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Smaug just melted the flesh off my bones in virtual reality

Smaug just melted the flesh off my bones in virtual reality


A 'killer app' if ever there was one

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Let's get this out of the way up front: I'm a huge fan of all things Tolkien, so there was no way I wasn't going to enjoy Thief in the Shadows. It's a virtual reality experience that Epic Games built in partnership with Weta Digital, the New Zealand-based digital effects studio responsible for the fabulous digital creatures in Peter Jackson's two Middle-earth film trilogies (among many other things).

Thief in the Shadows uses the Oculus Rift to put you in the hairy feet of Bilbo Baggins as he faces off against the massive dragon Smaug in a modified scene from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. It's a great choice of a scene to show off VR — after The Hobbit logo filled my field of vision, just as it does at the beginning of the film, the cavernous, gold-filled halls of the dwarf kingdom of Erebor gradually revealed themselves around me. Damn, that's a LOT of gold.

Then, my headphones fill with the sound of shifting coins behind me — yup, it's Smaug stirring from his slumber. Unfortunately, in this VR world, my Hobbit-feet remain firmly planted in place; there's nowhere to run. I can look all around, but there's no escaping this monstrosity. Smaug slowly reveals himself in all his glory, and it's pretty stunning — he flies around the cavern, taunting you with his lines of dialogue from the film, and eventually comes up to you as close as possible. Unfortunately, the limitations of VR mean the back-and-forth between Bilbo and Smaug is absent; instead, it's just lines of dialogue that work reasonably well without the verbal sparring. But it's not nearly as engrossing as the showdown in the film.

Unfortunately, in this virtual reality world I could not run for my life

Still, when Smaug got right up in my face, staring me down with his huge, bright eye, things got unsettling pretty fast. But the flaws still inherent in VR keep this from being truly immersive. The colors are all wrong, for starters, and the low resolution means this version of Smaug isn't quite as impressive or as immersive as it was seeing him on a huge IMAX screen in 3D.

Regardless of the flaws, my heart rate definitely picked up as he growled that our little game had come to an end. His chest began glowing a reddish-orange, a sure sign that dragon-fire and ruin was to follow. Unfortunately, unlike the Baggins family, I was not lucky enough to possess a precious gold ring (or, for that matter, the ability to move at all). The flames then came forth, melting the flesh from my bones. A flash of light, searing pain, then poof: I was nothing more than a pile of ash.

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