Sunday, December 31, 2017

Thoughts from a new VR player

We got a Vive for Christmas. Here are a few scattered thoughts about the current state of virtual reality after a week of play.
  • As I've gotten older, I've noticed I'm getting much more prone to motion sickness in games -- I just can’t handle very long sessions of shooters like Wolfenstein and Serious Sam without frequent breaks.However, I was surprised to discover that VR games mostly don’t make me sick.
  • This is because VR developers have mostly figured out that motion sickness comes from motion. That is, it’s bad to have your visual sense tell you that you’re moving around, while your inner ear tells you you’re standing still. To address this, VR games either mostly take place in a single location, or handle movement very cautiously.
  • For example, “I Expect You To Die” is a spy game with comedy elements, which contrives a bunch of situations where you are trying to escape a bunch of death traps sitting in a chair. One level has you trying to drive a car out a plane. Another has you trying to communicate with a contact from a hijacked train. Another seats you behind a desk in a supervillain’s lair, hunting for hidden information.
  • For another example, there’s Serious Sam: The Last Hope. I love Serious Sam titles, and they’ve traditionally been fast paced run and gun shooters with ridiculous waves of constant enemies. But TLH is basically a shooting gallery. They dump you in an environment like an ancient temple or a canyon, and you pick a weapon to wield in each hand. Enemies charge at you or fire projectiles that can be shot down, so you just stand in this virtual space and try to hit things before they kill you.
  • For games and environments that require you to explore, a typical strategy is to let you point at places on the floor and press a button to teleport there. When a game does allow free movement, there is often a “comfort mode” available, which restricts your vision to a very small tunnel until you stop moving.
  • This is all very cool and clever. It feels really neat to be surrounded by a massive 3D environment and feel like you’re in a video game. However, it’s also a tiny bit disappointing that it’s not like scenes from “Ready Player One” for instance, where you’re just moving around like a regular person. You can’t actually go anywhere without bumping into walls.
  • One of the other really fun aspects of VR is when a game makes you do fiddly things with your body or your handheld controllers. I Expect You To Die puts you in situations where you have to play around with switches and levers, lets you levitate things telekinetically, and sometimes makes you duck and throw things. In Serious Sam, Besides letting you dual wield and aim shotguns and rocket launchers -- which is already super cool -- there’s also a sniper rifle that you actually hold up to your eye with two hands, an exploding bow and arrow that you have to draw back, and a sword that blasts laser waves when you swing it. Superhot lets you physically dodge bullets in slow motion, and punch enemies. That’s all awesome.
  • Besides games, there’s a whole lot of support for other interesting environments. YouTube has a VR section with videos frequently filmed by people who have a 360 degree camera. Google Earth VR is downright awe inspiring -- you can hover over a mountain, or see the whole Earth as a giant map in your face, with horizons above and below you. It’s fun to turn comfort mode OFF and actually pretend to fly around like Superman. But again, that motion sickness is a constant threat.
  • Also, some “games” are just brief, mildly interactive experiences, which is still quite entertaining. There’s nothing quite like getting personally murdered by the huge looming face of GLaDOS from Portal, or waving a light around a dimly lit area full of creepy knick knacks.
  • The main downsides are that the headset can get super sweaty after a lot of use, and games that make you stand around waving your arms can leave you feeling a little strained and sore. Come to think of it, I should really hunt for games that actually make you get exercise, because hey, may as well roll with it.

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