In our last installment, I spoke about my personal, early experiences with VR. I also mentioned that my personal viewpoint on VR has changed from a negative to an extremely positive one, however I didn't exactly mention why. Well here goes.
I was able to experience an HTC Vive pretty early on, thanks to a friend. He's definitely an early adopter and decidedly more benevolent about it than some. Upon being offered the opportunity to experience it first hand, in a home environment, as opposed to a trade show or some other public offering, I jumped at the chance. My friend has his PC setup in more of a Media center style than a lot
of my other gamer friends, so his living room was the AO (Area of Operations) for this demo. This was good, as there was plenty of room that was unencumbered by furniture, pets, children, etc for me to fall over. My friend played the role of "session" administrator, He gave me a quick synopsis of the HMD, controllers, headphones, and would also launch all of the games/experiences I would test out.
Upon affixing the HMD to my head and the waiting room loaded, I was immediately taken aback by what was before me. While this probably doesn't translate too well, i'll attempt to explain why. You see, I've described this experience to many friends, co-workers, and clients in similar detail and they all had about the same reaction. "That sounds very cool." But you could tell there was a disconnect in their response that could only be fixed by actually experiencing this for themselves. I'm going to set the scene for you anyways, knowing that if you are here and reading this, I will very likely be the one bridging that gap for you.
I was at the beach. I could hear the seagulls squawking, the gentle ocean waves lapping at the beach, and the palm tree fronds swayed slightly in the breeze. To my left there was small waterfall that trickled down into a small lagoon and all of this had an incredible effect on my perception of the world. I almost immediately lost track of where I was in the real world, due to me spinning around to check everything out. When I said the lagoon was to my left, I wasn't kidding. You load in to the very center of this world and it is all around you. You can walk about a bit to explore, but getting to close to your boundary and you'll notice a very lasery grid of doom style wall appear in front of you. You'll also notice in 2 of the corners a small box. While somewhat immersion breaking, these serve a very good purpose. The boxes are the "light houses" they map the room and also track your HMD and controller movement. These, along with the Steam VR software set the boundaries I mentioned earlier. This also serves an additional purpose, as it allows you to quickly make a mental note of where you are within your real space. After getting acclimated, we launched into our first app.
This was a work place simulator. Super exciting right!??! I decided to give it a go anyways, as it was designed to introduce you to a few core VR concepts. You could interact with almost everything, which I
started exploring by picking up my virtual coffee mug filled with pencils and pens. I then proceeded to dump them on the floor. Satisfied with my mess, I realised that when I reached down with the controller, one of the pens highlighted and I could pick it up as well. This is significant as it showed to me that there have been great lengths to try and create as much interactivity in the virtual world as there can be within the confines of the game. My friend was still guiding me somewhat, suggesting that I turn around and press a button on the machine behind me. It spit out a red folder. A sign showed me that red folders go in one cabinet, while black folders go in the other cabinet. I did this for about a minute, wondering "Is this it?" about that time, I noticed that some items from my desk were missing. The picture of my virtual family had disappeared, triggering my Marty McFly syndrome (There are dozens of us!) and then I noticed the clock on the wall was melting, a la Salvador Dali. This was all just pretty neat and then I realized something. The walls were moving....
Except, the walls weren't just moving, I was moving down! Looking up showed me the long elevator shaft made of cubicle walls and the further I went down the darker it got. Then the walls fell down. I realized at this moment that I had braced myself instinctively, just like you would in a normal elevator ride down to your floor waiting for it to come to it's inevitable stop, only this time I hadn't moved anywhere at all, My mind and body would tell you otherwise, as they are making adjustments based on what I see and what I hear. Now as I look up there are black and red folders flying above me everywhere. Big folders, little folders, folders in flying V formations like they are flying south for the winter. Then I started moving, or rather the floor did. Again I braced myself for my virtual journey as I was railroaded through this office drone's decent into madness tour and it was pretty damn awesome. While certainly not the best representation of the graphical prowess that VR games can provide, this game succeeded very well in showing the level of scope VR gaming could provide, even in this limited capacity. This platform travel continued for a short while until eventually it stopped moving, the walls started coming back up and a red light started to fill the room. I looked up to see the most giant red folder I have ever seen slowly coming down on top of me, like a 747 about to land on the tarmac, except I'm the tarmac. As the folder descended the light in the room started to dim, darker and darker until the folder landed upon the walls creating a new roof and casting everything in pitch black. After a few seconds all of the lights come back on and the office is absolutely trashed! Cabinets are knocked down, files and folders are everywhere and all I could think was, "Well I'm certainly not gonna clean this up!"
There were 2 more experiences that I explored. Nvidia VR Funhouse and a more cinematic experience with limited interaction, called The Blu. NVidia has done an amazing job of coming up with fun, quick carnivalesque games. It does a fantastic job of introducing you to how physics work within VR space, whether it's throwing a ball to break a vase, shooting plates, firing a bow and arrow, punching crazy laughing clown heads in the face that charge you, or popping balloons that surround you while you dual wield swords, everything has such an amazing and tangible feel about it in this app.
The Blu conversely, is designed to showcase a much different approach to what VR can do. This app is designed to really show what an awesome cinematic experience VR can provide and really demonstrate just how much graphical fidelity the VR platform can offer with the right system powering it. You can choose from 3 different scenarios, Reef Migration, Whale Encounter, and The Abyss. Guess which one I chose first? The next thing I know i'm in pitch black again, but I have small flashlight in my hand. I shine it around a bit to find that it appears that I have found myself inside if what looks to be a deceased whale's ribcage on the bottom of the ocean floor. I can see all of these tiny little debris (pretty sure this is the scientific name), bubbles, etc. floating right in front of my face, but not much else as visibility is at a minimum and rightfully so. As I slowly walked about, I had a very real sense of caution, after all, the bottom of the ocean isn't exactly known for being hospitable to most forms of life, and yet here I was. Expecting something vicious to jump out at me at any moment, I proceeded forward slowly, illuminating what little I could with my flashlight. It's kind of difficult trying to transcribe me feelings at this very moment into words, as this experience was very intense in a new way. Due to the sheer lack of light I was torn between wanting to explore and a genuine fear of something unknown jumping out at me to eat my virtual face off. I think there in lies the true paydirt of this experience. To have such a profound response to visual and audio stimuli, it really hit me how far of a leap this technology has made since my early encounters. While I don't want to spoil the rest of this encounter for anyone who has yet to try this (we highly recommend our gamers experience this in its totality), suffice to say that it gets much more awesome as it goes.
I could probably keep riffing on this for the foreseeable future, but I think this is good enough place to end. Before we depart I want to leave you with this impression, if nothing else. This technology has the potential to impact all of our lives in what were seemingly unreachable ways. The deeper I dive into this, the clearer the picture becomes. I believe that everyone, and I mean EVERYONE has a great deal to benefit from VR/AR/MR, however it shakes out. while our passion is and always will be gaming, it's a nice shot in the arm to know that this platform has nearly limitless applications to enhance our world and our lives.