Sunday, May 15, 2016

Virtually Real

Virtual reality (VR) is one in a seemingly endless procession of technologically oriented terms that can mean any number of things depending on just who is using it. Once upon a time it was 'multimedia', but currently, and not for the first time, it is virtual reality.

In a column for PC Magazine back in the early 90s, showman/magician/raconteur Penn Jillette wrote about trying to explain to Hollywood people what VR is. He described it as wearing two televisions really close to your face, but they kept thinking it had something to do with travelling through telephone wires and setting people's hair on fire.

The idea of a computer generated environment that appears to be three dimensional to the viewer and allows some degree of interaction has been a big part of science fiction for years, most notably serving as an interface for the Internet in the works of William Gibson, in a time before most of us knew what that even meant. Electronic entertainment has dabbled in VR for quite some time, first by asserting that early three-dimensional systems like flight simulators were, in fact, virtual reality, even when displayed on crude 2D monitors. Early 3D displays like Nintendo's Virtual Boy were largely disappointing, lacking the computing horsepower and graphical intensity necessary to create a truly immersive experience.

Enter Pete.

Unencumbered by children, Pete has both the wherewithal and technical savvy to explore this new digital frontier, and when the first mass-market VR headsets were announced a short while ago, he jumped on the pre-order list for the HTC Vive and began assembling a PC robust enough to do it justice. About a week ago, he got all the pieces into place, took it for a spin, and was impressed enough that he called a bunch of us over to check it out.

I've never been a big one for PC gaming, preferring the simple setup of consoles instead, but even I can tell just by looking at it that the monolithic tower is not to be trifled with. There is a lot of space in the case, but that is because he has sufficient processing power and RAM on hand so as not to require overclocking his chips, which then belies the need for additional fans to ventilate the liquid cooling system he doesn't need. The graphic card itself (which cost more than the entirety of my last PC) asserts its presence with glowing green letters visible from across the room.

A monitor stands besides the case as one might expect, but the star of the show is the Vive headset, a pair of headphones and a pair of snazzy looking wireless controllers. Complemented by a pair of wall sensors Pete mounted high up in his library, it is an intimidating bit of kit to be sure, but with Pete's assistance, we all managed to gear up for a dip into the virtual realm.

First up was the tutorial, a necessity in terms of understanding both the controls and the limitations of the environment itself. Looking into the stereoscopic displays of the helmet, you appear to be standing in a normal room, but the furniture soon collapses into compartments hidden beneath the floor, revealing a large, industrial looking space. You can see both hand held controllers hovering in the air, their position and orientation relative to the helmet you wear, but neither hands nor thumbs visible at all, A hovering drone with a pleasing accent explains how the 'walls' of the play space become visible should you approach them. Fiddling with the suggested buttons deploys helium balloons, and if you should bop them with a controller, a tiny tremor supplies enough force feedback to cement the illusion.

Before proceeding onto the games, Pete suggested we try one of the immersive demos called The Blu, which transported the wearer to a sunken ship. Shoals of tiny fish darted about fixing the scale and middle distances, while a trio of manta rays swam overhead, casting shadows upon the deck. Trepidatiously we wandered over to the edge of the ship, near the railing, peering over the side at the reef below, but hearing a noise 'behind', turned in time to see an enormous blue whale swimming directly beside the wreck, pausing to survey us with its enormous eye.

Having seen many pictures and depictions of the blue whale, I have to tell you, nothing has cemented the scale of this immense cetacean in my mind the way this encounter did. Being able to direct my gaze where I wished, and feeling as though I was close enough to 'touch' it was a truly immersive experience.

But of course, this sort of computer technology has always been driven by entertainment, dating back to people upgrading from their VGA cards in order to play Wing Commander, so we started exploring Pete's library of demos and games.

Vive has elected to keep most of their games within a stationary paradigm for the time being, which a) reduces the odds of someone running to the end of their tether and pulling an expensive PC onto the floor, b) reduces the risk of injury from someone dodging into a wall or bookcase, and perhaps most importantly, c) reducing the occurrence of motion sickness (yes, for real!). As a result, the two games we played were variations on the theme of stationary first-person-shooter.

Space Pirate Trainer is a bright, upbeat target shooter, which sees the player equipped with a configurable pistol in one hand and a semi-translucent shield in the other. Waves of drones lift into view from beneath the platform you are standing on and begin shooting at you. The best defence being a good offence, shooting them prior to firing is one solution, but you can also deflect their shots with their shield or (most astonishingly) dodge them by sidestepping or ducking them. In fact, many players suggest abandoning the shield for an additional pistol, which not only doubles your firepower but helps create a heightened state of situational awareness, as dodging is now your sole defence.

A pulsating techno soundtrack saw us play many levels of Space Pirate Trainer, which has the scintillating allure of 'just one more game' that all classically addictive video games share, but is compounded with the unfamiliar feeling in your extremities that comes with actually using one's arms and legs. Best of all, the game is compelling enough that not a one of us felt self conscious about what we looked like, which, while wearing the helmet and gesticulating wildly at enemies no one else could perceive, is significantly silly.

Best in show had to be The Brookhaven Experiment, a zombie shooter that puts the Player in a darkened clearing with a flashlight in one hand (with limited batteries) and a pistol in the other (with limited bullets). Looking down reveals a small campfire, a rolled up sleeping bag, and other bits of camping equipment. Soon enough though, the moans of hideous undead creatures can be heard as they advance on your position. Several shots to the ten ring will drop them at range, while a shot to the shoulder will usually detach an arm, but a headshot stops them least to start.

To conserve ammo, you might hold off, allowing them to close in order to ensure a headshot, but this stratagem is complicated by the fact that the zombies not only approach from all sides and require you to turn a physical 180 degrees in order to see behind you, but also move at different speeds. Most of us found ourselves surprised at one point or another, having turned around, expecting to see a monster several paces away, but instead being shocked by a horrible visage illuminated at point blank range by the flashlight. And subsequently, the muzzle flash of the pistol.

Suffice to say, the experience is convincing enough that Pete, a man rational in his outlook to the extreme, is disinclined to playing The Brookhaven Experiment by himself, or right before bed. It is definitely not a game for the faint at heart, as this video clearly (and entertainingly!) demonstrates.

Being a demo, there are only five levels to be experienced at this time, but the terrifying finish involves a building sized monstrosity, glimpsed in the background of an earlier level, lumbering over your position and revealing a terrifying maw full of teeth, just before fading to black. Again, the compulsion to see what's next, to finish the story, is strong.

After many false starts, it appears Virtual Reality has finally reached the mass market. Both HTC's Vive and the competing Oculus Rift are on back-order, with some early adopters electing to sell theirs on eBay for double the retail price. A VR system is expected for the PlayStation 4, and one would assume that the X-Box won't be far behind. It is a ways out of my reach for now, but the appeal is undeniable, and I will be very surprised if VR doesn't become the preferred mode for playing certain types of video games in very short order.

In the meantime, hats off to Pete, for sharing this new experience with his friends!

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