Monday, 19 September 2016
My Virtual Reality Experience
I was lucky enough to experience the HTC Vive recently (thanks to my friend Stuart!) and so I did a write-up about it for Forces Of Geek last month. Hope you enjoy it!
The first thought that ran through my mind once the headset had been safely attached was “I really need to work on my neck muscles” all those scarf-wearing years of my life were for naught.
Clearly | will need to start working on my deltoids and sternocleidomastoid if I’m ever going to keep up with technology. Fortunately for my friends office space and also my own safety, I also managed to stay upright at all times. Take that, gravity!
Fear of falling over and slight weightiness of the HTC Vive’s headset aside, as soon as I was immersed I had all but forgotten about that unusual top heavy feeling and the potential social embarrassment I might cause myself.
I really liked feel of the controllers and definitely appreciated their comfort, given I played solidly for several hours. The controls are easy to use and each one features a trackpad, side buttons and a trigger. Each game utilised the controllers in different ways but they remained incredibly intuitive.
I started by playing an underwater experience game developed by WEVR called theBlu. In the first scenario I was spawned into an ocean, on a ledge, looking down into the murky abyss below surrounded by shoaling fish.
Being the typical destructive human that I am, my first reaction was to swat at the fish. To my surprise, they reacted and swam away. So I began to look all around me and during a 180 degree turn, I was greeted by a large towering growth of coral.
It was pretty incredible but I was more intimidated than I expected to be. I’m not particularly great with heights and often find myself experiencing vertigo when I look up at tall buildings or down from a height.
The realisation that I was below land yet still quite high up unnerved me but I was soon distracted by hundreds of pink jellyfish floating toward me. After I had sated my need to swat wildly at some of them, I tried out another of theBlu experiences.
This time I was spawned on a shipwrecked boat at the bottom of the sea, it was quite dark but looking up I could see the light reflecting from the surface, as bits of debris drifted past my face I looked to my right and watched a turtle idly swimming by. In the headphones I suddenly heard something in the distance to my left. I turned and coming directly at me was a blue whale. The sheer scale of it was startling though I wasn’t scared by its size like thought I might be, rather I was in awe of it. I have seen life sized replicas of blue whales at the Natural History Museum but up seeing one up close, so life-like and swimming was incredible…until it got too close.
I wasn’t paying attention to the whales eye which had, unbeknownst to me, been looking directly at me. I turned to look ahead and was confronted by a huge eye glaring at me, a metre from my face. I stared back trying to hold its gaze but my flight instinct kicked in so I immediately turned away and tried to focus my attention on its tail. I think my actual words to my husband and our friend who were watching on the screen were “Oh…O…kay…I’m just gonna look over here at its tail until it swims away”.
Mildly freaked out but still reeling from how cool my encounter had been, I tried the third experience, which was in the pitch black, murky waters of the sea bed inside a whale carcass. I’m not exaggerating when I say pitch black, you can’t see a thing and you have to shine a torch to see anything. I’m not especially afraid of the dark but I’ve played enough survival horrors and if they’ve taught me anything it’s that pointing a torch into the darkness is risky business.
Immediately, I felt vulnerable and as I pointed my torch, I saw one of those weird, deep sea, translucent type fish. My marine biology knowledge is basically non-existent but we’ve all seen the nature documentaries, right? Those alien-looking, glowing life forms that dwell at the bottom of the ocean that we barely know anything about and will one day rise up and destroy us all? It was at this point that I had to be reminded by the guys that I could close my eyes if I needed to. Oh yeah…I can totally close my eyes. Weird how only 30 minutes of virtual reality can cause you to forget something so natural.
The next game I played was Waltz Of The Wizard, this was extremely fun. I spawned into a stone room with armour and weaponry on the walls and shelves full of old dusty books and potions. If you’ve ever played an Elder Scrolls game or watched any of the Harry Potter films and imagined you could recreate the potions and spells, you’ll know just how excited I was.
In front of me was a cauldron and numerous ingredients I could mix together. I felt like a great wizard alchemist, I experimented with some of the spell ingredients and created a transmutation spell, a fireball spell and various others. The fireball one was definitely my favourite, you could create a fireballs in your hand and throw them, which I did, multiple times. I then wondered if I could combine a fireball in each hand into a bigger one and let out my inner ‘Hadouken!’. I didn’t know if it would work but this game is definitely about experimentation so I tried and OH MY GOD IT WORKED! I felt pretty powerful, I was owning wizardry!
There were an assortment of snow globes on the table so I picked one up and shook it, it then played a tune which prompted me to play the same tune on a xylophone in the room. Once I got it right, a tear in the “reality” appeared and I opened it only to be transported away from my magical lair and onto a rickety, wooden bridge over a canyon…yeah…you remember earlier how I mentioned I don't do well with heights?
The guys who are watching on the screen, both screamed in unison (it would appear we are all scared of heights). Still, I tried to console myself that this wasn't real, that I was in a game and I’d recently learnt that I can close my eyes if I want to, so everything was fiiiiiine.
Careful to not look down, I turned 360 degrees but there was no portal back to the alchemy lab, remembering game mechanics, I wondered if I needed to do something first for it to appear, so I did the unthinkable, I looked down at the bridge I was standing on. There were gaps between the wooden rungs but I was concentrating intensely on looking at the grain on the wood so I wouldn’t see below. Upon one of the rungs was a stone and a coin. I slowly bent down (soooo slow…) and I picked up the coin. I then proceeded to drop it into the cavernous expanse below expecting to hear a clink at the bottom, there wasn't.
