My Wild Night with VR

 

You see her across the room, obfuscated by dim lights and beneath a thin veneer of overpriced alcohol. You start to notice that the thumping of your heart outpaces the electronic dance music that’s shaking the dance floor. I’m not talking about the redhead standing in the corner, no. I’m talking about the headset she’s wearing.

Whether it be HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift giving you bedroom (or game room) eyes, there is a veritable dance floor of VR headsets vying for your time and money.

Last night I had my first rendezvous with Virtual Reality at UploadVR which was a ticketed event in a bar promising 50+ demos. I had originally planned on covering virtual reality during E3 but my entry to E3 was denied due to a miscommunication.  Since my 1400+ mile plane trip was in jeopardy of being worthless I decided to pick up a $55 ticket and make plans to attend UploadVR!

The night started by grabbing a Lyft and discussing video games with the driver who has been out of the game scene for a while since being married and having kids. By “out of the scene for a while” the guy said he played Goldeneye on the Super Nintendo, which is probably a venial sin during E3.  Weaving from San Marcos to Downtown LA through the infamous LA traffic, I managed to talk to him about prices of VR and where I think video games want to go while feeling a bit ambivalent about what I was saying. My personal thought is that VR gaming is too expensive for the vast majority of gamers making this event a good test to see if the monetary commitment is worth it. Normally I would just consider VR a momentary fad but it seems the video game industry as a whole is no longer merely flirting with VR but is instead giving it their promise ring and varsity jacket.

To get things out of the way, UploadVR was not what I really wanted as far as a VR demo show. It was a party. If I was going there to make contacts and party it up then it would have been amazing. Most of E3 and its related functions are like that. I scanned my digital ticket after waiting in line for about 25 minutes and was rushed into a realm of business suits and people doing their best to look impressive. I wasn’t here for any of that, I wanted to game!

The first thing I tried out was a Samsung Gear VR demo where you use a Xbox camera to track your movements. This was the only place where people gave you a wide berth to have a VR experience, mainly to avoid being socked in the face. I was frustrated with the Samsung VR due to the overly brightened, flickering screen and fogginess that came along with the glasses. The tracking was fairly smooth but due to my concern about cold-cocking someone I decided to drop this demo fairly quick. Overall the headset was comfortable and image looked decent but I would have turned the brightness down somewhat lower.

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The Sweatiest of all VR Headsets.

I tried for a solid hour to get into another demo but due to the lack of any real planning for occupancy I almost gave up. Thankfully a small troupe of friends, the owners of a VR lounge in Dallas I met in line, and the creator of Run or Die on Steam (Florian Meyszies) managed to keep me entertained enough to wade through the swamp of people.

My next demo was the HTC Vive that had a setup to track human motion/placement and controllers. The controllers felt good in the hand and seemed fairly functional. I didn’t seem to find a joystick which would have been preferable to the control pad. After having the great instructions of “Here hold this.” I was accosted by a series of headphones and goggle contraptions with a wire that made me feel chained in.  A static loading screen then showed up for what felt like forever and I was whisked away into a room with crystal balls and random junk strewn about.

Aesthetically, the demo fell between a cheap Kickstarter 1st person puzzle game and Paper Mario but played like Elebits for Wii on steroids. You used the controllers to pick up crystal balls by pressing a trigger and pulling a ball towards you. This action would load up a mini-game. In these minigames and demo hub area you can walk around somewhat freely inside of a small box on a gridded floor. To move freely in the next box you would have to look down at the next square and select it with your controller. Being that UploadVR smashed everyone in the room without thinking of spacing or lines, moving around freely became a burden. At one point I punched someone with a controller because I had strayed too far off the beaten path and accidentally started beating somebody.

After we got things loaded back up I played a demo where you load up arrows with a bow and shoot at little Game & Watch characters hell-bent on storming your castle. This was quite fun and felt very accurate. You can feel the bow sliding into the slot using haptic feedback. There is also quite a sense of depth in the game.  Once my castle was overrun I dropped out to find another crystal ball by an arcade cabinet and pulled myself into another world. This led to a Space Invaders inspired game where you have to shoot the randomly appearing crafts with your ship. Your left hand is the ship and you right-hand does something I couldn’t quite figure out. Maybe shield? I’m not sure but it made me realize that VR really needs to work on some sort of instructional user interface. Anyway, the ship would fire lasers if I held down the trigger and it felt very responsive to my movement. I kept dying because I was afraid to jump out of the way of slow-moving lasers, but it was probably better than knocking an $18 mixed drink out of somebodies hand.

One thing that plagued me in this demo was the fit of the Vive and very poor focusing capabilities. The Vive was fairly cumbersome as a whole and I feel like I would spend more time tripping over dogs and punching out the wall than gaming if I purchased one. Speaking of which, with the price point reaching upwards of $799 for this set-up and then another $199 for a barebones graphics card made for VR, I don’t see myself purchasing the Vive anytime in the near future.

