Adventures in Flatland: PSVR and Me

It feels like the last three months or so has been nothing but news about virtual reality finally becoming actual reality. First the Oculus Rift finally shipped (if you launch a piece of hardware but don't actually fulfill any orders, does it make a sound?), then the HTC Vive released, followed by Sony's E3 keynote which made it clear they're all in on VR as well. I've been admittedly down on VR for a long time, personally. Part of it is limited experience - I tried an Oculus dev kit at Boston FIG back in September, but it didn't really do anything for me. In fairness, the software I was trying wasn't particularly exciting, and the headset kept nudging my glasses enough to break the immersion. Even beyond that, though, it feels like VR is a promise that's been made for as long as I've been aware of technology.

I remember first looking at colleges in Boston in the mid-90s and coming across an internet cafe called CyberSmith that had Dactyl Nightmare set up in the foyer. I didn't try it then, but I desperately wanted to. Obviously, that wasn't to the level of what we have today, but it's been two decades since I was first confronted with the possibility of strapping goggles onto my face and entering another world, and the closest that I've gotten until now is the 3DS.

This was cutting edge VR technology in 1995.

This was cutting edge VR technology in 1995.

So after hearing all the hype and the stories of wonder and magic, it was announced that Sony would be conducting demos of Playstation VR at Best Buy and Gamestop following E3. I decided it was time to give VR a fair test on hardware that was intended to be released to the public. So I got in the car and drove to a Best Buy(!) in Worcester(!!) to finally experience the future for myself.

I'll say, in terms of product demonstrations conducted at Best Buy, this was one of the better ones I've experienced. I've been to Nintendo's collaborations with Best Buy to demo Super Smash Bros and Super Mario Maker, and those ranged from slow to utter fiasco, with long lines snaking around the store, a single hardware station that needed to be rebooted, and longer than necessary demo periods. This demo had a reasonable line that moved fairly consistently, with a Sony employee who knew the technology well, the demos were ready to go ahead of the start time, and he made sure to wipe down all the equipment in between each demonstration.

The excitement to try the unit was palpable from the few people in line ahead of me. The two people immediately in front of me had driven from Albany to Worcester just to try PSVR, and filmed each other on their phones as they played. From chatting with them in line, I learned that they had apparently made similar treks for Oculus and Vive demos. I was honestly starting to believe the longer I waited in line, watching the 2D representation of what the demo participants were playing on the TV in front of them.

There were a handful of game demos on hand, including Battlezone (a tank sim), SuperHyperCube (a puzzle game), and soccer and ocean diving simulations, but the only game anyone chose to play (myself included) was Eve: Valkyrie, which is a space combat game in the vein of the classic X-Wing games. As I waited in line, I saw the cadence of the demo repeatedly: The headset was put on and calibrated, the participant looked around the cockpit, then launched into space and chased enemy starships for about three minutes until the glass of the cockpit cracked and the screen faded to black, indicating that the demo period had ended. Everyone who tried it seemed to be impressed afterward; my new two friends in line in particular were especially blown away. Finally, it was my turn. I put on the headset, had it adjusted for blurriness, and, well...

I wasn't really impressed.

The game did everything as advertised. It definitely presented me the world that I was seeing on the television in front of me, and I was able to look around at any angle freely, and there was depth there. The problem was, I couldn't get past the fact that I could still see the pixels. Like, really see the pixels. Some of the text on the HUD was hard to read at times. And I couldn't really shake the feeling that what I was seeing wasn't as much real as it was projected on a dome in front of me. As the game ramped up in intensity, I started to feel my stomach lurching a bit. It wasn't bad enough that I wanted out; it wasn't even really as bad as a tame rollercoaster like Big Thunder Mountain Railroadat Disney World. The feeling was noticeable and uncomfortable, though, and it was one more thing to take me out of the suspension of disbelief.

Not quite my reaction.

Not quite my reaction.

Really, what struck me when the demo ended was that it felt like that five minutes was enough for me; I didn't want to go back for more. It felt, at least to me, like PSVR wasn't quite there yet to create that illusion of reality that's enough to get you to suspend disbelief and immerse yourself in another world. It's entirely possible this has something to do with me and my ability to perceive VR, though; my experience didn't seem to be the norm (unless the people in front of me were being exceptionally polite) and I've heard from others since that they were really impressed by the technology. In fact, my experience seems so out of line with what others have reported that I've even questioned if I did the demo "the right way". I can only trust my own experience, though, and based on that, I'll probably be saving my $400 come October.

I think what it comes down to is that VR ultimately asks a lot more than any other gaming technology (or technology in general) of the people investing in it. It asks a considerable amount of money, sure; you're looking at minimum $400 for the headset plus whatever PC or PS4 hardware and peripherals that you may not already own just to be able to power it up. More than that, though, it asks you to cut yourself off from the outside world to experience it. You can't share these experiences with other people in the room in real time, nor can you experience VR passively or while multitasking; it demands your full attention to the exclusion of literally everything and everyone else, and that can be difficult to find time to provide. Putting that headset on effectively says to everyone else in the household, "I'm cutting myself off from everything else in the world, you included." I'm already well aware of how much we do that with screens that we hold in our hands that I'm not sure if I'm ready to take that to the level of introducing a sensory deprivation helmet into the family, especially when cost and technical limitations limit one to a single headset.

The biggest thing VR asks for, though is a considerable amount of faith that the content is going to continue to come. I still remember both the Wii and Kinect launches and how blown away we all were by the games that were available at launch and the different experiences they enabled; I also remember how quickly those streams of content dried up in the year or two following those launches. Assuming VR catches on like the common wisdom says it will, investing in VR as a whole may not be a gamble, but investing in any individual VR rig could very well be. The current landscape looks like VHS/Betamax or Blu-Ray/HD-DVD all over again, only with three major players instead of two, and that's an incredibly costly investment in a platform that could very well lose out in the marketplace as technology converges.

So ultimately I'm not ready to make that leap yet. Based on my experience with PSVR, I'm not convinced that virtual reality is at the point where I'm ready to jump in head first. Maybe trying the Vive will convince me. Maybe the technology just needs to come down in price some more. Maybe my eyes or my brain just don't work the way they need to for VR to ever work for me, and I'm just going to be stuck playing flat games for the rest of my life. It's hard to say right now. All I know is that I've seen what Hearthstone looks like in VR, and I'm OK with playing it on a flat screen for a while longer if that's what's meant to be.