Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Dec 14 2015


I’ve been interested in the prospect of virtual reality for some time now, but only recently have I been able to actually experience it for myself. The first opportunity I had to try it out was at one of the stores on the ground floor of the new tech shopping mall next to the Guanghua electronics market. They had an Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 rig set up there, where one could experience a roller coaster ride as well as a solar system demo. As it was my first experience with VR, it was bound to be impressive. I gripped the stool with one hand and tried to right myself as well as I could while the roller coaster tossed and turned, climbed and dove. I could look around, which was novel. I’ve always been interested in the little corners of video game environments that nobody else paid any attention to, and VR provides the potential for people like me to explore those corners better than any previous system has been able to so far. I like the exploring part of these environments far better than the shooting part. I’d turn on the god mode of FPS games just so I wouldn’t be distracted by all the killing and playovers, letting me just walk around and look at things. That was one of the main reasons I preferred PC gaming to console units back in the day.

The solar system demo was also impressive, sitting in a little cart jetting around based on eye movements, but somehow too abstract to convey the real experience. I found myself thinking, if I could just see some more detail in these massive things, I’d have a better idea of their size.

But what the Oculus DK2 set provided was just a glimpse of what VR could offer. The main feature was the low latency; at no point did I feel sick or dizzy, though I’d think providing chairs with actual backs wouldn’t be a bad idea for people trying out VR for the first time. What it didn’t provide, what it was sorely lacking in fact, was sufficient resolution to really make the view believe that they are seeing these things for real. Also, it felt limiting to be constricted to sitting in one spot and be led around by the program. It’s not the way we operate in reality, so it feels somewhat at odds with the concept of virtual reality. There’s movement, but you don’t feel it with your body; there’s no inertia to be overcome, no real sense of the movement involved. Also (and this is not an inherent fault of the Oculus), after being tried by so many people, the DK2 headset was kind of ratty and smudged. It felt very much like wearing dirty goggles.

My next opportunity with this technology came at a recent Taipei tech show, where I was able to try out HTC’s Vive setup. This meant waiting in line for a period of time before being ushered into a black room with a solitary chair. I put on the headset and found myself in a large white space. The controllers on the virtual floor matched their actual position at my feet so exactly that bending over and picking them up was completely natural. “Ok, we’re going to start the first demo,” the HTC people told me through the headset’s speaker.

And immediately I was on the deck of a sunken ship. Yeah, I’ve read about this demo, but it really can’t be described. The Youtube videos of it don’t come close to matching the experience. It’s really…almost…like you’re there. Unlike with the Oculus, I could walk around, to a limited extent. I walked over to peer over the side of the ship, down to the bottom, and the handlers said, “Be careful, you’re about to run into a wall.” The detail was far better than that of the Oculus DK2, as was the field of view.

This! I thought. This, I’ve got to have. But maybe not; in the first quarter of 2016, not only will the Vive arrive on shelves, but the new Oculus, which has better resolution, etc. as well as Sony’s Morpheus, which plays with an updated version of the PS4 called the Playstation VR, and Samsung’s Gear VR, which can be used with your phone (Your phone, not mine. I’m still using an old iPhone 4, which is pathetically unable to handle such things).

I don’t have a powerful PC set up, but I have been thinking of getting a console, so it might be that the Morpheus and a PS4 would work better for me. If the Vive plays well with my iMac, I might go that way. If the Oculus lets me move around, maybe that. Who knows? Nobody knows, at least for the moment; it’s a free-for-all, and it might not go anywhere if the developers don’t over the problem of integrating physical motion in games. Many, if not most of the proposed game demos feel like ordinary games forced into a VR medium, and don’t really take advantage of anything VR has to offer. Who wants to be in a cart the whole time? I’ve seen rigs with a guy standing on a movable plate and harnessed into a ring around their waists, but that seems half-assed to me. What would be better? I  have no idea, but I have to admit the idea of making my living room into a VR space just for games, where I am free to move about in a roughly five-square-meter area, appeals to me. The games would have to be specially designed to fit these limitations, though. How would that work? Would all of the rooms be of that size or smaller? Would you have to turn around at each door? Will longer distances necessarily be done on little hoverboards, etc.? Could a special chair be made to simulate motions in the game? Shouldn’t the controllers be more like gloves and have force feedback inside? For now, it seems they’ve got the head motion tracking part down, including binaural audio feeds. Improvements from here on out will be in resolution and field of view, as well as the mechanics of physical motion in the games.

How well will MMORPGs work with VR? Who wouldn’t love to simply wander about the Enterprise, or Mos Eisley spaceport, or the bath house from Spirited Away, or Hogwarts? Even if there were nobody to fight, no challenges or anything, just spending time in those worlds would be fascinating.

Interesting times lie ahead. But I can’t help but wonder how much of their lives people will invest in these environments. Surely within a few short years they will become perceptibly indistinguishable from reality, and if we can choose to inhabit crafted worlds, what happens to our ability to deal with the actual physical world? What happens if the populations of more affluent nations are mostly immersed in these worlds, while everyone else has to deal with reality? What happens if there’s a point where everyone is in these worlds, and not in this one? Will it be mandatory? Will reality become unpopular, or even illegal to experience, or both? Will there be a backlash? If so, will anyone care? I suspect we’re going to find out.

posted by Poagao at 1:05 pm  

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