Metanalysis: Virtual Reality

“The Uncanny Threshold”

There are a few games that I have never experienced because of an unfortunate personality flaw of mine. A barrage of praise, even from a close friend, can eventually lead to something becoming so soured that I will go years before I can will myself to try it. I can only be goaded into trying something new so many times before my gut reaction is to never try it again. This has made it difficult for friends, loved ones, or communities I’m a part of to get me into new fandoms or hobbies. Virtual Reality was almost a victim of this attitude.

With VR, my aversion to hype turned my once child-like excitement into dull cynicism. As the technology took off, the rampant adoption turned it into a gimmick, something that could be used to market experiences or attractions that let you translate physical movement into a virtual space. These promises were often hollow and were subsequently unfulfilled.

However, thanks to The Skill Floor I was able to try VR first hand and gain a whole new appreciation for it, one that has change my tune to that of a passionate advocate of the technology.

 

The Framework

The idea that we could one day walk inside our favorite games, not as observers, but as the protagonist themselves, is a dream as old as storytelling. The nature of escapism is such that we long to escape into our fantasies. We’ve spent countless hours thinking up new and better worlds, idealistic places where we are not bound by restrictions that society or even reality place upon us.

But simulating life with technology has actually been attempted long before video games. Some of the earliest examples include stereoscopic photos: devices that display a photographic representation of how our eyes view the world that gave users a greater sense of depth and immersion. This was researched back in 1838! And simulators existed way back in 1929, with flight simulators being used to train pilots during WWII.

Video games possess the capacity to mimic life. Even games that are outrageous and showcase a silly premise, such as flinging birds into structures or using a shape-matching puzzle to earn enough romance points to get my partner to undress, are rooted in some level of realism. Games are defined by the rules and goals within them. These limitations empower players by provides a fertile environment that can stimulate the imagination and challenge our ability to tackle adversity. The earliest developed video game, for example, simulated a game of tennis.

Since then, one of the challenges for game designers has been to achieve mimicry of life as close as possible. Achieving this can be done in one of two ways:

  1. increasing the visual detail
  2. changing/improving the method of interaction

One of the first attempts at tackling the method of interaction can be seen with the Magnavox Odyssey Shooting Gallery, released in 1972. It used light gun technology and was the first of many failed attempts to physicalize video games.

VR in its current form reached its apex in 2011, as technology managed to make significant strides in closing the gap between the virtual with the physical. Since then, tech companies have seized the momentum and have taken development seriously, dumping resources into the technology. Some of the big name contenders, such as Id Software and Facebook, signed on with the  hopes of shaping the way the technology evolves.

The device responsible for the current age of VR is the Oculus Rift. Developed by Palmer Luckey and later backed by John Carmack of Id Software, the Oculus launched a Kickstarter in 2012, raising almost $2.5 million and going on to be one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns in history. The device, which really is just a monitor strapped to one’s face, would go on to change the way we look at VR, with Facebook going on to buy Oculus and Valve partnering with HTC to produce their own VR headset technology.

 

The Execution

There are three major players who are currently involved with distributing and publishing the hardware that are synonymous with VR: HTC and Valve with the Vive, Facebook and Oculus with the Oculus Rift, and Sony with PlayStation VR. Although many other companies have developed smaller, more stand-alone technologies that adopt the audio-visual aspect of VR, the Vive, Oculus Rift, and PSVR make up what consumers have come to know as the core VR experience. You can currently purchase a Vive for $600 (headset, 2 base stations, 2 controllers), a Rift for $500 (headset, 2 controllers), and the PSVR for $450 (headset, 2 controllers, camera, VR world game).

The Oculus Rift was the first VR headset on the market. The first iteration tackled immersion by offering 1-to-1 visual control using head-tracking and 3D audio mapping. It wouldn’t be until the launch of the HTC Vive that we would get motion controls involved in the experience.

Now, all three major players offer motion controls. In order to maximize the accuracy, the headsets require some level of room-tracking in order to simulate your hands in virtual space, a process that is done using either separate infrared-using base stations or a camera. The Vive controllers are mostly comfortable and operate nicely during most experiences, but prolonged use of the grip buttons is uncomfortable and the size of the controllers often causing users to bump them against walls or each other.

At the time of this writing, HTC is working on a large library of new and exciting additions to their hardware, with some of the most exciting being:

  • a tracker that can be placed on real-world objects to track them in game
  • gloves that can track finger movement
  • shoes/cuffs that can track foot placement
  • a wireless option for the headset
  • PC/hardware-less headset

However, hardware isn’t everything. Without an extensive library of experiences and games, there would be little incentive to adopt any of the devices. If you go to the Steam store, for example, and look up the tag “VR”, you will get a hit for just under 2400 titles. This includes videos, apps, and obviously, games. Many aspiring VR designers have latched on to the wave of hype that was generated post-Vive release, and the entirety of the library has been filled over just the last two years.

