It is interesting to have an experience so transformative as to give one the impression of seeing the future within the present. Usually, this involves seeing a part of the world in some profoundly different way than one is accustomed to seeing it. In the age of rapid incremental technological progress, oftentimes we forget what this kind of experience feels like. Today, every bit of progress feels like a half-step over what has come before, like a ‘Xeno’s Paradox’ of new phones, televisions, and video game systems constantly telling us that this half-step will be the one that gets us to the door.
Well, folks, in this analogy, virtual reality is the door, and I have spent the past week or so looking through it. I am pleased to say that the experience is sufficiently above and beyond any normal step forward in technology to be worth writing about, though it also comes with some caveats.
First, I should talk about the last truly transformative experience I had when playing a video game. I was twelve years old and had spent the preceding chunk of my childhood absolutely devouring all things Nintendo. Video games were my life. When I wasn’t playing games, I was imagining elaborate scenarios involving the worlds and characters that would never have been possible in the technology present inside the Super Nintendo console. Two-dimensional sprites may seem like a quaint retro styling by today’s standards, but back then they were the absolute limit of what could be done.
The Nintendo 64 changed all that. Not only was the console capable of rendering a fully three-dimensional world, it provided a new control scheme to interact with that world. This was a revelation to sixth-grader me. The possibilities were now endless. The world was at my fingertips. I knew, then, that gaming could never be the same.
For the most part, I was right. Since then, three-dimensional worlds have become the standard experience, and each new console or generation of PC graphics processor has inched the level of photo-realism forward. However, since that initial transformation that came with the addition of a third dimension, there has not been anything that has made a similar impact. Motion controls came close but, as a whole, did not quite live up to their promise. At the very least, they did not spark the same joy that accompanied my first experience with Super Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time.
Virtual reality has always seemed to be the end goal of the video game experience. Wikipedia offers the following definition of the term:
“Virtual reality (VR) is an experience taking place within simulated and immersive environments that can be similar to or completely different from the real world.”
Video games, from their inception, have attempted to re-contextualize the player’s reality by simulating the real world, an imagined world, or the in-between case of modifying the real world with differing rules or experiences. This is what makes gaming a unique medium and why I have spent so much time writing about their ability to show a person a different or unique perspective.
With the release of the Oculus Rift S (and its sister product, the Oculus Quest), I felt the time had finally come for me to give VR a try and see whether the technology could live up to the promise. Virtual reality headsets are not a new thing by any means, as in the past few years products like the HTC Vive and various mobile offerings have joined the original Oculus Rift in attempting to bring the VR experience to the masses. Each has had its own share of complications, though. The original high-end headsets required an array of external sensors, which, for a number of reasons, were not feasible for the space I had to work with. Mobile-based VR required attaching a phone to one’s face, and while that might be a good introduction to the experience, I didn’t feel like it was something that would give a wonderful first impression to the technology.
The setup for the Rift S is relatively straightforward. Instead of an array of external sensors, there are only two connections to the external PC: one USB 3.0 and one DisplayPort. These connections are routed into one cable that plugs into the headset. Initial setup is handled by downloading the Oculus Rift application for the host PC, which walks the user through each step of the process. There will be more on that later, but suffice to say that when everything goes perfectly, the process of getting the headset up and running is relatively simple when compared to the process of mounting and arranging external sensors.
That’s not what I really want to talk about here, though. What I really want to talk about is the joy of experiencing virtual reality for the first time and knowing that the future of the medium is bright.
It’s very hard to describe this experience to someone who has never had it before. This has been a problem present in transformational technology throughout the ages. It was, after all, very hard to sell a television to someone who has never watched television, or to sell an automobile to someone who is perfectly content with a horse and carriage. The challenge of marketing is to express to someone how any new technology is substantially different than what has come before. In the modern era, this is even more challenging due to how each incremental step is marketed as revolutionary. It can make a person overlook the true revolutions when they come.
Is the Oculus Rift S revolutionary? In comparison to other virtual reality headsets, the answer is ‘probably not’. In terms of specifications, it is only an incremental improvement in some cases and an outright downgrade in others. However, I’m not specifically reviewing the Rift S, but rather talking about what it’s like to experience virtual reality for the first time.
The short version is that putting on that headset for the first time made me feel like I was twelve years old again and experiencing the leap from two-dimensional sprites to three-dimensional polygons for the first time. When I put that headset on for the first time and started interacting with the brief demo program that was vaguely reminiscent of Wall-E, I had a grin on my face the entire time. This is the truly revolutionary thing. Ever since that Saturday morning when I first entered the castle in Super Mario 64, I’ve been subconsciously chasing the next transformational experience in gaming and wondering if it was even possible. Yet, as I was interacting with that robot and reaching out my hand to poke at digital butterflies, I was grinning.
