First impressions from a proper play in virtual reality

I’ve been yearning to have a proper play in virtual reality since I was a kid.

For a brief while back in the early 90s, the Trocadero in London had an over-priced arcade game where you could put on a heavy VR headset and control a robot walker.

I only tried it once. It was a lot of pocket money for a short go, the queue was long, and while the virtual world was thrilling it was very blocky (I’ve just found a clip of the exact machine I sat in on YouTube, and the graphics were even worse than I’d remembered).

This was not the virtual reality world we’d be promised in Lawnmower Man – though the visuals on that have dated too – or that we’d imagine reading books like Snow Crash and, later, Ready Player One.

So, like many others, I was excited when VR recently began making a resurgence.

The chief credit for that should go to the makers and backers of the Oculus Rift. But as I’m neither a PC owner, nor the kind of person who obsessively upgrades graphics cards, I’ve been waiting for Sony’s answer, the cheaper and easier-to-set-up Project Morpheus, now known as PlayStation VR.

My headset arrived on launch day, and within an hour I had installed it and was ensconced in the virtual realm, while my dog napped on the sofa. These were my first reactions.

It’s the scale that hits you

The immediately striking aspect for me was how well the VR gives you a sense of being small in a big world. Seeing a giant submarine looming in the darkness added nothing to the story of The Deep but provided me with a mild sense of awe. When a white shark swam past me moments later I was hit by a primal desire to get away from it: “Christ. That’s HUGE.”

I’ve fought countless massive end-of-level bosses on my TV screen, but it’s a different sensation when they are in the same space as you. Playing London Heist I found myself face-to face with a cartoonish British gangster tough guy. What was immediately threatening about him wasn’t what he said, or the fact he was waving a blow-torch around, but that he was taller than me. I had to tilt my head back to look up at him, and found myself instinctively rolling my shoulders and squaring up for a fight.

Prepare for lower resolution

If you’ve been playing computer games on recent platforms then the graphics may actually feel like a downgrade.

This shouldn’t be surprising. The PlayStation 4 is having to generate not one but two images simultaneously – one for your left eye and one for your right – and do all the other gubbins required to maintain the illusion of a virtual work that wholly surrounds you.

Furthermore, you are much closer to the action than you’ve been to your telly, unless you normally squash your nose right up to the screen.

So the images may seem lower resolution than you’d expect, as well as more grainy and pixelly, with noticeably lower contrast levels and greyer blacks than you’ll find on a modern TV.

The place where I found this disappointing was in the racing games. I’d expected that driving and flight simulations would be the most impressive and realistic-feeling experiences, as they provided a natural reason for a player to remain seated. Playing DriveClub VR I did get a thrill from being able to physically turn my head to check the rear and side mirrors. But I felt the racing games were where the weakness of the graphics seemed most pronounced – perhaps because their non-VR predecessors already did a good job of making you feel you were looking out the front window of a car.

Picking up objects transforms the experience

What altered the experience for me from “entertaining novelty” to “OMG – this is the future” was the ability to pick up virtual objects.

The PS Move controllers have been criticised for being clunky compared to other VR peripherals, and this may well be true. I’ve had a pair for six years and literally had to dust them off before I recharged them.

In London Heist your hands appear as floating disembodied gloves, and they often end up sliding ghost-like through tables and other objects. And when you pick items up they have no weight (because they aren’t really there), and you sometimes have to click a button on top of the controller to drop them.

And yet… they established an immersion in the space that took the whole experience to a different level.

In an early scene in London Heist I found myself trying to break into an ornate desk, reaching out to open drawers, picking up a key and turning it in a lock, physically ducking when guards arrived to search the room, then finding a gun and loading it. Awful though it is to admit, shooting stuff is tremendously fun in VR – but then so are more mundane activities such as throwing balls, lighting cigars and picking up a mobile phone to hear the messages.

The next stages

After playing these games it’s hard not to start immediately wondering what future versions of this will be like, to look forward to the inevitably improved graphics we’ll see even with just the next generation of headsets. The ability to play games in which you can physically turn, crouch, sidestep and lean is impressive, but I expect players will demand to walk and run soon (and more companies will sell gadgets like this multidirectional VR treadmill).

VR will have a role to play in education, for sure. Already you can stream passive “VR experiences” onto the PSVR from LittlStar Cinema. Ones I’ve tried so far include witnessing a volcano up close, a Discovery channel report on rhinos, and a tour of the Rio Olympics.

Like any whizzy new technology there’s a risk of overstating its educational potential. But its immersiveness would definitely bring many topics to life in a powerful way: why just hear about glaciers or icebergs in geography when you can witness them up close? I’m looking forward to the historical simulations, and the chance to see past cities and civilisations (when my former colleague Matt Hill tried Oculus Rift two years ago he noted then how powerful it might be for a lesson on Pompeii).

At the rate the technology is improving, my PSVR will soon look as outdated as the machine I sat in back in the Trocadero. But this absolutely feels like a turning point, similar to the advent of VHS – the moment a form of entertainment begins to turn from novelty to a standard piece of kit you’ll see in people’s homes, offices and classrooms.