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HBO pushes the boundaries of virtual reality to sell you Game of Thrones

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The frost-crusted wooden cage was carrying me to my death. I didn't know that for sure, but something just didn't feel right as the winch kicked into gear and the empty square of Castle Black retreated from my feet. My knees buckled as I began to ascend the 700-foot Wall. The floor rattled beneath my boots and I had to reach out to steady myself against the side of the ramshackle elevator. There was nothing beyond the stone battlements that the Night's Watch calls home. Well, not nothing exactly. There were a few towering pines and squat rocky mountains whose lower reaches were blanketed in thick featureless snow. Their peaks, if you could call them that, were black stains smeared across the blinding white expanse of the Kingdom of the North. As I climbed higher, the cool breeze turned into an icy gale and my collar flapped against my neck like a sail in a storm.

The truth is that my feet were firmly on Texas soil, but HBO and its partners Relevent and Framestore (which recently won an Academy Award for visual effects in Gravity) certainly managed to fool my brain. It wasn't just the Oculus Rift over my eyes or the headphones pumping realistic sound effects into my ears -- the experience was augmented by an assault on all of my other senses. For one, I was stuffed inside an actual cage. Its floor creaked as I shifted my weight and, even though I couldn't see my hands, I could reach out and feel the rough-hewn lumber surrounding me in the virtual Westeros. The cage rumbled and rattled as I rode up the wall and fans mounted in the ceiling blew cold air over me. It was easily the most immersive experience I've ever had with the Oculus.

While you would never mistake the graphics rendered in the Unity game engine for real life, the experience still felt real. When I stood on a flimsy platform of narrow planks hanging 700 feet above the frosted ground, my heart leaped. I was actually afraid I was going to fall to my death -- this virtual world inspired very real fear. It was so gripping that when the inevitable happened and I found the wall screaming past my face in the wrong direction, the wind howling around me, I couldn't breathe.

HBO is hardly the only company pushing the boundaries of the Oculus for marketing purposes. In fact, it's arguable that advertising agencies and content studios are doing more to advance the capabilities of virtual reality than the game developers that Oculus is designed for. Beck partnered with Lincoln on an advertising campaign that included him recording an epic orchestral rendition of David Bowie's "Sound and Vision." At Sundance, that was turned into an immersive experience that sucked you in primarily by playing with sound. As you turned your head, the sound of instruments shifted to the appropriate virtual location. If you were staring at the string section then turned around, the sound of the strings would appear to come from behind you.

Ogeeku created that advergame CorollaCade for Toyota, which made the simple tweak of putting a steering wheel in your hands. It might seem obvious, but even simple changes that take the gamepad out of your hand can really improve the Oculus experience. Studios like Chaotic Moon are even hacking together solutions just for fun. At this year's SXSW, it showed off SharkPunch, a silly and fun game that pairs the Oculus with a Leap Motion. So, rather than mashing buttons, you control the game by throwing actual punches. It will probably be one of these companies creating branded experiences that finally ties the Oculus together with motion control and other sensory input such as smell to create a virtual world so real it's terrifying.

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