VR: Virtual Heaven, or Virtual Hype?

There’s been a lot said about Virtual Reality (VR) recently, and with good reason.

It’s been hailed as the future of immersive entertainment, but also, if pop culture is to be believed, the harbinger of doom.

So lets look at this a little. I was reading Janet Murray’s book recently, and according to her we have this simultaneous fascination with technology, and a fear of it. In relation to VR, one of the many examples of this that Murray uses is that of the holodeck. For those of us like myself who grew up with Star Trek: The Next Generation, the holodeck was always a source of fascination. And it’s no coincidence that the loading screen of the HTC Vive situates the player in a black room with yellow gridlines, in emulation of the now-iconic representation of the holodeck in this cult sci-fi series.

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With this fascination with the new tech however, there is also something uneasy that comes with it. If we think back to Star Trek: TNG, there were always those episodes where the holodeck malfunctioned, meaning the user couldn’t exit, or (gasp) could be hurt within the simulation. Realistically though, using our current VR technologies (apart from self-inflicted damage by face planting a wall, hitting yourself with a controller invisible in the game world, or slight neck problems due to the 10kg electrical equipment attached to your face) you will probably be ok .

But could we potentially be hurt in one of these VR simulations, and not just by our face hitting the wall, but really, mentally hurt?

It’s these types of concerns that really manifest in popular culture. As Janet Murray asks, “Would the power of such a realized fantasy world destroy our grip on the actual world?” Is VR really as “dangerous and debilitating as a hallucinogenic drug?” According to Charlie Brooker’s new Black Mirror episode, Play Test, there are very real fears that this may be the case.  This episode (most excellently) plays upon this fear we have of such technologies – in that we may begin to lose track of what is real and what is virtual. And this isn’t a new idea that has cropped up specifically in relation to VR – the Matrix springs instantly to mind, though the films also suggest that our reliance on machines produces subservience to them though our ignorance. And as Cypher, the antagonist in the matrix says to Agent Smith when he’s asking to be reinserted into the Matrix,

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This then, is perhaps is a different fear that has manifested, in that it is not so much that we will become ignorant of what is real  and what is virtual, but maybe that despite our knowledge of both, we may actually prefer the one that isn’t real. I imagine not so much for the main character in the Playtest episode of Black Mirror,  but certainly so for Cypher in the Matrix. But as Janet Murray so rightly asks, “who hasn’t wanted to jump into the pages of their favourite book, or daydreamed of being part of the world represented on screen?” Except now we are essentially able to do so, and also with our favourite game title.

Where do I sign?

But it’s certainly important to note that it’s not all fun and games in reality. Another fear that VR has (once again) brought to the forefront in gaming is the potential for players to act immorally, where there have already been multiple news reports from the Guardian and the New York Post, amongst others, about sexual harassment or assault occurring with women players using the tech.

*Sigh*

There is also the Japanese-produced Illusion VR sex suit, designed to “make masturbation more futuristic….”, something that isn’t necessarily immoral per se, though it does make one feel a little uneasy about some of the development directions that this technology is going in.

But again, these fears are hardly something new. One only has to remember the controversy surrounding Grand Theft Auto (GTA) and the potential ‘immorality’ that could be exhibited by players when, for example, the avatar could sleep with a prostitute in the game only to kill them and steal back the money from their digital corpse. This is especially true with the first person version of GTA V, where you could do this with the player in first person viewing position, instead of the third person – giving the clear distinction that the player is “I” carrying out this act, as opposed to the character, or “he”. Is the problem with the Illusion VR suit that the hardware stimulates the player in addition to the visuals that are intended to be stimulating – which indeed is their only real function, unlike in GTA where this particular first person perspective with a woman is a small (and optional) part of a much larger and complex world?

Maybe.

Maybe it’s just that the Illusion VR is a tech-enhanced version of a sex doll, and sex dolls are just a bit creepy.

However, the fact of the matter is, in detailed virtual worlds when you know that the non-player characters (NPCs) within the game aren’t real people, who hasn’t tested the boundaries of what is permissible in the world? If no one gets hurt, and this isn’t the way players will go on to act in real life, what exactly is the problem? Just because GTA allows these behaviours doesn’t mean the game condones it. If you shoot people the police chase you. ‘Bad’ actions are punishable, and laws are still enforced in the game.

Having spent some time watching the new HBO series Westworld recently, the problem only really seems to arise when the NPCs (“hosts”) are indistinguishable from the players (or “guests” in WW’s terms) – they are “too real” – it’s not clear that they are an NPC as they are too much like a real person. [It’s also that they actually become sentient and aware of their ill treatment by the humans who enter the world, so people are actually getting hurt, but I digress]. Although it doesn’t specifically market itself as VR or a game in the traditional sense, Westworld replicates all the essential features of a videogame world: players/guests can’t die and they undertake quests (or narratives) while they’re in the world.

