Back to Life, Back to Virtual Reality
Virtual Reality, a concept that has been widely explored in fiction with the likes of the Holo-deck aboard the Starship Enterprise, the Better Than Life AR simulator in Red Dwarf and who can forget whatever it was that ExiztenZ was supposed to be about? At times VR in films has looked nothing short of ridiculous particularly in Johnny Pneumonic and Demolition Man. Combined with the perhaps ironic fact that VR wasn’t really being explored in reality it seemed like the idea of entering a three dimensional world from the comfort of our living rooms was destined to remain in fiction forever.
That said there have been some attempts to bring this sci-fi phenomenon to us and no device stands out more than The Nintendo Virtual Boy released in 1995 and discontinued in under twelve months in 1996. The red-lined unconvincing goggle-stand was Nintendo’s second least selling release. It was a dark day for VR and after ’96 the idea of VR becoming AR seemed all but dead.
That was until 2012 when a company that had existed for around two months launched a Kickstarter campaign for the Oculus Rift virtual reality system. The campaign proved a success and raised over $2.5 million dollars to be able to develop the device. It was going to be beautiful, a real life convincing VR system with open source availability to allow developers across the world create their own software. Then Facebook bought it so we can forget all about it, forget it, forgotten? Good.
However before Corporate greed and greasy little blue-thumbed hands could buy the company out the campaign and the publicity behind it served as a catalytic re-awakening in the technology world that, maybe, VR was possible. After all technological advancement has rocketed since the mid 90s. This got companies working again to create something new and exciting, let’s face it the tech-market today is boring and repetitive. All that happens now is phones get more complicated and have more numbers in the title and are sold as beauty products to insecure people who need to update their selfy-device every month. The VR AR race had begun, it was time to scramble the boffins and re-imagine a long forgotten concept.
In 2014 one of my favourite game developers announced that they were working on a prototype. I’m talking of course about Valve who were co-researching and co-developing what was later unveiled as the HTC Vive. Valve are perfectionists when it comes to crafting great games and great hardware, at least this is what I say to re-assure myself when I question when the f*%k are we going to get Half Life 3?
When Mr. Pokeylope, my long-term friend, dedicated gamer and tech fanatic told me that he had pre-ordered the HTC Vive I found it difficult to stop thinking about what it was going to be like. Apart from going into one of those back-of-a-lorry simulators that you used to see everywhere I have never had a VR experience but then I realised that I was one of many people who haven’t experienced something which has never really existed – go figure.
On the day of its arrival I headed to Mr. Pokeylope’s secret cave to assist in assembling the incredible new piece of equipment. At around £750 including shipping we couldn’t afford to make a mistake. The kit comes with two sensors that can be wall-mounted, they were easy enough to put up but you do need to make sure that you can reach plug sockets as they both need adapters. The quality of the sensors, the wires, just everything is fantastic, even the box is beautiful and sleek. As we unwound the cable ties we could sense that this was going to be a special experience.
The biggest issue for us was that Mr. Pokeylope’s internet hadn’t been installed yet and so we were relying on a 4G dongle to make it through the installation process. This took some time but with patience and chocolate we survived and were then met with the setup screen. The device requires you to mark a perimeter with one of the gyroscopic controllers to map out your play area. As long as you remember where this play area is you shouldn’t come into contact with anything, when you’re in the VR world you can set it up so that there is a thin laser like veil to signify your play area ensuring you don’t walk into walls or trip over furniture.
One of the concerns we’ve heard regarding the HTC Vive is how much space you need for a decent enough play area. We measured it up and Mr Pokeylope’s play area is around 2×2 metres, we wouldn’t suggest going smaller than this but it’s a pretty small space and it doesn’t make playing anymore difficult. Honestly, once you’re in there you’ll forget all about your environment.
The evening we set it up we got straight into it and in anticipation of the Skynet LAN last weekend Pokeylope purchased a set of recommended tripods so that we could test its portability and ease to setup in larger environments. Prior to the LAN we gave it a test run at Shonk HQ and even upped the ante by using a different computer altogether. Again it was largely easy to setup and the tripods proved reliable. That night Wellard, The Shonk’s version of Karl Pilkington came over completely unsuspecting of what we had in store for him.
So far I’ve only played a handful of games but I’ve also witnessed a good twenty people all experience VR for the first time with The Vive. It’s completely and utterly mind blowing!
