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Valve/HTC’s Vive is the "Narnia closet stuck to your face"

We love love love to casually dabble in hyperbole when discussing virtual reality. “It will change the world!” “It will revolutionize the way we _________!”

And if you’ve never tried it, you might think it’s a bunch of the converted espousing things they’ve gleaned from marketing one-sheets, or predisposed fanboys exaggerating about how much they liked something they were already convinced of going in: that VR is definitely viable.

The problem with that way of thinking is it’s predicated on something that has never happened before. That is, the mainstream embracing and welcoming an alternate dimension into their home between the toaster and the pineapple corer.

It’s been attempted before and has never happened. And depending on what you believe, some people have lost their jobs over trying to push this to market before not all that long ago. And that is likely the reason we’re seeing so many companies team up together in making a big orchestrated push behind VR being welcomed into our homes. It’s because they’re nervous. If companies like Facebook and Oculus, or Valve and HTC, and all the others don’t work together and communicate with one another, my bet is it’ll be another 50 years before we see another attempt at VR. Then again, I’m an optimist.

Wait, make that 60 years.

I say this after becoming stricken with hellacious VR sickness from Megaton Rainfall from Oculus the afternoon before at GDC, and then after spending some time with Valve/HTC’s Vive: I think VR is starting to find its direction. We aren’t there yet, but we are exploring “new” things in its vocabulary that make it seem somewhat more plausible.

My bet is it’ll be another 50 years before we see another attempt at VR. 

I say “new” in written air quotes because some of the core ideas at play with the Vive (which I assume is pronounced as rhyming with Justin Bieber’s nickname) headset are borrowed from things we’ve seen before in gaming and tech but not yet injected into the thinking around VR so far. To wit, the headset uses lasers to track where you are. It seems like such an “obvious” fix, one indicating that the other mad-scientist geniuses tinkering on VR have been perhaps overthinking and overcomplicating their approaches to the tracking problem.

The controllers—which I only ever handled in VR and never actually saw—are an amalgamation of Wii remotes and ski-pole handles with squishy grips. Yeah, that’s right: “Squeeze” is a new mechanic we can start to use around games. Progress! Revolution!

My introduction to the Vive was similarly confounding in an encouraging way. For one, when I stepped in to receive my demo, I set down my jacket and messenger bag near the door. “You’re gonna want to get that out of the way, actually,” I was informed by the guy giving me the demo.

I was confused. That isn’t supposed to happen—you mean I can use VR and move around?

I knew immediately something else was going on here. “Strap this on,” he told me. I sat down and secured a lightweight harness around my waist. I was informed this is only for the demo version of the hardware, there just to keep the controller wires in place. The final, consumer product versions of all this stuff will be wireless, I was told.

You mean I can use VR and move around? 

Finally, I was told to get up, walk around, and explore—something I’ve never been told in a VR demo before in the last calendar year. By way of contrast, at Oculus’ Crescent Bay demo at Oculus Connect, I was warned not to leave the preschool nap-time rug-sized mat. Accidentally standing on its perimeter while in VR made my ankles buckle and made me lose my equilibrium.

That can’t happen here.

I’m not at all kidding or exaggerating in either of the above two examples, nor can you understate how big a mega-deal both of these truly are.

The headset transported me to a menu-screen room with floating rectangles indicating which programs I could use and horizontal and vertical blue grids outlining the walls. The VR grids represent the actual walls and floor space in the room I was non-VR in. Cooler still is it’s actually buffered a little bit. The wall you see isn’t literally the wall, but a few inches away from where the wall really is so you don’t smack into your surroundings like the unaware vulnerable prey you are when usually tromping through VR.

“It’s like on a GPS, two miles beforehand it will tell you you’re about to get off the highway,” explains Alex Schwartz, CEO of Owlchemy Labs, one of 10 developers invited to make stuff for this newly announced VR platform. “But if you’re on a small road, it will tell you about 200 feet behind. It’s up to the developer how you want to structure the bounds of the room.”

