Why I love and believe in virtual reality
I want to tell you about some of the places I’ve been in the past few months.
I do, allow me to describe what I see now. There is a large screen floating a few feet in front of me, and I’m composing this story in a very basic word processor to keep the rest of the Internet from distracting me. This screen, along with my invisible body, is floating in the depths of space. Typing is strange; I’m using hands I can’t see on a keyboard that doesn’t seem to exist.
It’s peaceful out here.
Where to go, and what to do
For the past hour or so I’ve floated in a space station above our planet, enjoying the view. In this program, “Weightless,” I use my hands to control my forward movement. By holding my hands in front of me, palms out, I float in whatever direction I’m pointing toward.
I can reach out and touch a few of the objects floating in space around me. Soft music plays in the background, and I float slowly this way and that, enjoying the simple joy of touching items and watching them spin away in zero gravity.
I’m using a Leap motion device strapped to the front of my Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 for hand tracking. I just need to hold up my hands in front of my virtual eyes and they appear. I twiddle my fingers and the illusion is complete.
The sensor has trouble tracking me from time to time, and the frustration of my brain telling my hands to do something they can’t is uncomfortable. I think I’m telling my fingers to move, and I can feel my “real” fingers move, but the virtual fingers sometimes stay put.
It works well enough, though; the illusion is effective. I can reach out and touch buttons, interact with objects or just float gently around the space station.
If I could, I’d invite you over to my little VR lab in my basement, where I’m surrounded by a few generations of Oculus Rift development kits, my Gear VR, a few haptic devices, wired controllers and wired and wireless headphones.
It’s impossible to describe the difference between playing Elite: Dangerous on a screen and physically sitting in the cockpit, easing your ship out of the dock with a flight stick and throttle, looking around to make sure you have clearance and you’re piloting your ship correctly.
Why this is important
This is the dream of virtual reality: the ability to feel as though you’re inside the game. This is the thrill of piloting my own spacecraft. In a few months I’ll fly to Iceland to play the latest build of CCP’s virtual reality dogfighting game, Eve: Valkyrie. I’ve played the latest build of the game for the past two years at the same show, and again at GDC. A few Games4Life writers tagged along during that appointment. One of them was shaking when he removed the Rift.
It’s strange to live in a future where the dream of becoming a fighter pilot in space is achievable using relatively inexpensive technology. If you ever wondered what it would be like to pilot a Viper as you watched Battlestar Galactica, you’re going to want to at least try Valkyrie.
One of my favorite “games” right now is Eden River. In it, I float down a river. I roll over flowers. Some things happen, but they’re pretty peaceful things. A bird may fly next to me, or fish may swim under me. It’s relaxing, and rather pretty. I spend a lot of time there.
The people who refuse to believe that Gone Home is a game are going to lose their minds when they hear about virtual reality flying experiences. There is no objective and no scoring system. You simply fly like a bird, in a variety of environments. It’s like lucid dreaming, and it’s easy to become addicted. I spend at least 30 minutes inside virtual reality every day.
It’s not all simple, quiet experiences, though. There is a demo called “Vox Machinae” that puts you inside the cockpit of a mech. You get to look around the cockpit for a bit before the level begins; you can lean your head in to take a closer look of the dials and readouts in the cockpit. Using your jump jets is a bit tricky — you get the sense that something this big and heavy wasn’t built to fly.
Being in this world, controlling your own mech, is a thrill that’s hard to describe in words. I was able to put a friend through this demo a few nights ago, and it was his first time in modern virtual reality. He looked around in wonder.
“This is going to change everything,” he said. All it takes is one good demo to convince most people that this is the future.
Close your eyes and imagine driving your own mech. The equipment available commercially at this point doesn’t get you 100 percent there, not yet, but 80 percent? Sure.
I feel the full height of my mech. When I land from a jump, I feel the shake in my chest through my haptic device. I look around to find my next target and then rake my lasers against its legs, taking it down.
This is everything I dreamed of as a child.
I understand why people are skeptical of this technology. The current headsets and devices can be tricky to set up and aren’t designed for a mainstream audience. The retail products will come later, and until then it’s hard for the majority of people to get a demo of any of this stuff, much less spend hours inside. I’m lucky to have an understanding wife and a job that’s willing to subsidize my obsession with this technology.
It’s only going to get better from here, and once people get a taste of the future, they’ll find it hard to leave. I recently played a demo that puts you inside the apartment of a Blade Runner-style cyberpunk character, and the space felt lived-in and real.
That demo’s designer, Blair Renaud, once told me he spends time inside the game and imagines living there. If this was his desk, where would he put his coffee?
Once you figure that out, you can make it feel like a real space. This is why his environments feel like actual places, to an uncanny degree.
There is a woman sitting in a chair in front of me. When I bend down and place my ear near her chest, I hear her heartbeat.
This is real, and it’s happening now
This sounds like science fiction, but this is the world virtual reality enthusiasts live in right now. This is why I became an evangelist for the tech and feel so passionately about it. Unless you know someone like me or have contacts in the industry, it can be hard to find out for yourself. But soon retail products will be released, and you can join me inside these worlds.
It’s only going to get better from here
It’s not a matter of being in love with technology, or the future; it’s a lust to try new things, to go to new places that would be impossible or prohibitively expensive to see in “real” life. I want to visit Mars. I want to explore the bottom of the ocean, and I want to fly. I want to hang out in space, and live inside the imaginations of other people.
Virtual reality is nothing but possibilities, and the developers working in this space seem to care about beauty and raw experience in a way that’s rare in traditional games.
I’m looking around my virtual office right now, floating in deep space. You’ll be here soon, and I can’t wait to hear what you think.