Berlin startup Illusion Walk creates walkable virtual reality worlds

Illusion Walk, a Berlin-based startup, lets you walk, talk and interact with friends in simulated worlds. And it feels crazy real.

When the train engine crashed through the wall and a strong smell of burning wood filled the room, it was nearly impossible not to jerk back in fear.

That reaction is exactly what brothers Jim Rüggeberg (CEO) and Julien Rüggeberg (CTO) hoped for when starting Illusion Walk, a "virtual reality immersive experience provider," in 2013.

Four participants look around the virtual world in Illusion Walk's Immersion Deck.

Four participants look around the virtual world in Illusion Walk's Immersive Deck.

When someone comes to their office in Charlottenburg and sees 150 square metres of white wall covered in gray squares, or QR-codes, it might be hard to imagine what the startup does.

But Illusion Walk and their “Immersive Deck” lets users walk in "large virtual spaces, interact with reality and feel the experience with several senses."

So how does it work? Once the user is equipped with a headset, headphones and a backpack holding a computer, they can walk through the empty rooms. As the user walks the QR-codes act as markers, distorting the image to match each headsets' lenses. The user sees a VR world programmed by the software, but is moving between real rooms, touching real walls, real buttons and opening real doors.

To immerse users even more deeply in the experience, the Rüggeberg brothers use a couple of other tricks, like fans to produce wind, a vibrating platform to simulate an elevator and a special machine that releases different smells.

With 12 employees, four of which are freelancers, the startup has started talks with external teams at TU Berlin, TU Vienna and Film University Babelsberg, to integrate their respective content into the VR platform.

Jim Rüggeberg, CEO of Illusion Walk.

Jim Rüggeberg, CEO of Illusion Walk.

Julien Rüggeberg, CTO of Illusion Walk.

Julien Rüggeberg, CTO of Illusion Walk.

According to the brothers, VR is a medium with many different and overlooked applications. The Illusion Walk business model is about finding the most cost-effective way to overlap VR experiences with artistic content, multiplayer games, walkable showrooms, traditional media, training scenarios, interactive storytelling and films, the two explain. Unlike The Void, a US-based VR entertainment startup, they have no current plans to open a theme park.

“Theme parks have different necessities in throughput, scale and cost,” the CEO says. They simply want to be a provider: integrating external content to offer a wide range of different services.

Both men are convinced that VR is here to stay: It is only a matter of time, before walkable VR experiences are used for entertainment or educate children in a museum, the 40-year-old CTO explains.

The Rüggeberg brothers see applications for their VR platform in museums.

The Rüggeberg brothers see applications for their VR platform in museums.

Without outside investment, the duo is bootstrapping and focusing on B2B opportunities. They spent 2 million euros of their own money so far.

And they want to stay in Germany, where they can become a leader in immersive experiences.

"We are purposefully doing this in Germany and not just going to Silicon Valley," Jim Rüggeberg says. "If we wanted to scale quickly we'd do shooting games."

The 45-year-old CEO tells The Heureka that shooter games, pornography and extreme violence and horror are something they refuse to do. VR experiences are "so immersive" that the company does not want to carry the "responsibility of shock."

“Our stories will be thrilling enough...,” he continues, while explaining the company’s content policy.

Some users find the experience so unnerving that they feel claustrophobic while actually standing in an open room, he says.

But the system is not perfect. Yet. Some users report small details detract from the experience, like an echo in the headset, the avatars’ lack of facial expressions and legs or queasiness after completing a session.

A glimpse into the future that is on the horizon:

Photos via Illusion Walk

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