Para Parachute: Jumping for joy in VR

Here at GameCrate we’re interested in the cutting edge, and VR is definitely pushing the boundaries of technology. One of the companies helping take virtual reality to the next level is Revresh, a small start-up from the Netherlands. The team took some time from their busy schedule to talk with us about their product, Para Parachute.

Our first impression of Para Parachute was at Firstlook Festival, where we were busy checking out AAA-titles as well as some Dutch indies. There was a crane-like contraption off in one corner of the exhibition hall where someone had been hoisted up by a harness, wearing a VR headset. This person was then pulled up so they faced downward and then, with a loud thwack, came swinging down again.

“What the hell is that?” was our first reaction. There was a pretty long line of people waiting for their turn on the rig, so it most likely wasn’t a torture device. Understanding dawned once we took a better look and saw that there was a screen displaying an approaching cityscape. Parachutes?

A quick chat with the guys at the booth later and we confirmed that it is, indeed, a parachuting simulator, made by a small team of art students dedicated to making the sport accessible to people without the money, time, or the disregard for personal safety necessary to actually experience it. This, ironically, includes themselves: no one in the company has ever made a real-life jump.

The art of gaming

An appointment was quickly made to meet with the Revresh team when they weren’t so busy entertaining the masses, and that’s how I found myself a few weeks later in the building of the HKU, an art school in the country’s third-largest city of Utrecht.

The team – seven guys in their mid-twenties to early thirties – have a small office there, as officially their company is still a school project. “I started it two years ago as part of my course in game design, but we were able to roll it over as a business-course project, too.” Eward Hage, CEO of Revresh and the only founder left, explains.

Wait – game design and business courses at an art school? The team quickly explains that the HKU focuses on a practical approach to creativity and it’s more interested in teaching its students applicable skills rather than just putting a brush to canvas. College management is always quick to approve projects that will help students put ideas into action.

That’s how it went for Eward. “I’m really interested in interaction design, the way users communicate with programs and objects. Some friends and I had the idea of doing a parachute simulator because, well, it sounded like fun. We put together a project plan and once it was approved we had nine weeks to put it all together.”

Putting it all into frame

Nine weeks was a bit of a tall order, but they somehow got it done with some help from a buddy who works in metal and steel fabrication. The actual simulation wasn’t as polished as it is now, but the mechanical frame itself has remained pretty much the same. The team got a perfect grade for all their trouble.

Standing in front of the installation, you realize what a task it must have been. It stands at over eight feet, measures nine feet in width and goes back another four. It’s mostly steel with some plastic pieces thrown in. “There was also some wood used, but we’re phasing that out,” explains Eward. It weighs over 1500 lbs and is constantly being worked on by Sander Brand, Revresh’s chief engineer.

The choice of material was inspired by a basic consideration. “Safety was the main priority from the start,” says Eward, “we wanted to make parachuting accessible to people too afraid to do it in real life, so we wanted to make sure the frame inspired confidence.” The harness they use is army-surplus gear, a tried-and-true solution. Thus far the only injury sustained was to Eward’s hand, who attributes it to “stupidity, I was overconfident.”

The next step

Of course, someone who is ambitious enough to put such a huge project together in two months’ time isn’t going to stop there. Eward decided to keep it going with a new team after the initial project ended, mostly consisting of the people I spoke to in their current office. They all seem excited to be part of this project, especially as each can use it in some way to get a grade.

Jack Hadjicosti and Georgios Kokkinos, foreign students from Cyprus and Greece, respectively, are using their experience at Revresh as credit towards their master’s degree in programming. Both of them look like the cat that ate the cream when telling me they were assigned to Para Parachute, as few of their colleagues are working on anything quite as fun as games.

Their job currently is to rewrite the game from the ground up, using the Unity 5 engine. The current version, made under Unity 4, works well enough but lacks a certain oomph. Together with Sjoerd Burger, lead artist and project manager, they’re working on making the experience as immersive as can be. They’re also planning a shift from the Oculus Rift to the Vive for the same reason.

Taking the jump

I was able to test drive the new version and I have to say it looks great. It’s still a work-in-progress so there are some clipping issues and the like, but I did feel like I was looking out over the world, hanging by a thread. Currently, there are two maps in development, one cityscape as well as a more rural one.

The rural one, which I tried, is a beautiful green landscape dotted with trees and lakes and dominated by a huge mountain raised from the surrounding land. With the headset on you can look around, though sometimes your view is obstructed by the straps from the parachute kit. Small details like that tell me that this is made by guys who care about what they’re doing.

I was surprised by how real it felt – from jumping through the plane’s cargo bay to actually launching yourself into the air while the landscape below rushes past, I felt a real thrill. I’m a little scared of heights and I do have to admit to feeling that uncomfortable twinge I get when looking down from, say, a tall building. I can imagine that people would want to go again right after the first time, as it was a lot of fun.

Gaming the system

There’s more to the experience than just looking around at the pretty graphics, of course – the game element is about steering the ‘chute through a series of checkpoints and then landing in a big blue circle. Land exactly in the middle while also hitting every checkpoint and you get 100 points. “Not that it happens very often,” says Eward. “When it does happen, though, it’s gamers that get top score, not actual parachutists,” adds Sjoerd.

So what do people who have physically jumped from a plane think about Para Parachute? “They love it,” says Eward, “though they have some trouble at first since we reversed the steering from how it is in real life, where you hang left to go to the right. We decided to stay ‘normal’ and make it easier for people doing it for the first time. But yeah, they think it’s great.”

When asked about how they simulate wind, I get grins all around and am told it’s “magic.” Apparently, they just bought some industrial fans to add some wind shear to the experience, though they are still working out exactly how to have them move around together with the rest of the frame.

Down to business

College credit was, of course, not the only reason Eward kept up with Para Parachute. “I financed the whole thing with my student stipend as well as loans, so when I realized that people would pay us to show up at their events and festivals with the whole installation, I was like, let’s do that.”

It’s been working out for them, too. “We’re almost, not quite, at break even,” says Eward. Besides having plenty of invitations to show up at corporate events in the Netherlands and all over Europe, they’ve travelled far as Taiwan, where they exhibited at COMPUTEX. They’ve won several awards and are nominated for an important Dutch prize in VR innovation.

Demand is so high, in fact, that they had to build a second frame. “We ended up having to do that in, like, ten days when we realized we were double-booked. It was crazy,” says Eward, who adds that he’s happy it happened since now they won’t have to worry too much about whether they have enough time to move from venue to venue.

Moving forward

As for the future, they’re feeling confident, despite all of them still needing to graduate. “I didn’t expect it to be such a hit, really,” says Eward, “I want to keep going.” Besides finishing up the maps they have planned now, they would like to look into maybe fixing up a template so real-life maps can be dropped into the program, offering clients customizability with their thrills.

There are also plans for projects outside of Para Parachute, though they don’t feel ready to talk about them yet except to say that it will involve more virtual reality because, in the words of UI designer Steven Yap, “VR makes new, scary experiences accessible.” Their vision is to have several different experiences available to people using this brand-new technology; it’s quite the challenge but they, and I, feel that they’re up for it.