By Trevor Swayze, Technical Support
Virtual reality is touted as the next big entertainment phenomenon. It’s available on PC’s, The Sony PlayStation 4, Smartphones, and many arcade locations. Depending on the version that you purchase you get a very different experience. Some versions of VR are just simple goggles that you put up to your face and look through, while others maximize the experience with a wearable visor, controllers that act as your hands, and even cameras that track your movement in a 3-dimensional space.
But why all the hype? And what is the platform actually used for? VR is most definitely in its infancy stage as with many other technologies right now (such as Smart Home devices like Google Home or Amazon Echo). Most developers for the technology are still experimenting with ideas on how to best use the platform. For the most part, right now, the majority use is video games. But most of the video games created for VR are less “games” than they are “experiences.” Most VR games are short 30-minute type experiences to showcase the power of the platform and immerse you in interesting situations and locations.
I decided to dive into VR head first by purchasing the Sony PlayStation VR, which is where most of the focus in this article will be. Sony PlayStation VR hooks up directly to (and requires) the PlayStation 4. The process of setting up the VR wasn’t exactly the easiest, there are a lot of cables to connect but luckily, they’re all labeled and the instructions included were pretty clear. (Fancy packaging too!)
The PlayStation VR bundle that I purchased comes with the headset/visor, 2 PlayStation Move controllers (which act as your hands), and a camera. The camera tracks your head movement via blue lights that are strategically placed on the headset you wear. There’s even 2 on the back so you can turn your head 360 degrees. Very cool.
Here is the actual description of how PlayStation VR works: “PlayStation VR (PS VR) is a headset that displays a stereoscopic (a different image is in each eye) view of Virtual Reality (VR) content generated by the PS4 system. The headset contains blue LED tracking lights and motion sensors that are used in conjunction with the PS Camera to track the position and orientation of your head in real-time. VR games and applications use this tracking of your head to render immersive 3D visuals and audio that put you into a virtual world. The PS4 and PS Camera also track DualShock 4, PlayStation Move motion controller, and PlayStation VR Aim controller to allow you to interact with this virtual world. PlayStation Move controller and PlayStation VR Aim controller offer a more realistic and precise way to control games, and provide an unbelievable sense of presence in the virtual world.”
Putting on the headset for the first time you can clearly see that you’re not just looking into a giant screen inside the headset; you’re actually looking through 2 individual ports that display a different image in each eye to mimic real eyesight; and it works quite well! You really have to concentrate in order to see that dividing line between the 2 images. When you’re focused on what’s going on in the game, it’s really immersive. If you include some headphones with decent surround sound, it really enhances the experience further and you will forget you’re sitting on a couch or standing in the middle of your living room.
The system came packed in with a game called PlayStation VR Worlds. It’s essentially a collection of 5 different small experiences that range from highly interactive to situations where you’re just looking around an environment. I’ll briefly go over a few of them to give you an idea of what VR could do for you.
The first one I tried was called Ocean Descent. You play the role of a deep-sea diver placed in a protective shark cage and slowly lowered from about 10 feet under the ocean, all the way down to the bottom. There’s really no gameplay to this experience, it’s designed to be something to immerse you and let you relax (at least for a while. No spoilers here!). You simply look around, take in the beautiful environment, and enjoy the short 10-15 minute experience. You can look in all directions around you, see sea life swim right by your face, look up towards the surface, and down into the depths below the cage. It really showcases the platform well, and puts you in a situation you might not normally get to experience in real life. To me, that’s really the best part of VR; experiencing situations and places you will likely never see or do in real life. Check out the video below of someone playing Ocean Descent!
The second experience I tried was far more interactive. The London Heist is a mature rated game that lets you slip into the role of an East-end gangster in London, England. Not only are you able to look 360 degrees once again, but you utilize the PlayStation Move controllers that act as your hands. You can grab, pickup, turn, and manipulate objects in the world in complete 3D. You can turn the object using your hands or keep your hands steady and move your head around the object as if it was a real physical thing right in front of you. It utilizes 3D technology much like you would experience at the movie theatre to gain this incredible effect. At one point you’re fending off the police when you’re caught during a heist, having to aim and fire your pistol and reload it. At another point you’re in the passenger seat in a truck moving fast down a highway as your in-game counterpart drives and you fend off “the bad guys” outside the truck in cars and motorcycles. It’s really intense and really cool. While the visuals for this particular part of the game aren’t all that amazing, you really do get the feeling that you’re in a fast-moving vehicle.
