feel" virtual reality. The team behind it – who have travelled all the way from Belarus – only have a jacket on display. The wetsuit-style coat needs to be in contact with a damp T-shirt for it to work. I'm wearing a dress, which means – unless I'm willing to strip down to my tights – I can't have a go. Instead, I satisfy myself with "tickling" the company's co-founder Demetri Marroza while he wears the Teslasuit. Sliding my finger up and down the iPad provided, I can hit different spots on Demetri's torso, sending mild electric pulses through his body. This technology means gamers will be able to feel when they have been hit or shot, although Demetri reassures me it's not painful. The suit can also simulate a hug between long-distance lovers, which is a sweet thought, although – with VR pornography increasing in popularity – I can't help but wonder what's next.
I leave VRUK with a new perspective on the world around me. After just a few hours immersed in VR, the line between what is real and what is not has been blurred. Will we one day be able to have intimate relationships across continents with the help of a damp T-shirt and an iPad? Perhaps. And what does it mean for the travel industry if an entire city can be experienced through a VR headset and a locomotion platform? I don't know. The future is a work of imagination.