One of the first programs I downloaded was Google Earth. At this point, my wife had been watching me set up the headset and go through the motions of familiarizing myself with how the controls worked. When a program is loaded, an outside observer can see what the user is seeing projected onto the primary monitor. She could, therefore, sit and watch as I loaded Google Earth and started to fly around New York City. Her initial response was “What, that’s it?” but after a few minutes of watching me jump between overhead view and Street View, she decided she’d give it a try.
Her response? “Oh my god, this is awesome!”
To be clear, Google Earth in VR is nothing more than, well, Google Earth in VR. When I talk about ‘transformative experience’, I am referring to the way that this new perspective can take something that we have come to see as relatively mundane and turn it into a source of awe and joy. Using Google Earth, my wife and I could view a series of stitched-together images of a street we had walked down several times on a vacation we had taken the previous year and relive some of the memories more vividly than we would have otherwise been able to.
As for the games themselves, there are some real gems out there. The real standout to me is the lightsaber rhythm game Beat Saber. While I’ve never been very good at Dance Dance Revolution, I always appreciated that it existed due to how it makes the player an active participant in the game. Beat Saber is similar, except that instead of using dancing as its mechanic, it uses the act of swinging a lightsaber, effectively turning the play area into some kind of weird and awesome Jedi rave.
Let’s be honest here. How many of us spent our childhoods and most of our adult years swinging around invisible lightsabers when we thought no one was looking? This is the game all of us were imagining.
Another noteworthy title is Moss, in which the player is a reader interacting with a book and playing the role of benevolent guardian spirit to the characters inside it. Using the motion tracking aspects of the controllers, the player can manipulate the environment while the more traditional buttons and analog sticks are used to control the mouse knight Quill as she traverses the world and fights enemies.
As with any early technology, there are a few caveats to the experience. For one, the setup was not a flawless experience. When I first plugged the Rift S into my computer and ran through the setup process, I could not get anything to display on the headset. Some combination of reinstalling the Oculus client on the host PC, plugging in the USB and DisplayPort cables in a different order, and re-seating the other end of the cable in the headset (a process which involved detaching part of the faceplate) fixed this issue. A brief scan of reddit showed me that this was not an isolated incident, but I am willing to chalk it up to launch day issues and possible jostling during shipping.
Another issue that the technology as a whole has yet to get over is the problem of motion sickness. There is something very disorienting about the way ‘traditional’ video game movement (using a thumbstick to move around) is handled in VR. For some reason, that kind of motion lends itself to extreme motion sickness even in people who aren’t ordinarily prone to it. While I don’t know enough about the topic to make an educated statement, I would be willing to guess it has to do with the way the visual depiction of movement is entirely disconnected from what the body’s other senses are experiencing.
This is why something like Beat Saber works as well as it does. In that kind of experience, the player’s lightsabers are being moved by the player’s own body. Other objects are moving at the player, but there is no actual movement of the viewpoint itself independent of the player’s body motions. There is a similar situation with Moss as well, in which the player’s position in the environment is static and the player interacts by moving the motion controllers or head-mounted display itself. Other games handle it by ‘cheating’ the motion, turning it into a teleport-based system reminiscent of how one moved from still image to still image in Myst. This isn’t a perfect solution, but interestingly enough it’s better than smooth scrolling for most people.
The other caveat is that the Rift S still requires a fairly high-end PC to plug into. This was a non-issue for me, as I built my current machine a couple years ago and bought what was at the time a ludicrous video card (NVidia GTX 980) but which is now the bare minimum required for running VR at all. There is a standalone version of the headset as well, the Oculus Quest, that sacrifices video quality for the benefit of not needing an external PC at all. For most consumers, this is honestly the headset I would recommend at the moment, and from what I can tell most people tend to agree with me.
From what I have experienced in my week or so of owning a VR headset, I can say that the technology is just now approaching the stage where it is no longer solely for early adopters. While it still needs an iteration or so and a few more killer apps for it to be compellingly consumer-ready, the concept has at least begun to mature. To be clear, we are still decades and possibly centuries away from a full Star Trek-style holodeck experience, modern VR is finally beginning to live up to its promise of pulling the user deeper into simulated worlds. In time, the bugs and caveats will be worked out once a larger sample size of users gets experience with and gives feedback on the technology. I, for one, am optimistic about the potential of VR to show people views and perspectives they would not ordinarily be exposed to.