There are 3 other games on the disc that include VR Luge, an arcade type game called Danger Ball, and a sci-fi experience called Scavengers Odyssey. All of which also provide completely different experiences than the ones I’ve described in more detail.
I had a lot of fun with these but there was one more game I had to try. If there’s anything I wanted to do in VR that I would never be able to do in real life, that’s head off into space. I tried a game called EVE Valkyrie. It places you in the cockpit of a small spacecraft to experience intense dogfights. This was what really sold me on VR. From the get-go of the demo you feel completely immersed in the experience. You really feel like you’re sitting in a small fighter ship (like an X-Wing from Star Wars). As you sit inside your small fighter ship inside the dock of what appears to be a much larger vessel, unable see outside, you tense up as you start to hear the countdown to launch. You’re then shot out of the space dock like a rocket, and immediately feel your stomach drop when you breach the gate and witness 360 degrees of space filled with stars, small fighter ships like your own, and colossal space cruisers like the one you just launched from. Turning and twisting the ship really gave me some motion sickness but as you feel out the controls and get a grip on where to look and how everything works, you’ll soon be flying around like a five-star pilot; weaving your way through and around those obstacles as if you were a part of those classic sci-fi movies like Star Wars. It’s really incredible and indescribable, it’s something you have to experience to believe.
Check out someone playing the same demo I tried in the video below!
Video games and unique experiences are all well and good, but what other ways can VR be utilized? For now, I think gaming will be the main focus mostly due to the steep price tag that comes along with the platform. All-in, non-Smartphone VR setups can cost anywhere from $400 to well over $1500. But once cost starts to come down, I think more innovative ways to use the platform will come along such as being able to sit down live at a concert, sporting event, or conference in the front row.
Experimental uses have already started in many other areas such as online classrooms, showing medical students how to complete certain procedures and even surgeries, treatment for anxiety disorders and phobias, military training, treatment for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), prototyping designs, architectural design, and more!
As I stated earlier, VR is completely in its infancy stage. Developers are still experimenting with the technology and working to find its best applications and the best ways to utilize it. So, while all of these experiences and uses thus far are intriguing and interesting, many are far from being super useful or even working all that well to begin with. The games I played were all fantastic, but there’s always a small blur effect that needs to be addressed to make it look better and more natural overall. There’s also the issue of motion sickness. I tried a few other experiences not mentioned in this article that required standing and, in those situations, I didn’t quite feel as comfortable. Instead of just quickly turning around as if I would in real life, I felt timid and turned as if I was walking on a tight rope. I’m unsure if it was disorientation, problems with equilibrium, or just my senses all being overloaded and not used to the platform yet.
Another large problem is that the headsets are not yet wireless, though HTC just announced last month that it has a wireless adapter coming later this year for their VR platform called HTC VIVE. Right now, having this large heavy cord hanging off the back of your headset and resting against your back or having your arm hit the cord really takes you out of the experience at times. Having it entirely wireless will surely change the game, though I’m sure it will come at a steep cost.
Something that also needs to be addressed is the hand-tracking. Head-tracking is nearly a perfect 1:1, acting the way it should as you move your head around. But the hand-tracking leaves quite a bit to be desired. If you leave your hand still in real life, you can still see your hand in VR shuttering a bit and it’s far from a precise instrument. Smooth slow movement is well tracked, but if you have to move quickly and be precise at picking up objects simultaneously it doesn’t work perfectly and there were times I became flustered during the experience. I haven’t been able to try the other major VR platforms like the aforementioned HTC Vive, or Facebook’s Oculus Rift so they may have superior hand-tracking solutions in place.
For those looking for a more cost-effective way to experience VR, there are Smartphone VR goggles you can purchase to turn your Smartphone into a VR headset. And while these are far less advanced and less immersive experiences, it’s something to try in the meantime to get an idea of what you can expect from a more beefy VR platform. For the time being, I would consider Virtual Reality platforms to be a premium luxury that only the most die-hard technology enthusiasts should get themselves into for now. The cost is just too steep to recommend to anyone on the fence about it. It’s certainly an amazing experience to behold, but it’s also an experience you will try out a lot and show off to your friends and family for a few weeks and then it will sit and collect dust until you have a better use for it or a new innovative game comes out to play. Many thought that VR would come and go like a fad, but companies seem to be doubling down on the platform and that’s a good sign of things to come.
If you’re on the fence about VR I suggest visiting a VR Arcade! They’re quickly cropping up and are the perfect way to try out the experience at a nominal cost.
For more on PlayStation VR, check out the video below!