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New ways to dream: tripping on the free #HackThePlanet VR app

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Virtual Reality has excited me since a birthday trip to VR arcade, “Virtuality”, in the London Trocadero in 1991. So when a man called James Marks hit me up on LinkedIn – sending me an enticing message about meeting up so that he can show me a virtual reality experience he has been making – I was immediately intrigued.

Taking the video games I loved to a next level, Virtual Reality was immensely exciting to eleven-year-old me, but beyond that experience nothing ever really came of it. Until now. Tech like Oculus Rift gave me an elevator ride to the top of The Wall in Game of Thrones last year, and this year we will be able to finally buy the tech and bring it home – via the Rift, PlayStation VR, or Google Cardboard.

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Hackers

In our initial conversation, James told me about #HackThePlanet, a VR experience – running on Google Cardboard – that he had created with composer Simon Boswell to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the cult teen hacking classic: Hackers, and Boswell’s 30th anniversary as a film composer. Loving the film Hackers, having enjoyed Boswell’s musical contributions to not just that film but also Dario Argento’s Phenomena and Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave, AND being raring to give VR on Google Cardboard a go, I was keen and in.

Before we meet, I poke around and see that #HackThePlanet has just been announced as the recipient of a Webby award by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. As previous winners include David Bowie this is a big deal. Put together by James, Simon Boswell and internet personality Ashens, after they met working together on “Ashens and the Quest for the GameChild” two years ago, #HackThePlanet first premiered at Digital Shoreditch last year, with a live performance from Boswell to a crowd wearing the cardboard specs. Then, this October, the VR experience was used to set a record for “Shared VR Viewer Experience Live” at MCM Comic Con, with the track played live by Revenge of Calculon.

I meet James in the members bar of Royal Festival Hall to finally have a go on it myself. There’s a spectacular view of the Thames, the London Eye, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, and it serves as a nice visual warm-up for the ocular onslaught to come. James has saved me a white sixties bubble chair and while we talk and get to know each other it becomes clear that he is constantly thinking a million amazing ideas at once.

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I pull on the gear he gives me – headphones and a limited edition Hackers Google Cardboard headset – and do as I have been instructed: to find and focus on a pill to begin my trip. To begin with I look all around, verifying that however much I spin about and tilt up and down this new digital world completely envelops me. With the headphones on and the volume jacked up I am truly cut off from the real world and cut loose in a virtual one.

Iain Softley’s film Hackers features a lot of shots of circuit boards in extreme close-up and it is these that the app most apes. After I focus on the pill to “take” it and kick things off, my ears are filled with the memorable beeps and screeches of a dial-up connection being made. As I connect, a floppy disc spins in front of me before I am sucked into it and begin my “trip”.

The only interactivity to be had is in me physically shifting my view point by moving all around, so I do this as much as possible, experimenting with views and angles as I am inexorably drawn through the insides of a computer. Circuit board labyrinths whizz by me as I duck and dive and fly through the innards of a PC, while my ears are filled with Boswell’s electronic soundtrack.

The track itself is an electro brain melter that uses samples that never made it into the film’s original score, and were recently found dormant on a bright yellow floppy disc – the same one seen spinning at the beginning of the VR experience.

#HackThePlanet is an immersive trip that will bend and expand your mind. It’s an out of body experience that it is hard not to lose yourself in, but I try and keep an eye out for as much as possible. As the music builds, the circuit boards turn into towers of pure data, and I am truly wow-ed, and glad I am sitting down.

James has hinted at there being lots of hidden details and depth to raise #HackThePlanet a level above being just an on-rails musical journey, and at one point there is an extended appearance by counter-culture guru Timothy Leary. Leary pioneered the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs, popularised the catchphrase “turn on, tune in, drop out”, and was described by Richard Nixon as “the most dangerous man in America”.

Other easter eggs include nods to some of Boswell’s collaborators, like internet personality Ashens, Mr. Weebl – the flash animator best known for “Badgers”, and claymation master Lee Hardcastle – ABC’s of Death competition winner, and maker of the amazing “Claycat” versions of The Raid and The Evil Dead.

After it’s all over, I am excited and can’t stop talking and enthusing about it. James is clearly jazzed by this, but I also get the feeling that this is how EVERYBODY reacts, and realise how immensely satisfying that must be.

Free, fantastical and far out, #HackThePlanet is an essential download if you have Google Cardboard, and a reason to get it if you don’t. Cardboard is a fiscally wise way of getting in on the about-to-go-off VR explosion without having to remortgage your house, and #HackThePlanet is available right now for FREE on Google Play and the App Store.

If you want to keep up to date with all the rad, cutting edge tech that James is coming up with you can follow him on twitter: @jamesemarks, and if you’re free this May Bank Holiday weekend, you could also pop down to Hackstock and try out #HackThePlanet.

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3 Comments

  1. #Hackstock is at the Trampery Old St, as part of the SCI-FI-LONDON Film Festival – more details sci-fi-london.com/hackstock

    • Thanks Louis

  2. #Hackstock II – 5/6 May 2017. Full deets coming to sci-fi-london.com soon

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