The only demo I was set loose on was Owlchemy’s Job Simulator, in a kitchen where a The Jetsons-style computer-screen overlord goofily commanded me to cook a variety of dishes. This is actually Owlchemy’s next game, not a tech demo, and the entire thing doesn’t take place in a kitchen. (Alex indicated other levels will include a bartender simulator and being “some sort of circus performer… I’m unsure how.”) So don’t think VR’s future is necessarily being pinned on working in virtual offices—it only kinda-sorta is.

And I can tell you this: There might be something to this kind of conservative thinking with VR, if it’s tempered by other more ambitious things. Not that Job Simulator isn’t ambitious, because it was capable of something quite astounding.

I’ve come to realize that the way I play games is sort of unusual. I’ve played so many of them over the course of my life that I know what’s coming my way. Little can genuinely surprise or confuse me. (I’m fun at parties.) This digital kitchen I was transported to tricked me without even having me realize I had been duped.

I was tricked into believing.

It tricked me in the same way GTA IV did with its “realism.” The same way when I first started playing as Niko Bellic, the world’s lush rendering made me drive cautiously. I observed traffic laws for a good while because the world felt real. Eventually, I did what we all do in GTA, and stopped giving a fuck and started being reckless. But that took a short while, and the same was true of Job Simulator.

Even though Owlchemy’s game is very clearly cartoonish and not meant to be a real space, my brain thought I had to operate in it as I normally would in my own kitchen. Says Schwartz, “People got really anal. They wanted to keep their kitchen tidy.” He told me about one guy who accidentally dropped a bottle of Sriracha, bent down to pick it up, and then carefully put it back where it was.

There’s something about that act of raising one leg, extending it back, and stooping to retrieve something imaginary that’s, simply, magical.

you will recognize VR’s potential to have potential 

And we’re talking about something that doesn’t even exist here, causing people to be delicate and careful. I was no different. I’m unsure why. My uneducated guess? This is a space that acknowledges your existence. Brush your virtual hands against virtual orders clipped to a virtual rail on the ceiling, and they curl and sway. Slap the eggs and throw the plates, they’ll both break. If you want to throw shit around, you can. In the tradition of most things being a cycle, funny enough, chucking controllers while playing games could come back into fashion. Only, you know, here it isn’t an expression of anger but the body being transported—no wrist strap can safeguard against this. Your landlord will hate you.

Once you adapt to that initial learning curve, and experience that same sense of wonder we all did when first trying Wii Sports, you will recognize VR’s potential to have potential. Another pre-motion control revelation analogue that comes to mind is Metal Gear Solid 2, where you could switch to first-person view and shoot every individual glass aboard that ship in Snake’s first chapter. Game worlds that acknowledge your existence and ability to impact your surroundings are immeasurably more engrossing. They encourage you to test the world around you.

That’s what VR needs.

It sounds like PR bullet-point hogwash, but Schwartz told me about another user earlier that day who could juggle in real life was able to juggle in VR. It might not prove that this whole virtual-reality dimension thing is solved, but that it seems solvable. Whether we want to just port our reality into another, who knows. That seems lazy. Too obvious. Even if what’s under the hood here is anything but.

Virtual reality in this space, with these controllers, with this headset is fun. It’s surprising. Subtle.  

The real test will come whenever this stuff hits the end consumer—assuming it ever actually does. When asked how Owlchemy explains VR to people who haven’t tried it, he says his elevator pitch is, “It’s like having the Narnia closet stuck to your face.”

That sounds terrifying, but exciting. That’s what VR is. But as one of my non-games friends says, there’s still some hurdles to clear here: “I mean, it looks like some weird fetish gear … I can totally see an arcade of them, but I’d break that in a heartbeat somehow if I tried to own one.”

I think what’s most accurate of all these lines is what Alex had vaguely told me just before GDC: “The holodeck is real.”

The true question is: What can that really mean?

Cover photo courtesy of Alex Schwartz and Valve.