Ghosts of Hogwarts – Indie Harry Potter VR Experience
Year of release: 2015
Creator: Gregoire Davenas
Limited access: experience still available on file-sharing websites, but requires original Oculus SDK.
This experience changed my views on the future of entertainment. In it you wander the halls of Hogwarts, the main stage of the events of the J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. As you navigate the halls in this 3DoF experience, you experience from a first-person perspective what you imagine a student at Hogwarts would experience on a daily basis. The paintings talked and changed forms, the staircases moved, and the great halls were beautifully decorated. Navigation was done using a keyboard.
Eerily as this was a ghost experience there were no other character’s or events unfolding. However, as you made your way around the castle and the grounds you would here clips from the relevant Harry Potter movie where something significant happened. In the great hall you would hear the sorting hat scene, in the Gryffindor commons you would hear private conversations between the protagonists of the films, and on the grounds, if you went deep enough into the forest, you would here the scene between Harry and the Spiders. The combination of audio and location, hit me with a blast of nostalgia every time I heard a different scene and reminisced on my experience watching that specific scene in the movie theatre having had a third person perspective.
Unfortunately, the experience is no longer widely available. It used to be hosted on the now defunct Oculus Share store which was the central repository for oculus-based experiences for first two developer kits. The experience can still be found on some file-sharing websites, but also requires the old Oculus SDK. The author of the experience, Gregoire Davenas, created it by extracting models and textures from the old EA Harry Potter games and adapting it for VR. Sound and music were added from the films. The original games were from a third-person perspective.
I had three perspective shifting insights after this VR experience. The first insight was that the association of location and sound can do wonders for creating a sense of presence. Having had the prior experience with the movies and games, looking around the scene and hearing what I expected to hear from my surrounding made me feel like I was a student wandering the Halls of Hogwarts at night. The second insight was that many beloved classic games could be converted to VR versions by leveraging existing models, textures, and level design. The main difficulty would be in reconciling a first-person perspective with often unbalanced scale for classic third-person games. The third insight was that one could experience the same story from multiple perspectives thanks to VR. One could imagine the events of Harry Potter unfolding all around, and experiencing the story in segments of real-time gameplay from the perspectives of different characters or as a ghostly bystander as the events transpire around. The flexibility of perspective and manipulation of time perception could do much to usher in new forms of entertainment, similar to theater and film, but different in their perspective shifting qualities.