Lightning Rock Interview

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Lightning Rock is one of Game Plus’ founding members in Canberra. The small software development studio originally formed in 2013 and specialises in virtual and augmented reality based simulations.

The team currently consists of Shannon Pickles, Chris Hahn, Stephen Shorrock, Jack Erskine and Ben Doobov who bring in a wide range of skill sets and perspectives.

VR technology is at the heart of this professional indie studio, with the passion for this newly emerging platform at the forefront of every project they work on.

What is Lightning Rock and who are the people behind it?

Shannon: Lightning Rock is basically a group of four friends who’ve been friends for a long time, who went off and did all sorts of different careers and decided that, you know, we all had a real love for computers and games and stuff like that. So back in 2013, so it’s going to be about eight years now, we all got together and decided we would try something new, so we started up Lightning Rock, which has pivoted and changed a number of times.

Uh, I mean, normally we’re still at our core a games company. That’s what we want to be, but we have also found ourselves being specialists in Virtual Reality technology. We do a lot of software contracting. And just recently in the last year we opened Canberra’s only Virtual Reality escape room.

So doing a lot of different things. Yeah.

Lightning Rock is a founding member of Game Plus, what was it that attracted you to joining a coworking space?

Shannon:  I think at the time in Canberra, there was a real vacuum. It hadn’t been that long beforehand that 2K Studios shut down and we lost a lot of our core set of devs elsewhere. Some were lucky enough to do some teaching gigs with AIE, but there really wasn’t much of a community at all.

They just started trying to revitalize the Canberra games scene through Facebook and meetups and stuff like that. It was at the time where we were just coming into things, we just finished up our first game that we had been working on for a few years and we were sort of wanting to get like minded people around us. You know, just to be able to share that passion and bounce off ideas and just be in an environment that was just really creatively supporting.

And Game Plus was great in that sense they were offering, you know, quite reasonable rental rates, great access to services, it was in that central location. It all sort of aligned really well. And we were really happy being there and sort of being one of those founding members and, I suppose, one of those more mature companies, we were able to offer more support and advice to the other, the other people there as well, which is great.

You mentioned working in Canberra in terms of the industry, what is it like now in 2021? 

Shannon: It’s getting better. Look I mean, Canberra is a funny bubble. Unfortunately, we still don’t have a very large creative industry here in terms of the technology space. We do tend to lose a lot of our people to Sydney or to Adelaide, where they actually do have some of those bigger companies.

That’s something we’re really wanting to see change. I know that our local minister for small business and creative arts, Tara Cheyne, has got a really strong focus on this, and she wants to revitalise the creative business and technology industry.

The other big advantage we’ve got, obviously, is John De Margheriti and all the amazing stuff he’s done with the [Canberra] Technology Park. I think there’s going to be a seismic shift once the construction on that starts getting finalised and there’s this much larger space for students and different industries.

And I think there’s obviously a lot of real opportunities to work together really closely between like Film Plus and Game Plus and Screen and all the really exciting stuff we’re seeing out of that like virtual production and that sort of stuff. It’s great.

It sounds like a good chance for change.

Shannon: Uh, look, it’s, it’s a really good time I think, to be a creative industry in Canberra at the moment. But we’re definitely hoping to expand and grow bigger ourselves over the next few years to get that stability and give others the opportunity to have some way for local people to work locally.

Can you tell us a bit about Field VR? 

Shannon:  Yeah, so Field VR was one of our early day projects that sort of got us up and running and that was really great because that came through Game Plus. One of the other big advantages of Game Plus obviously is a lot of local businesses will go there when they’re sort of looking for a central source for people to do different contracts and stuff.

That particular one was through the Australian National University. And they were just in the early days trying to think about how they could use Virtual Reality to solve abstract learning problems. So in essence, what we did was work really closely with them to create a 3D sort of room space visualization of electronic and magnetic fields, which was awesome stuff.

So we worked really closely with the lecturers in the physics department over there, sort of really creating and using VR in quite a unique way to show something that people had only ever done in a 2D space before. Traditionally, you get like a bar magnet and you put iron filings on top of it. You can see the little patterns forming, which are the magnetic fields, but we could do that in a 3D sense.

And it really made a difference for people to be able to see that and then be in that virtual world and completely be able to walk around that magnet, viewing it from all different sides. They could even then shoot charge particles at that and see how they would interact with the fields. It was quite amazing.

They’ve just recently done another expansion to that. To the point where it now works in the multiplayer framework. So you can get like two or three people in that same virtual reality space talking together, working together and collaborating to get these learning outcomes. It’s really amazing.

It sounds so mind boggling, I don’t have much of a scientific background. 

Shannon: Uh, well, and that’s, that’s the good thing, right? I mean, I think that Virtual Reality brings in a new market into the creative industries and we’ve definitely seen that running the VR escape rooms for the last year. A lot of people coming to us have never used VR before and their first experience, it was like, “Wow, this is amazing. Why is there not more stuff like this?”

And we’ve really started to see a lot of interest from, especially tertiary institutions and universities are starting to see the advantages of using VR learning.

How has the reception to Field VR in the physics circles been?

Shannon: Yeah, really great. Like, I mean I know that the ANU is in discussions with some other universities who are potentially interested in taking a look at it and they’ve started using it, sort of ’em locally with their own students as well.