Of course there wasn’t.
As I turned back around to my starting position, I saw the portal appear but it was at a distance where I’d have to take a step forward and simulate stepping off the bridge to get to…I was about to pluck up the courage to do so but my feet wouldn't let me, instead I lent as far forward as I could on my toes with my arms stretched out so the controllers barely touched it. It was just enough, as I was then transported back. I felt like I’d tricked the game and found a way around what it wanted me to do, which again made me feel like a damn good wizard. Waltz Of The Wizard is definitely a game I’d like to explore some more, I barely scratched the surface. It’s incredible how real it felt and how my body reacted as though it were real, despite looking like a game.
As I am a huge fan of Portal and of Valve games in general, the next thing I tried was The Lab. This is Valve’s fun, exploration of Aperture Science Laboratories and features lots of mini games. While in the lab, you can take part in science experiments, explore the solar system, play with weapons, drones and even try to repair the Atlas and P-body robots from Portal 2. It has all of the inherent Portal charm and humour that you find in the games too, like finding mouldy cake in a drawer. I also had a run in with GLADoS too and her size was unexpected!
That’s the one thing about VR that has surprised me the most, it’s the sheer scale of everything, you can only move in a small space and have to use the controllers to point and transport you somewhere else in the space but there is just so much of it. The huge Aperture Science warehouse made me feel tiny (I’m 5’3” as it is!).
One of the things you could do in The Lab was explore the solar system close up, it’s a strange sensation seeing nothing but stars above or below you. I am a huge fan of space exploration and watching the stars so for me it was insanely cool. I walked around and looked at each planet, picking them up in my hand. Part of me started wondered if I’d freaked out humanity as I picked up Earth, I felt like a mischievous God. Then I remembered I wasn’t a God because I began doing that destructive human thing again, I threw planets into the sun, some of which bounced off and out of the solar system forever…my bad, I may have messed up the gravity of our universe.
After walking through the solar system and throwing Mercury into the sun to never be seen again, I left The Lab and tried out another game called Space Pirate Trainer and while I’m usually pretty decent at shooters, I was not good at this game. It’s a bit like an arcade shooter with each wave of enemies multiplying as the levels progress. The enemies in question were small flying robots and they shot at you continually, you had to dodge them while shooting back using one of two guns, a very cool looking laser gun and a hand gun, both of which were satisfying and a joy to shoot, the controllers did a great job at simulating the vibration and feeling.
If you got shot by one of the robots, you had a chance to dodge too because it had a Max Payne-esque, Matrix-style bullet time feature (albeit with a sci-fi futuristic twist). I think given more time, I could get better but I kept forgetting that technically, due to the headset the robots were actually shooting at my head so I had my aiming all wrong and found it hard to make the right adjustments. I’m not blaming the equipment or anything but…you know. It’s definitely a cool game though and one thats had lots of positive reviews.
The last thing I tried out was Google Tilt Brush, an art program which enables the player or artist to utilise a huge blank canvas in the form of a white expanse of space. You can move around the space by aiming your controller so anything you create, you can view from afar or alternatively, because the art you create is all 3D, you can walk around inside your artwork which is insanely cool.
I spent so long in this game and I could have easily spent a whole day in it. There are lots of different effects and brushes to choose from, you can even paint with electricity and if you play music while creating, the work moves with the beat. I usually struggle with a blank canvas, I can never think of what to draw or where to start my first brush stroke. Yet this was less intimidating, I didn’t draw anything in particular, instead I spent my time experimenting with all the different effects and colouring in the space in front of me and this is the result of one area of my ‘creation’:
Once I was eventually pried away from Google Tilt Brush by the promise of food, I took off the headset and it took a moment to adjust my eyes, luckily the room was well lit and I didn’t feel dizzy or nauseous. I don’t know why I expected to feel like that, but I’m glad that wasn’t the case. The headset had left marks around my eyes and on my forehead but they soon disappeared, I felt as though I had sunburnt my face and my head felt really light. Overall though, I was still buzzing from nearly 3 hours of feeling like I was in the matrix.
I really don’t have any prior experience to compare the HTC Vive to, it truly is one of those things that you have to experience for yourself, which may sound like an awful, aspirational, life-enhancing platitude but I assure you, it really isn’t. I dislike using the word ‘immersive’ as so many games writers and journalists throw it around heavy handedly when describing games that really aren't. Yet, it is immersive and I’m using that word legitimately because the very nature of VR technology is exactly that.
I have also tried out the Oculus Rift and though I remember thinking how novel it was at the time, I didn’t really see the full scope or potential the technology had. Admittedly this was many, many years ago at Eurogamer so I wasn't using their most recent VR headset, plus I only played Surgeon Simulator, a notoriously hard to play, unintuitive game which hardly demonstrated the full capability of the hardware.
My experience with the HTC Vive was such a step up from that and it makes me excited about the future, especially educationally speaking. I can see virtual reality being a great tool for training and learning. It might even be useful for people suffering from mental health afflictions, as a sufferer of anxiety myself, I certainly found Google Tilt Brush cathartic and could have spent many more hours in there.
In terms of gaming, however? I’m yet to see it as more than a novelty or a fad, a bit like motion controls. It’s still far too expensive for average gamers too and there are not enough games being developed for the technology…yet. Maybe in a few years time I’ll be writing exclusively about VR gaming? Until then, I implore you to try it out if you can. Even if it turns out to be a novelty, it’s a damn good one!