A caveat with some of the more ambitious games is that they are being released as early access titles, which comes with its own set of hurdles. Because the development tools are new and the workflow is still being pioneered, some developers are opting to make a “demo” version of the game, showcasing the mechanics and potential for the game, and offering to complete the game as time goes on (the essential structure of early access). This means that some of the more promising or interesting looking games are shorter than the average game, but still carry a hefty price tag of $30+, on the promise of eventually building up to a full game.

 

The Verdict

Before I had a chance to try VR for myself, the most common argument in favor of the experience was that “it wasn’t something you could describe to others” and  “you had to drop $800 (the price of the HTC Vive just a few short months ago) in order to try it for yourself”, and if not for The Skill Floor, I’d still roll my eyes at any mention of a VR being any good.

VR really, truly is the future though, and until you’ve tried it for yourself, you just won’t get it.

It’s still easy to criticize the current state of the market, though. The technology is too expensive, even with price drops as high as $200. The games are also expensive, and although many of my favorite games have improved significantly since release, it is frustrating that you have no idea what state a game will be in when you purchase it in early access. Some games are mostly feature complete, and just need to add more variety. Others are demos at best and do a poor job of convincing early adopters to stick around.

Another issue related to VR is how it may affect your health, both with long-term and short-term use. Studies disagree on whether prolonged use of VR can cause serious health issues, especially during prolonged play. Anecdotes from users who stayed under for several hours report nearsightedness headaches. One couple even tried it for 48 hours straight and reported similar complaints. Others report nausea and can can only handle VR for about 10-15 minutes intervals, needing to remove the headset for fear of becoming physically ill. People with vertigo are also not great candidates for VR use, as the disassociation between physical and virtual space can trigger violent episodes.

On the other hand, there have been some positively reported effects of VR in the medical field. One such example is the use of VR to reduce the need for painkillers for patients who are in severe pain. One study showed how using a game helped a burn victim deal with the pain of their treatment.

Stories and studies about VR however, both negative and positive, are profoundly useless in allowing others to empathize with the experience. Videos and anecdotes cannot capture the magic that is your first time putting on the clunky, heavy headset, holding two strange devices in each hand as you stare into a blank screen, and await…something. Even when the menu loads up, or if you start Steam’s VR Home, which dumps you into a virtual bedroom from where you can launch your VR library, you still might not get it.

It wasn’t until I loaded up Tilt Brush, a VR program that allows you to paint in 3D, that it hit me. I selected one of the standard brushes, picked a color, clicked the trigger and dragged my arm in a downward motion. It was pure, unadulterated magic. I quickly made more and more strokes, trying to sculpt a shape I could recognize. I switch to an empty space and began again anew. I feverishly began switching between the brushes and colors, slowly building a set that was straight out of Star Wars. I painted in a Death Star, made it shoot out a neon green laser, and filled in the surrounding space with a savage dogfight between the Rebels and the Imperials. When I finished, I was shaking with excitement.

Next, on someone else’s insistence, I loaded up Space Pirate Trainer. I was teleported to a spaceship dock, my ship stationed behind me, each hand wielding a blaster. I started the game and was besieged by two drones. As their laser fire approached me, the game triggered bullet time, presenting me with the time to adeptly weave around the shots. I returned in kind, and in moments my adversaries were felled. Round two began, and on it went as I made my way through the rounds, each more challenging than the last. I was dodging and weaving with my body in real life, ducking and rolling to avoid being caught. Eventually, I was overwhelmed, and I tore myself away from the headset, smiling but drenched in sweat.

These were the first two experiences I got to try on the Vive, and they magnificently provided a glimpse of a future where VR isn’t just a party trick, but the only way to engage with games. I was blown away and was literally compelled to share my experience with anyone, everyone. VR is far from perfect, and over the last few months, we’ve seen a decrease in the amount of hype around the technology. As it continues to become more affordable and more people adopt it, we will see smaller but more frequent bumps in it’s growth. Some of the more exciting prospects come to us in the from of virtual arcades, with some entrepreneurs buying out lots inside malls and offering VR as a smaller, pay-by-the-hour experience, reducing the need to own the device and have dedicated space.

I continue to be excited and often times find myself daydreaming about being able to return to VR and play some of the classics or try out the latest and greatest.

Try it, because you may just find one of your fantasies to now be a reality.

 

-Brian Perez

 

The Brief

PRO:

  • the most immersive way to experience games and video
  • library of available games is large and growing
  • some of the best games offer arcade-style replayability
  • new advancements in the technology will only further the immersion as you are able to bring object from real life into the game

CON:

  • adopting the equipment is expensive, even with recent price drops
  • software is also expensive, and oftentimes in early access, meaning adopters will need to be patient for a full release
  • not for everyone, can make you ill
  • requires a great deal of room, and unless you dedicate space, requires you to set up and tear down