This time last week I was having minor freakout about VR. Specifically, I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to enjoy it without wanting to lose my lunch. At a Microsoft preview event I’d been given a demo of the VR edition of Minecraft on an Oculus Rift, and as soon I entered the game world I was struck by both 1) how insanely ‘there’* you feel, (*I’m going to try to write this without saying ‘immersion’ or ‘presence’, because they already feel like vacuous descriptors), and 2) immediately wanting to be sick.
The nausea persisted throughout the event, my trip back to the office, and the meeting in which I awkwardly gulped back an ominous burp. Of course, VR affects different people differently. My colleague played the same demo and didn’t want to throw up. I think it was Minecraft’s ability to jump that had such a deleterious effect on my stomach. As soon as I started moving in the game I broke out in a cold sweat and had to keep my head as fixed as possible because looking around made me feel like my legs were being swept from under me. As for the speeding cart section… Absolutely brutal.
Other people I spoke to at the event felt the same way, so I suspect there’s an issue still to be resolved with how Minecraft VR works. To mitigate the nausea you can jump back from full immersion (argh) mode, so that you’re looking at a screen within the screen. Also, when you use the controller to turn rather than the head tracking, it does so in fixed increments in order to make the sensation more predictable. Both systems suggest that Mojang/Microsoft is well aware of the puke problem, and wrestling with ways to fix it.
My queasy Minecraft experience meant I approached the Vive Pre, which arrived this week, with caution. Having now tried a bunch of things on it, it’s a relief to report that none of them made me feel anything like as ill. A large reason for that is few of the Vive demos attempt to offer anything like the radical amount of freedom that Minecraft does. Most of what’s available currently, either bundled with the unit or tucked away on Steam’s developer forums, is super early, proof of concept stuff. There’s little in the way of what you’d describe as actual game, but nonetheless it’s been incredibly fun to muck around with.
The Vive Pre I’ve been using is actually owned by my other half, who’s something of a VR expert, and is set-up in the living room of our cruddy apartment. She likes to cue up a bunch of demos and then watch me react to them, kinda like a DJ, switching the experience when she senses I’m tired of paddling down a canyon river or have missed too many putts on a half-formed minigolf game.
We began lightly, with a few demos that got me used to the VR effect, including a bleak but beautiful Icelandic scene that looked like a location from Game of Thrones, followed by an even more stunning underwater scene. Here you stood on the deck of a sunken ship as aquatic life swum past. In an early example of how spatial choreography is going to be key to making cool VR moments, I turned to find myself face-to-eyeball with a blue whale.
Even a few days spent with VR makes me feel fairly sure that there’s going to be some spectacular accidents associated with it. I’ve already trod on the dog’s paw once, and it’s easy to extrapolate dog’s paw to cat’s head or worse. Likewise, given how many TVs met their end at thrown Wii controllers, the fact players are effectively blindfolded surely raises serious questions of the glass coffee table/open window shape. And yes, of course, the player must bear the brunt of the responsibility here. But when has that ever stopped the tabloids from firing up the outrage wagon? It’s be interesting to see how Oculus and Valve handle the first serious mishap in one of the devices.
Scale is something VR already does really well. Movement, not so much. These worlds are so convincing to be in that, even when you can see the polygonal joins, or detect the pattern of pixels, there’s an irresistible compulsion to wander about. But you soon reach the limits of the play area you “painted” on the floor during the Vive’s set-up, at which point a turquoise grid is overlaid on the scene. These are effectively the walls of your budget holodeck.
Either we’ve set the Vive up incorrectly (entirely possible) or some of the demos aren’t quite calibrated correctly. Valve’s own Aperture Robot Repair kept asking me to reach past the walled-perimeter to interact with objects. At which point I would bang the controller against a window, my girlfriend’s head, or walk into the desk chair. I had to give up, which is a pity because there’s some lovely Portal-flavoured humour in there, and otherwise it’s one of the most technically robust demos with none of the judder that marred some Vive experiences.
Humour is something that also works well in VR. Job Simulator sees you taking orders from a robot middle manager, and there was a weirdly illicit thrill to throwing coffee cups around the office and using a giant stamp to fire underperforming workers. Understandably, a lot of the demos restrict you to a single area and focus on the controllers.
Ninja Trainer takes place in a dojo and is a basic but moreish riff on the Fruit Ninja mobile games. The controller is your katana, and proves remarkably precise as you slice up juicy produce. In fact, the tracking is so faithful that I won’t be at all surprised if more serious, even sim-style sporting applications for golfers and tennis players become a thing.
Also relatively high energy is Space Pirate Trainer. Here you dual-wield controllers as laser blasters, gunning down waves of robot drones that most definitely shoot back. I’d been sceptical that traditional shooter mechanics will work in VR, but again the precision is impressive, and I found myself dodging tracer fire like a fat Neo. You don’t have the same peripheral vision in the headset that you do in real life, but I was still able to register an incoming flanking shot and duck under it. Which felt as fun as it must have looked ridiculous to my watching dog (who let me assure you is absolutely furious about VR and everything to do with it).
Less like actual exercise is Tilt Brush VR, a creative app that lets you paint in 3D. The left controller serves as your palette for switching colours, effects and so on, while the right one operates as your brush. My other half drew me a beautiful garden floating in outer space. In a return I left a scrawled REDRUM floating in the ether.
Of those demos which do allow the player to explore beyond a single setting, it’s telling they almost all come up with a different solution for player movement.
More like mind that bloody great tornado, amirite?
In puzzler Mind: Path To Thalamus, which has been retooled for VR, you find yourself in spooky town with a cyclone inbound from the ocean. Unfortunately, using the touchpad on the right controller to slide my character forwards, backwards and sideways led to a lurching ickyness. Still, I stood there staring at the cyclone for a few minutes—the sense of scale again proving dumbly impressive.
A different path is taken by the demo for gothic-flavoured episodic game Abbot’s Book. Here you look in the direction you want to travel and pull the controller trigger to hop forward a set distance. It functions fine, but teleporting a few metres feels pretty dissonant with the 1680 backcloth. What I did like, though, was the creepy old monk. Meeting another character who stood at around my height, and had an actual human face, felt unexpectedly surprising. And that was before he started talking. The artwork isn’t going for pure realism—it’s more the exaggerated hand drawn effect of a BioShock—but your brain still tells you that this is another person standing in front of you. It’s a startling feeling.
Because that sort of sensation is so powerful, Horror is also definitely going to be a big deal in VR. My favourite of all the demos is Otherworld’s spooky Sisters, which features a possessed doll which won’t stay put. Again you’re restricted to a single room—this time inside a haunted house—and as you begin to inspect furniture and other objects, stuff starts to move around, culminating in a jump scare that literally made me jump off the ground. The Sisters demo combines much of what is good about the current raft of VR demos: playful humour, plenty to interact with, and wonderfully choreographed moments.
It’ll be really interesting to see what happens when a developer goes for horror that’s even more hardcore. I’m not sure I’ll be able to stand it. The dog certainly won’t. But even a few days with Vive has dispelled a large number of doubts I’ve had about VR. Tellingly, what we’re experiencing now is the worst that the tech will ever be. Console launch games are famously bad, and Vive and Rift are equivalent to the original iPod in terms of where they sit on the VR evolutionary timeline. The important point is that for all the things you can see will still be improved and iterated on, the tech is fun and refreshing to play with right now. Just keep your eye on the damn doll.