Tue Dec 4, 2018
It was a cold, grey day in November. We huddled in our coats as we scuttled past the empty loading bays of an industrial area. Two men smoking outside the entrance to a seedy pool hall stared at us with open suspicion as we searched for a sign we were in the right place.
The VR lounge was hard to find, but we eventually found the entrance nested within a cluster of Chinese businesses. It was beside an extraordinarily picturesque reflexology foot spa filled with intricate wooden carvings and an actual Buddhist temple that had been miniaturized to fit in the space.
The soothing sound of running water faded away quickly as we were ushered into a den of gaming iniquity.
I was immediately reminded of the Internet cafés I used to frequent in the 90s. Except that nobody in here was checking email. It was grimy, dark, and reminiscent of one of those sci-fi movies where the protagonist stumbles into a room of bodies hooked into the matrix or the inception dream world or whatever.
We shelled out some serious dough for a one-hour VR session.
We were shown to some empty cubicles in the back, with nothing but HTC Vive headsets hanging down by their umbilicals from the ceiling. A taciturn attendant briskly strapped on the headset and placed the controllers in my hands. Another helped my wife get set up. I heard him ask, “We doing the tutorial?” The other guy answered: “Yep”.
Then he said “Look to your right” and just like that, I was floating in a white room with a droid walking me through the mechanics of virtual reality.
After the tutorial, we were launched into Steam VR, which starts you off in an airy mountainside room with killer views of a craggy snow-dusted landscape. Of course, I had no idea how to proceed and could barely hear my wife’s voice over the headset. She wasn’t in the room with me. At least the jaded attendant was sharp enough to spot a bunch of VR noobs so he guided us into our first VR multiplayer experience (QuiVr).
We were elves, I think. My wife’s appearance was…unsettling. She was composed of a floating head with a cowl and glowing eyes. Besides from the floating head, only her hands were visible, holding a longbow. I was also holding a longbow. I had to reach down to the side to pluck an arrow from my quiver and pull back on the bow to fire. We were defending a series of gates from an invading horde of enemies (orcs?).
Our defence was spirited at first, but it didn’t last long. The limitations of VR became quickly evident to me.
Firstly, the resolution and quality of the display you’re looking at is noticeably low. You can see the individual pixels - an experience I haven’t had since I was a kid playing Leisure Suit Larry on my 286. The frame rate was good - I experienced zero lag when moving my head around. I also didn’t have any issues with the field of view. But the level of detail in the graphics pales in comparison to what a PS4 can deliver. You get used to it, but it isn’t the crispy goodness of HD displays and amazeballs graphics we are spoilt with today. I never thought I’d take reflections in puddles and variable lighting for granted!
Secondly, you can only move within the confines of an imaginary cube, or risk bumping into real-life walls. In the game, you can “teleport” to different locations that you can see in the world. But it felt like a throwback to earlier games, such as Myst, where you move by clicking a location on the screen; the scene then crossfading into another frame. To me, being boxed in felt too restrictive - a step back from the freedom of movement you have in today’s hugely more sophisticated games.
Also, if you turn around too much, the multiple headset cables get twisted or slap you on the side of the head, breaking any suspension from reality.
My wife, however, had the opposite problem. She found it too realistic. She has a phobia of heights, you see. And we were standing on top of these tall guard towers, raining down arrows onto troops hammering at the gates. I could almost see the fear in her avatar’s glowing eyes. She pulled her gear off (no easy task) and was going to quit right then.
But, I convinced her to persevere and we ended up on solid ground happily shooting waves of attacking drones in the VR demo Space Pirate Trainer. The kinetic gameplay was a fun experience. We really started to get into it, dodging laser beams and blasting droids out of the sky.
I wanted to try a couple more experiences before the session was over, so I tried to load up Google Earth. Unfortunately, the system crashed. To find the long-gone attendant, I had to shrug out of my gear, which - as I alluded to previously - is a laborious process at best. Even Neo had an easier time unplugging from the Matrix.
Anyway, I eventually dove back in and ended up on a random, nondescript street in London, looking around in VR street view. So far, my wife liked Google Earth the best - as long as she didn’t fly too far from the ground.
I wasn’t as impressed, especially as the draw distance was just terrible. So I tried one more game: Beat Saber. I only got to play for a few minutes before our session abruptly ended, but it was the most fun VR experience I’d had so far. Wielding lightsabers to chop down oncoming cubes in time to the music was truly a novel experience.
But at the end of the day, that’s all VR is right now - a novelty, not a game changer.
The potential is definitely there. I’m certain VR headsets will eventually catch up to the latest screen resolutions and graphic engines. They may even become wireless without sacrificing these gains in performance. But the higher-hanging fruit is freedom of movement. Ungainly and expensive contraptions like the Virtuix Omni are the beginnings of true solution. Other ideas are simmering out there that are less cumbersome and hopefully will come to fruition.
I say hopefully because the future of VR is not a sure thing. We’ve been here before. Let’s not forget that VR was a fad in the 90s and nothing came of it. In fact, the current hype over VR seems to be dying as I write this. But with every fad cycle comes more traction.
My first experience in that dingy gamer lounge in an industrial park has convinced me that we’re on the precipice of a truly immersive and astonishing virtual reality. Even if the current iteration of VR products fades away in the minds of consumers, I’m sure that VR will make it into practically every home 20 years from now.
We emerged blinking from the gloom into the bright lights of the real world, our hair standing up every which way. The calming sound of trickling water drew my attention to the reflexology foot spa.
The wooden carvings inside were so incredibly detailed, the interplay of soft light on the mahogany almost magical. I couldn’t pull my eyes away.