My first time seeing anything VR was at PAX Aus. I’m not sure which one, specifically, but one of them. And it was only from a distance because, as you could well imagine, the lines were way longer than anything I wanted to deal with at the time. I thought, ‘next year!’
Next year came and I did exactly the same thing, taking one look at the lines, and again thinking, ‘next year’. Predictably, this went on every year. Even when the lines were kind of short, I didn’t want to miss out on any other video game stuff because I have a policy of not waiting in any lines longer than 10 minutes.
And yet, my fascination with VR remained. I’d watch other people play it. I’d watch trailers for VR games. I’d hear stories of motion sickness and sigh wistfully to myself, wishing that were me throwing up all over my pets… And so, justifying it to myself as the ‘future of video games’ and ‘basically it’s like buying a new console, you’d spend that much on the next PlayStation.”
Agreeing with myself, knowing that, as usual, I was right, I hit purchase on Amazon’s listing of an Oculus Rift S. There were other choices, of course. The expensive Vive, the even more expensive thing Valve put out, cheaper options like Windows Mixed Reality, but I chose the Rift. Perhaps because it was the first Virtual Reality thing I ever saw, way back when, and even though Facebook bought it and I bet it will steal all the data directly from my brain, I couldn’t resist the allure of the Rift.
So, despite never having played a VR game in my life, I now waited eagerly for my Rift to arrive. The first thing, which is my fault more than anything, is that I had a Windows 7 machine and Oculus had ended support for Windows 7, so I had to upgrade. Fine. That’s all good. I’ll upgrade, I was going to anyway. Then I spent a week of troubleshooting various crashes and learning more than I ever wanted to about bugs, error codes, drivers, how to read detailed error dumps, and that the Rift software has a built-in repair function.
So now it was time to play it, error-free, I put the headset on. First I had to set my boundaries, to ensure I wouldn’t run into my desk and break something (I am still waiting for this to happen regardless). Then the actual virtual reality parts started.
The Rift has an utterly delightful little introductory video in full 360 3D. It tells you a little about it, encourages safe use, I don’t know, something like that, I wasn’t paying attention because seeing a fully 3D video is a weird experience. I think I’m not meant to let baby’s play it or something? Use the wrist straps? It’s fine.
The next part of the introduction was a small tutorial phase. This is where the true astonishment began as now I could actually interact with this new virtual environment. I was taught how to make various hand gestures using the Touch controllers which are, indicative of their name, super touch-sensitive. There’s a traditional shoulder trigger which can sense even the lightest of touches and is used to control the index finger, so I can point at things and push buttons, the control stick controls the thumb, and the side trigger controls the other three fingers. Combinations thereof can create various hand gestures, none of which are rude, which is kind of a waste of time.
Next was the final stage of the tutorial, First Contact, which acts as a sort of playground if that playground were in a large RV filled with old computer equipment and a real gosh darn cute robot. This was another level of mind-blowing, being in a physical environment now where I could interact with just about everything. The robot would recoil when I reached out a hand (I should have let it sniff me first), I could play with rockets, toy guns, ping pong paddles and balls, a whole range of things that are designed to show off how natural the Rift makes the VR experience, and how easy it is to become accustomed to it.
Which, after becoming used to the weird controller, it was super easy. Moving my hands around felt natural, even if the regular movement didn’t. Most games control player movement via teleportation, and I wondered why this was the case. VRChat offered regular movement, I took it and quickly found out the reason for teleportation is because motion sickness is a thing. So, VR still has a few kinks to sort out in terms of how to make every aspect feel more natural.
Though the upside of this is that standing or sitting in place, anything else is really good. Beat Saber showed the accuracy and just how frantic the VR experience could get, while titles closer to traditional gaming reinvented, like Moss, the story of a small mouse destined to do great things. It was enchanting, controlling the character, whilst also having a direct impact on the environment by being able to touch it. Being able to lean forward and around, to see every angle of the level in order to look for secrets and pathways forward.
The Touch controllers for the Rift also came bundled with two free pieces of software showing off the artistic capabilities, one for 3D sculpting, and one for 2D painting and animation. It takes a long time to get used to create in a 3D space, but it’s like nothing I’ve done before, and even just seeing other people’s finished works (which can be downloaded through the app) is an absolute treat.
But at the end of the day, I had the capability to sit in a room at a computer, wearing a headset that showed me sitting in a much nicer room on a hillside somewhere, still looking at my computer, and typing on a pretend keyboard using the goofy index finger point motion. It’s a slow, awkward and magical process.
It’s clear that VR is becoming more accessible, though perhaps slowly, and big developers are also just as slowly starting to come around to the idea as well. And after being fully immersed in a dodgy downtown bar watching Nappa from Dragon Ball Z singing really bad Sia karaoke, I have to say, this is exactly the kind of future I envisioned.