It seems pop culture has a long – and continuing – relationship with these fears, though to a degree that is in the realm of science fiction more than contemporary VR. But with this arguably amazing new technology, everyone is always so eager to focus on the good things – the potential that the medium offers, ignoring the bad things, which is why I have focused on them in such detail here. Hopefully you don’t feel too negative about VR, because of the influence of pop culture on my personal perceptions of its potential issues. Because all these things being said: it is a wonderful and amazing thing that we now have access to, and I admit – I was absolutely blown away when I tried it for the first time, as I believe were many of the attendees to our most recent games night where we had the opportunity to play both the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive.

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Two intreptid VR users.

On the surface, it appears that there is little difference between the two platforms, though having played them both and if considered in more depth, there are actually quite a few. Currently, the Rift’s VR controllers haven’t been released, meaning that you have to use an XboxOne controller (or racing wheel, etc) to actually play and affect things in the gameworld. In contrast, the Vive’s controllers were released with the headset, and actually being able to see your digital hands and their effects upon the gameworld certainly made for a better experience for nearly all of our attendees. This aside however, it will be interesting to see how the Rift’s VR controllers measure up when they are finally released in December.

The headsets were also slightly different. The Rift has built-in headphones which easily flip down over your ears in a pleasing way, whereas the Vive requires separate wired headphones. Although the separate headphones don’t really impact upon your VR experience directly, it does mean that you can get a bit tangled in wires at points, especially given that both VR headsets are still currently tethered by wires. In terms of the visual aspects of the headsets themselves, the Rift is apparently supposed to have a crisper image, but I can’t say we noticed too much of a difference, where some of our attendees actually found the Rift to be a bit blurrier (though there could be many reasons for this).

Though what we did notice with the Rift headset was that it didn’t seem to fit our faces as well as the Vive headset did, in that there was an air-gap between the headset and the nose, meaning you could see (and had a constant reminder of) the physical environment instead of becoming completely immersed in the virtual one. And just for the record, my nose is not insignificant (having been called “Roman” on occasion), so I can only imagine this effect may be compounded on those with a lesser nasal capacity than I possess. I find this really problematic, as after spent a few minutes using the Virtoba, a budget version of VR that uses you’re a smartphone, I found the headset fit my face better than the Rift did in that there was no nose-gap, despite the Rift retailing at an, ahem, significantly higher price. Granted – the visuals were nowhere near as good – of course they were never going to be.

But if Virtoba managed to nail this aspect for £19.99, why couldn’t the Rift?

We also found that some of our users who were more prone to motion sickness found this to be more pronounced when they used the Rift than when they used the Vive, possibly due to the differences in the shape of the lenses. I had the opportunity to use an earlier iteration of the Rift a couple of years ago, and found I was feeling incredibly nauseous almost as soon as I used it. Though with the newer versions with the much higher frame rate of the image, I have personally found this to be much better, except when using the rollercoaster (aka nausea) simulators, or particularly “swooshy” games involving lots of visual movement. These elements of nausea that some participants had is actually symptomatic of the power of our visual perception over the rest of our body. It was interesting to hear one of our attendees, after spending some time at the top of a (virtual) mountain, exclaim when they took off the VR headset: “Now I’m safe”. Because you still get the feeling of vertigo that you might from being at the top of a mountain, or a building, even though you know that you are not. It seems even if your mind is well aware that you are in a simulation, the body doesn’t quite seem to grasp it.

So what does VR offer, regardless of platform? Complete and utter immersion, in the words of one of our attendees, in “any world or situation that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to recreate…. In the most realistic form possible”. There is another side to this immersion however, and that is that you are completely dissociated from your physical environment – which can be a bit disconcerting, though I think it is necessary. To give the experience its immersion, you have to be able to put the physical environment to the back of your mind.

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Be sure to maintain awareness of your surroundings when using VR equipment.

The potential of the tech though is literally limitless – for education, science, business, medicine, entertainment, sports, history…….. the list could go on forever, and I can’t help imagining what I would like to see developed for it. Imagine being able to stand next to Leonidas as one of his 300 Spartans while they fight the Persians, using the controllers as swords or bow and arrows, in a “survive the waves: hoard mode”. Or being Arya Stark within Game of Thrones, sneaking around and planning her revenge, in a stealth type game. Or Napoleon at Waterloo – how could he have won the battle that we know was his most famous loss? I could go on all day…. but instead I’m going to use this time to have a think about where I would have enough space to set up VR, and perhaps more importantly, when I can afford to buy one.

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