I recently had my first chance to experience virtual reality. I’d played around with Google Cardboard, but the Oculus Touch headset was a whole world away from that. And, as impressive as the visual aspects were (and they were very impressive) the thing that amazed me most was how well the controllers worked, how easily I could interact with virtual objects.
The first surprise about the two handheld controls was how they were present in both the real and virtual worlds. It’s strange being blindfolded from reality by the headset, but the controls are still visible, their position tracked by the cameras, even when you’re not holding them. Once you pick them up, sensors guess the location of your hands, then render them in the virtual world. I looked down to see my hands replaced with robotic ones. It was an incredible illusion.
The Toybox Demo was amazing. A virtual robot hands you objects which you can grip. The feedback from the sensors when you grasp things is crude, but it works. You feel as if you have a real presence and agency in the imaginary world.
I played the game Robo Recall and was blown away. I was immersed in combat with the robots, nervous about them getting behind me. The techniques for ‘walking’ around the game world were effective, meaning I had a sensation of exploring without having to move in reality (and therefore walk into the table).
There are two downsides to virtual reality. The first is the nausea – not as bad as I’d expected, but I suspect I’d suffer if I played for much longer than half an hour. The other is the cost – about £700 for the kit, and on top of that the cost of a powerful PC. Hopefully the price will fall quickly.
As a child of the 90s, I’ve spent decades being told that virtual reality was the future. I never had a chance to try out those early, cheesy demonstrations, but saw intense VRs represented in comics, books and TVs. The Oculus felt like all those promises were coming true. And, in a nice touch, the makers seem to have adopted a lot of the signifiers of fictional VR in the Oculus (Japanese architecture, welcoming by female voices, use of infinite white landscapes etc) and that made it seem somehow familiar.
I can’t wait to get a longer chance to play on one of these. And I really want to try out some horror games.