The virtual reality headset known as the Oculus Rift was the hit of every game show it was exhibited at in 2013. I fell for it myself last E3. Last week’s GDC showed that the industry is betting big on VR gaming, even as it dampened my own excitement for the technology.
EVE VR made a virtual believer out of me last summer. The space flight simulator has been renamed EVE Valkyrie and the demo I played at GDC now has me questioning the benefits of virtual reality. Unlike the E3 demo, Valkyrie was running on the newer HD model of the Rift. Also unlike the E3 demo, Valkyrie came very close to making me motion sick. I don’t know if the improved visuals made it harder for my senses to cope with what I was experiencing, although a different and much slower-paced HD demo did not make me feel ill at all back at E3. Perhaps it was my environment – at E3 I played EVE VR in a dark, quiet, sparsely populated room, whereas at GDC I was on the cacophonous, brightly lit show floor. They were in a rush to get people in and out of the demo, so perhaps I didn’t adjust my headset properly in the brief moment I was provided. All I know is spiraling through space was more unsettling and less invigorating than it felt back at E3.
I played another Oculus Rift game that quietly showed off virtual reality’s ability to surprise. Please Don’t, Spacedog was a goofy novelty at the Alt.Ctrl.GDC booth, and unlike most VR games the Oculus headset wasn’t the first thing I noticed about the game. That would be the original controller, which consisted of eight large buttons and eight knobs. I saw a virtual version of that same controller when I strapped on the headset, and had to recreate the button combos and knob spins that I saw on screen. That wasn’t the surprise, though. Every time I’ve played an Oculus game the person running the demo has repeatedly reminded me to look around the world and take in my entire environment. The Spacedog handlers didn’t do that, and when I finally remembered to look around a few minutes into my game I literally did a double-take when I saw a spacesuit-wearing dog as my copilot. It was in no way a secret—the word “Spacedog” is right there in the title—but the fact that the game didn’t hit me over the head with the awesomely cute spacedog to my left earned my respect while also showing there’s great opportunity for unexpected visual stimuli within the realm of virtual reality.
Outside the Rift Sony announced its own take on virtual reality last week. At the moment it’s called Project Morpheus, which makes me assume they only focus tested the headset with navel-gazing 90s teens. Morpheus immediately brings up three cringeworthy connotations — The Matrix, Sandman and a sleepy Greek god. Hopefully Sony will change the name to literally anything else before it actually exists in the real world. Even Sony FaceStation would be better.
It’s no surprise that Sony would develop their own VR hardware, but if there was ever a situation for hardware companies to set aside their desire for proprietary devices and collaborate with one another, it’s with virtual reality headsets. These things are both clunky and delicate, and will take up a decent amount of space in your entertainment centers or bookshelves. The thought of owning two (or three, when Microsoft inevitably announces their own) is something even the most devoted game fan with the roomiest of basements should blanch at. There could very well be technical issues preventing a universal headset, although both Playstation and Xbox controllers work on PC. If it is technically feasible to engineer an Oculus Rift that runs on both computers and consoles, it would be in everybody’s best interest for Sony to work with Oculus VR rather than against them.
I grew more bummed out about virtual reality throughout the week, but my final night in San Francisco rejuvenated some of my earlier optimism — and I didn’t even have to leave my bedroom. Ben Vance, the designer of Irrational Exuberance, brought his game to the Unwinnable Salon, an event that took over every room in the house I stayed at for the week. Irrational Exuberance felt like a virtual reality Proteus with an outer space setting. I wandered along asteroids with no clear direction or goal until I started to pick up on unspoken rules and possibilities, learning how to basically hover in space and manipulate the environment with my gaze. I was trapped in a world that was both indifferent to my presence and yet responsive to my whims once I realized how to maneuver within it. All the while music that was both soothing but intentionally glitchy pushed me forward. It was immediate and immersive in a way games rarely are. And then I kicked Vance and the final party stragglers out of my room and went to bed. There might be a future to virtual reality after all, but nothing beats a good night’s sleep, especially before a long flight in the real world.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games section. Dave & Buster’s killed virtual reality for him in 1994.
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