Last month I visited my brother in Canada, where he is doing his PhD. As part of his research he spends time working with Virtual Reality. He was kind enough to show my girlfriend and I around his lab and he even let us try on the Oculus Rift that he uses for work, demonstrating for us several applications which showcase some of its functions.
Generally, I’m a pretty sceptical person, and I tend to be particularly cynical about digital technologies which merely replicate analogue functions on a digital device. Like e-readers, for example. So I wasn’t especially excited about using the Rift. But when I tried it on, I was blown away.
The headset itself was comfortable, lightweight yet solid and substantial. Really, I suppose the best thing to say about it is that it’s easy to forget you’re wearing it, or at least not to focus on it. Instead, you can devote your attention to whatever you are seeing in front of you… and beside, above, and below you. All around you, in other words.
Wearing the Oculus Rift really felt like a novel and exciting experience. The three simulations we looked at included a sedate cafe interior; a play-through of the beginning of Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker; and a scene set at the bottom of the ocean. Each was remarkable in its own way.
The cafe scenario was intriguing, with a well-designed setting and a… very attractive lady sitting opposite you. The novelty of turning your head and absorbing your surroundings in VR is quite something and it’s easy to spend a lot of time just doing that. One of the first things I did was reach out to try and pick up the cup of coffee in front of me. Nothing happened but I understand motion technology is one of the next things they are working on. You know in those really beautiful video games like Skyrim where sometimes you just stop and look around for ages to take in what’s going on around you? This was like that, except just in a cafe.
Imagine playing Skyrim with one of these things on. That would be something.
Wind Waker was sensational. I never played the game, but I’m familiar with its famously beautiful graphics. My brother moved Link around using the keyboard while I just looked around and took in the surroundings. You notice so many more details this way than when you’re playing on TV, like gulls flying overhead, small animations on the characters, leaves moving in the wind. Again, just looking around in this magical setting felt like an utterly joyous experience. There was one point as Link walked through a bush that I literally expected the leaves to brush past me and practically felt them do so. It was an incredible experience and the closest thing I can compare it to was the feeling I had when I first played video games 25 years ago. The experience felt completely fresh and endlessly exciting. I never thought a video game would feel like that again.
The last of the three programmes was underwater. This was quite beautiful as well, but the overriding sensation I had was fear. This simulation included a number of sharks swimming around. Even though my brother told me they wouldn’t attack, the first time I saw a shark I stopped still, took my hand off the keyboard, and wrapped both arms around myself. I sat like that for some time, scared to move. I interpreted this as an instinctive prey reaction and it was really quite powerful and unsettling. My brother had warned me there was another creature that would attack if I ventured too close, and eventually I refused to continue.
Now, I have spent thousands of hours playing horror-themed video games and watching horror movies. But here, just a shark swimming around was enough to terrify me. Seeing this on the TV would have been nothing, but seeing it in VR was completely different.
My brother took over from me and did foolishly seek out the aforementioned beast. We couldn’t see what he was seeing, but after a couple of minutes there was a brief audio cue, after which my brother screamed and bent his head over into the recovery position, hammering away with his finger on the keyboard’s ‘Escape’ key.
If I every play a horror game wearing one of these things I’m pretty sure I’ll have a heart attack.
So, just based on this short encounter, in my opinion, this technology has enormous potential. The variety of potential applications for education and entertainment seem staggering. For once I think the hype is justified and I expect to be reading a lot more about these sorts of products and experiences in the next couple of years.