They’re seeing, I can’t remember what the university word is it for, but something along the lines that do see significant impacts on increasing people’s learning and understanding using some of the VR tools that they’ve been using which is great.

Would you say that games are something that could be the right platform to help explore these more difficult fields such as physics?

Shannon: Yeah, absolutely. I think gamifying any learning leads to increased outcomes as long as you do it closely with the actual educators themself.

Make sure that you’re actually doing it in a way that still makes those learning targets and it’s done in the correct way. But yeah, if nothing else it increases users wanting to do the learning, wanting to be engaged, because it makes it fun.

You know last year we did a bunch of work for Aviation Aerospace and Swinburne University. And because they had some really, I suppose, what you will call dry subjects, such as risk management and that sort of stuff. They really came just to try and create fun and interesting gamified ways to teach those. And so we’re able to do that through some more Virtual Reality simulations, doing some stuff around driving safety, wandering around the rooms and doing some work on health and safety.

Besides Field VR, you’ve also been delving into the Escape Room genre, but within the realm of VR. 

Shannon: I think Virtual Reality escape rooms is something that has only really been around for the last few years. There was nowhere in Canberra who was doing it when we started getting on that. And I think we’ve found a lot of people are really interested in it, because a lot of people really enjoy escape rooms, but obviously with the added layer of virtual reality, you can manipulate and play things you can’t do in the real world.

So we can have our players mess with the laws of physics, mess with the laws of gravity, play with fire and electricity, you know, we can play with their perceptions. We can do some really cool and interesting things you couldn’t otherwise do in a physical state room, which is really fun.

Have you taken into account disability and accessibility for users in these virtual reality escape rooms?

Shannon: Yeah. In designing our games, I guess that’s definitely something to think about. I mean, one of the big advantages, like we’ve actually had people coming in and playing our games in wheelchairs because that is something you can possibly do.ƒ

We’re talking about ways that we can create simplified systems to change colours, for example, by taking into account people with colour blindness. You know, we can alter for accessibility, for example, that all the switches and buttons are slightly lower for someone that might be in a wheelchair or we can raise their avatar’s height.

So, yeah, there’s, there’s definitely a lot of advantages to doing that we are trying to get on board.

What was it that made you think that Escape Rooms needed this elevation? Are you a fan of Escape Rooms?

Shannon: Yeah, look we are and it’s really funny. I think it was because some of the guys were down at PAX a few years back and they actually just went and tried Zero Latency.

Obviously they’ve been around for a while doing some very cool stuff in VR, but they were sort of thinking that there are a lot cooler, more interesting ways we felt at least that we can take advantage of that technology.

A lot more sort of ‘’puzzle-y’’ experiences as opposed to the sort of zombie shoot up. And I think it’s a very different type of audience that we’re seeing as well. So we see a lot of families, for example, a lot of younger people and even a lot of older couples and stuff come in, you know, there are a lot of different demographics I think that really enjoy the stuff.

What kind of approach do you take when creating these Virtual Reality Escape Rooms, because it could essentially be anything. 

Shannon: Where do you start? Look, with a lot of gray boxes in theory is where we mean to start. As long as we actually do it that way, it’s all around just iterating a lot, coming up with some unique and novel ways to use the technology to create a puzzle.

Testing that a lot to make sure it’s interesting, it’s fun, that it’s engaging, trying to make sure that we’re creating puzzles that actually require team work. People actually work together, talk together, to try and solve stuff.

But yeah, just thinking about unique and cool settings, because again, the advantage is even though we were talking about an ‘escape room’, we don’t have to be in a room. Like, we can have players in the middle of an underground level or tree. We can have them on an abandoned iceberg. Trying to think of a cool setting is probably the first step and then sort of mixing in puzzles that will match that setting which makes sense to the players. That’s still really fun.

What are you most looking forward to in the advancement of VR technology?

Shannon: Uh, look, I think where we’re really hoping we see a lot of advancements in the wireless power of VR. At the moment we’ve got some limitations around the number of wireless channels we can use in one area, we’re really looking to do bigger and larger spaces.

It’d be lovely to have more than six plus people all within the same room space on one wireless kit. I think that’d be great. I think in terms of the future, we’re just going to see these slow, incremental increases in power and viewing and stuff like that.

The other stuff that we’re going to start hopefully seeing in the far distant future, no one’s done gloves really well yet. I do think that’s the next stage. They were just looking at some of the prototype stuff that was coming out of Facebook or Meta or whatever they’re calling themselves today. This is still in very early stages, but I do think that getting the tactile touch and the haptics feeling really awesome and working well, it’s gotta be the next big leap into Virtual Reality.

The Nintendo Power Glove was certainly ahead of its time.

Shannon: Yeah. And some of them are using air pockets, some of them are using cold or heat, trying to find different ways to do it. I don’t think any of them has cracked it yet, but I’m sure it’s that everyone’s working really hard at the moment because I do think that is the next big stage.

So what’s next for Lightning Rock?

Shannon: So our next step plans is that once we’ve done a lot of internal testing and getting our own VR escape room experiences up, we are looking to license nationally, internationally. So approaching other VR arcades and stuff and saying, here’s the stuff, here’s our kit, here’s the back end. And then basically trying to encourage people to run with our stuff in their buildings.


You can stay informed on Lightning Rock’s latest developments on the official website.

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