VR headset first impressions
It was in the middle of June this year. I had attended a WWE NXT show in Dublin and caught the late night bus back to Galway. I was sweaty and tired, ready to collapse into bed. Just as I started up the stairs one of my house mates ran into the hall and announced “I’ve got the Vive! You have to try it!”. It was 2am. It was 5am before I got to sleep.
I strapped the headset on, I plugged in the headphones and the controllers were placed in my hands, I was in. A lifetime of speculative fiction and technological false starts had promised me the moment that I’d be able to step into a computer generated environment. Tron supposed that a laser could somehow transfer your body into computer code and you’d be able to run around a neon computer-scape playing deadly frisbee. Star Trek gave us the dream of Holodecks and the Matrix gave us the nightmare of virtual enslavement. Ever since I was first introduced to the computer it’s seemed I’ve shared the same dream as many others, to somehow be able to leave reality behind and run around a computer generated environment. I learned pretty quickly though that running or even moving too much with current VR is a bad idea, too many wires.
At first I was standing in my kitchen, blinded by the plastic contraption I’d placed on my head. Then all of a sudden the screens placed directly in front of my eyeballs came to life. Off in the distance I could see the Vive logo, static above a ghostly purple mountain range. When I looked up I could see the planet earth, it was night time in Asia by the looks of it. The glowing bacteria of electrical infrastructure splayed over the visible landmass. Then I looked down to where my hands were supposed to be, but only saw the controllers hovering in mid air. There was a holographic video feed of the room I was actually standing in emitting from the side of the right controller, I was overwhelmed by the pure cool of everything and I was just idling in a load screen.
From there I was dumped straight into the Lab, a free VR showcase made by gaming industry titan’s Valve. Straight away it was messing with me in ways normal video games never had. During the title screen I was facing the wrong way so I had to turn around physically to see their branding. Just when I’d caught a glimpse of it my environment faded away and was replaced by the Lab itself. The Lab is one of the coolest places I feel like I’ve been in. The area I was given to explore was about 100 square feet. There was a dog at my feet, or rather where they should have been. Well, more like a robot that somehow looks like a dog but is actually a kind of cross between an old iMac and a slinky. The place was filled with interesting items, but one caught my eye straight away, a full sized arcade cabinet just like the ones I played as a kid. Instinctively I tried to walk towards it at which point my friend who actually owned the set up started shouting at me. In the real world I was about to drag the entire computer rig with me as I walked into the nearest wall. I then learned how people were getting around inside machines.
I always thought teleportation would be jarring and uncomfortable, turns out it’s really natural and having your walking simulated is the uncomfortable bit. You get a standard case of motion sickness which everybody knows isn’t pleasant. Teleporting around the room though is fine, you point with the controller where you want to go, push a button and you’re there. It just works. Once I’d got the hang of it I beamed myself over to the arcade cabinet. There it stood, while it wasn’t a recreation of any game in particular, it echoed many of the famous stand up machines I’d played in my youth. I almost wept.
I spent the next three or so hours going from gamings past to its future and was left very impressed indeed. The next day though when I was wandering around the real world I couldn’t help but think about the applications for computer technology that VR could make possible. In the horror games I’d played I was physically frightened in ways I’d never been before. In puzzle games I had to think in ways I’d never thought. It was actually just like my first introduction to computers, I had toys but here was a new way to play. VR could give us a new way to do everything.
The business of computer technology has always been propelled by innovation and I think we’ve constantly been humanising computers since their invention as a way to innovate and make them more user friendly. Apple designed the Macintosh to have a goofy cartoonish smile to remove the stigma of computers being cold, lifeless calculators. The mouse allowed us to point our computers in the right direction using a peripheral and then we removed the mouse altogether and just touched the screen with our fingers. The software we use is of course much the same but our relationship with it has become much more intuitive. Look at the amount of people who have adopted smartphones who previously would’ve been voluntary luddites, those scared of computers due to their previous complexity now carry powerful processors in their pockets because the technology was finally able to meet them on their ground. How many people are going to be willing to put on a headset and explore a new type of computing?
What excites me beyond the gaming aspect of VR is the applications that could be made possible through more practical uses. Could the next Mars rover be fitted with a 3d camera that can capture virtual spaces for us back on earth to explore?
Will crime scenes be captured virtually in their rawest sate, to be endlessly explored by investigators in a precinct building?
What will it mean for construction projects? Instead of looking at the promises offered by blue prints and models the people erecting tomorrows skyscrapers could be realised 1:1 now and explored fully. The thing that’s really exciting about all of this is how its possible now! Virtual Reality isn’t the technology of tomorrow anymore, its the technology of now. If a suitable user base exists our relationship with technology could change drastically in the next few years.
One of the major things I noticed during my initial experience with VR was how UI hasn’t quite caught up with the ambition of the rest of the software used. For the most part the menu systems etc were much the same as those you’d find on a desktop only manipulated in through different tools. For instance, the display appears a few feet away from you and is about head height. Instead of using a cursor you direct a solid beam of laser light at the button you want to interact with.
But there must be better ways to do all of the more mundane virtual tasks ahead. For istance, sorting through your documents? Is there a more satisfying way to do this through VR? Could we develop a more visually focused way of navigatin the reams of information we store on our own hard drives that would make traditional desktop computing seem a boring chore? How about using the internet? What would or should I saw could VR do to webdesign?
One thing that seems like a great fit is online shopping. Imagine an environment where you could inspect a virtual version of the item you were thinking of purchasing? Instead of relying on descriptions and photos, you could as good as hold the item you desire in your hands or at the very least see if it measures up to your expectations.
While many people might be thinking that computers are making people antisocial etc, really we’re just going through more growing pains of the way we interact with them. We break their limitations to bring them to our level. I think if VR can become a useful platform and integrate into the lives of its users it’ll be the most social and human generation of computing yet.