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Good visuals but the body tracking technology requires an empty warehouse to play in

 

Once I finished with the Vive it was time to check out the new game made by the Myst creator called Obduction using Oculus Rift which is a $599 headset. I was really excited to try a game instead of just a demo. The Oculus Rift was pretty much the Goldilocks of the bunch so far. It felt good, wasn’t too cumbersome, the screen was set to a pleasing level of brightness (although colors looked better on Vive just a hair), and it was focusing properly. Obduction is essentially the evolution of the point-and-click mystery game. I spent my time up on top of some metal contraption high up in the mountains. I used a Xbox controller for general selections and changing my view 45 to 90 degrees left or right. I could click the trigger and it would make a reticule in the center of my screen which I would then use to select, twist, turn, and move objects. I actually felt to be a part of this world and it was the one instance in the night where I felt VR was really made for the game.

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The Goldilocks Set-Up, Oculus with a Xbox Controller. Just right

 

The imagery in Obduction was well formed and sculptural qualities of the levels were visually intriguing. After getting further than most people on the demo it was my time to go. I spent some time talking with the creator of Myst (Rand Miller) to let them know how pleased I was with the demo. Rand mentioned that he is highly interested in VR and wanted to see how far his team could take it in the future. Rand mentioned how his influences revolved around portals to other worlds such as in The Lion, Witch, and The Wardrobe so VR was a natural move for him to take. I left his demo feeling happy with the idea of owning an Oculus Rift if only it was cheaper. It was definitely the high-point of the night. Unfortunately, like with any other relationship with bleeding edge technology, there are always ups and downs. My next demo was a downer.

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I took a look at the Ozo camera which is a $60,000 camera capable of recording VR film at 2Kx2K video. They had their films loaded up on Samsung VR headsets in front of a fan because the units were overheating. I put the headset on and immediately regretted it. Within seconds dozens of oriental schoolgirls began running around me. The girls disappeared like ghosts as ribbons began to appear around me as if I was tied up by a group of about 10 or so girls slowly pulling their way towards me. I don’t know who they were trying to entice with this video, but it sure as hell wasn’t me. Luckily it moved on and I was greeted with another video of a helpless teenage girl being attacked by a CGI werewolf that ran past me.

The visuals were honestly pretty cool and had a 3D movie quality feel to it but I was coming to my limits on this demo. Between the heat, blurriness of Samsun VR, and awkward imagery I was simply done. I peeled the headset off and handed it back to their booth lady trying to figure out who in the world was the target for this demo. Later on in the night it donned on me as I passed some scantily clad women with badges proudly displaying words such as “Mobile”, “VR”, and “XXX”put together in various ways.

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OZO by Nokia, the oddest camera of them all

Once the cringe factor went away and I downed an overpriced beer it was time to move onto the OSVR demo. The headset felt comfortable and even has individual eye focusing modules! This is a positive thing for me as I have one eye slightly stronger than the other and I managed to get the first crystal clear image of the night. The headset also had no fogging issues unlike the Vive or Samsung VR headset. The settings I used for my eyes pinched my nose a little bit but they stated that there would be a nose bridge adapter based on your nose style when the unit shipped, nifty!

The biggest problems lied in their demo which was full of lag. I would move my head and it would run into issues with framerate catching up with my movements. Since I started writing this I have found some other people were made sick by this motion. The representative assured me that this would be different when games are made for the headset. At a price point of $399 I could see myself picking this headset up due to the comfort and smart choices they are making which are consumer driven to a large audience.

The rep stated that they are an open-source project and will actively work with companies to make sure their products work with their API and the games should “just work”. The technology is comparable to the Vive and Oculus Rift so if they can pull off what they are setting out to do, I could see this headset coming home with me one day.

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The best feeling headset but laggiest of the bunch. 

At about 1 a.m. various content makers began putting up their units. I spent a little time upstairs on the dance floor with a good DJ and some lackluster booths hosted by Hulu. UploadVR ran a fun event overall, while initially frustrating, that gave me a chance to experience a taste of E3. According to their Facebook page they have donated all the proceeds to the victims of the Orlando terrorist attack so I’m glad my $55 ticket is going towards something good. Kudos to them.

After the drive back to Santa Monica I was finally able to break the news to my wife about my one-night affair. She had been warned that tonight could potentially drain our bank account if I was wooed by VR’s wily ways. Lucky for her, I’m just not ready to make a commitment to VR without a few concessions. I want to see the price drop by about 33% to 50%, lower specs for PC out of the gate, control explanations that drop the learning curve down significantly, and some way to flip back to reality with the headset using an opacity slider to avoid slapping around a lamp if things get crazy. Who knows, maybe by the 2017 UploadVR party they’ll have some of this worked out and I’ll be singing my high praises for Virtual Reality. In 2016, it still isn’t quite ready.



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