After the initial setup I popped the futuristic headgear on and I went from Pokeylope’s dimly lit cave into a brightly lit enormous dome-like room that looked like it was in the Aperture Science Lab. Little 2D men wandered about in the distance, making notes on my movements and occasionally nodding to one another, in my hands I had the two controllers and in the VR world they had different buttons on them, allowing me to create different coloured balloons and firing them off into the vast room. You could tap the balloons around with your hands and the motion was realistic and organic. Balloons that had drifted away could be shot down with a laser beam, the vibration feedback system in the controllers made it feel like I was really firing a laser at balloons.
I also had a try-out at Holo-point a game that throws you in a Dojo like building and makes you work! As holographic cubes appear from EVERYWHERE you have to physically reach behind you to get an arrow and physically load it up into your bow. The controllers are no longer controller shaped and you genuinely believe that you have a bow and arrow in your hands. The aim is to fire at the holographs before they fire shards back at you, if they do you need to dodge those shards fast. Pokeylope is the only one of us to make it as far as level 32 and it is exhausting. As you dodge the shards you can literally hear them flying past your ear, you realise at this point that you are the player, there is no rough hit zone, it is you.
A few of us realised that even though you accept the virtual environment and react to it accordingly the gamer in you still feels like you’re controlling another character, for a while we felt restricted in our movements as we would be if we were playing a conventional game. You need to get over this issue quickly because otherwise you’re going to get fragged up big time.
At Shonk HQ Mr. Pokeylope eagerly handed me the headset and send me into a game called The Cubicle. It seemed innocuous enough, I was stood in an office cubicle with normal office things around me, a photo of my family, a mug, a stapler, a printer etc… behind me were two different coloured filing cabinets, black and red. Occasionally the printer would issue a file and according to it’s colour I was required to put it into the appropriate filing cabinet. Simple.
Then it all went tits up, class A trippy as the walls fell away, the cubicle sunk into the ground, giant folders flew across my head and I was left standing on a platform floating through an endless space of folders and files. My knees buckled as I glanced over the edge of the platform, I found my balance failing me as I looked up in awe at the enormous folders casting fierce shadows onto me as they drifted past. I crouched, reaching out for the floor, some sort of anchor to assure myself that I wasn’t going to fall to my death.
Then I was back in the office, everything was as it was at the start. Then it ended.
If you ever have the chance to go on a Vive I implore you to play The Cubicle before anything else, as basic as the concept of the game is it transports you terrifyingly through the power of the Vive and its ability to trick your brain.
The range of games are already broad with more being developed and existing games being modified for VR use including GTA5. Games like Budget Cuts which take you on a tense, brain using survival strategy through a network of robot ridden corridors. Or the absolutely stunning music-rhythm-hitting-things-with-coloured-shields work-out dance-a-thon Audioshield. Not only are you ranked on your ability to hit oncoming orbs with shields but it also rates you on your artistic performance during your game.
The demo for The Brookhaven Experiment is bone-chillingly terrifying for a zombiphobe like myself but I still managed to complete it. I genuinely thought that I was going to have a heart attack when Mr. Pokeylope grabbed me as I was shooting holy hell out of the undead! You’re required to master the art of being able to hold and operate a torch and a pistol at the same time, this has always been so simple in gaming land, now, not so simple!
Although I haven’t tried it out yet I have witnessed the Minecraft world through the eyes of a VR player, the idea that you can wander around The Minecraft world is very exciting to me. I’ve heard that there are already MC servers supporting multiple VR players so that you can build together as a team and explore the world and slay Creepers and live there forever!
Watching people at the LAN enter the VR world for the first time was hilarious, people awkwardly stepping about with their arms stretched out trying to establish where they are and what’s going on. Some people were quick to get into the swing of things and embraced the new world around them, others buckled their knees and almost grabbed the genitals of passers by as they attempted to kill aliens. The entertainment value of watching someone else play it justifies some of the cost at least.
In terms of value it is an expensive piece of equipment and you need another expensive piece of equipment to run it smoothly and you need an expensive catalog of games to enjoy. It’s not something that an everyday individual would buy but if you are a hardcore gamer with a good income it certainly is worth considering. Now that the technology is available we can re-build the once theoretical and mocked VR concept and turn it into a revolutionary gaming platform, in fact it has already begun, so let’s embrace it.
The entertainment factor is where the value comes in. the fact that this is a totally new way to enjoy media, video games and simulators, by actually becoming the character instead of controlling someone else. The fourth wall has been broken and we’ve walked right over it and into the realm that was always restricted by a t.v or monitor.
Today we’re shooting holograms, before long we’ll be walking through Morrowind, saying merry-day to orcs and slaying beasts with our hands, all in the comfort of our living rooms. Like any gamer, I can’t wait for that day. Here’s to seeing what the future of VR is going to bring, I’m telling you now that I’m keeping an eye on the sex industry because when that door opens it’s going to change the world…again!