If you’re a regular visitor to n3rdabl3, you know that I just came back from Games For Change Festival, which among other things, featured uses of virtual reality and VR demos and experiences heavily. This got me thinking about how VR has been portrayed in pop culture versus how it is currently playing out.
The history of electronic VR stretches back to the late twenties; however, I’m going to focus on what VR seemed to promise as a kid growing up in the nineties with a lot of holdovers from the eighties. My earliest interaction with VR was through a series of books about dinosaurs (surprise) that had these VR simulation stories in them. The illustrated pictures that were supposed to be the “VR-vision” looked kind of like Predator-vision. Around that time, there was also Nintendo’s Virtual Boy. It was sort of like strapping a SNES that only projected in red and black to your face. Movies like The Lawnmower Man promised a totally interactive experience that felt real but still looked as if it was created out of fruit Gushers.
Obviously, these weren’t quite in line with what VR was supposed to be. In most cases, like The Lawnmower Man, the tech just wasn’t there yet to even make an idea of VR look good. So what was VR promised to be?
Think of pieces of media like Digimon or .Hack–totally immersive experiences that felt completely real. It was less like interacting with a computerized world than existing in a world–albeit a fantasy world. However, the illusion wasn’t total: Digimon had these weird moments where the kids and creatures would be confronted with what looked like computer simulations within the otherwise believable world. .Hack still had characters interacting with menus and readouts that floated in front of them like video game menus as well.
At Games For Change, I had my first real, extensive experiences with VR. (Okay, I had had a minute-long experience before this at a VR table in an AT&T store, but the simulation was completely static and such a short length because I walked into a table and a salesperson. Sorry, Jeff.) And how did real, modern VR compare to speculation?
Well, it worked out a heck of a lot better than my dinosaur books predicted. Even stylized experiences were convincing and I responded accordingly, doing things like moving away from seeming obstacles, trying to brush debris away from my face so I could see in front of me better, flinching or edging away from seeming danger in the form of sharks and alligators, and trying to lean on tables. The worlds looked real, and convincing visual information paired with immersive sound systems had tricked my brain (or at least my subconscious) successfully. There were even times when I would notice that my body temperature felt as if it had dropped suddenly. I can’t speak to the science behind this, but I’m convinced that the visual data I received at these times (sinking in water, sitting on a boat zooming over the water) made my brain fill in the blanks according to expectations based on real-life experiences.
This did have some downsides–sinking during underwater experiences and times when my feet didn’t feel as if they lined up with the ground (I looked down and noticed the seafloor appeared to be up to my waist) were slightly nauseating, because my brain knew that something the eye data and the physical data wasn’t lining up.
Obviously, I was aware that I was in a simulation. Into the Now was an immersive experience made from the specially recorded footage, and while you could look around and see real people, you couldn’t take control and change things as if it was real life. In BBC: Earth: Life in VR: Californian Coast, there wasn’t the same sense of realism, though I adapted to the stylized world naturally (it might be interesting to see how well someone who doesn’t watch or read cartoons and comics responds to this). There was freedom but it was just a demo, so the freedom was limited. Same for HoloLAB Champions–there was freedom within certain boundaries, but the boundaries were unmistakably there. We’re not at Digimon or .Hack, and I’m not sure if we’ll be there in even the next twenty years–but it doesn’t seem as impossible as it did in the late nineties and early 2000s.
There’s also a little bit more to VR visuals than just the world. Of course, in most ideas of VR simulations, players can look at themselves. You know–a player could down and see their feet or legs or hands. It doesn’t seem like we’re even close to that point yet. That I think would be one of the most difficult things to implement successfully in VR.
The controls also broke with the long-held expectations for VR. There are some exceptions, but I always remember VR media having mock-ups with one or more heavily wired robo-glove. Without exception, all of the controllers were simple, small, with just a couple buttons, similar in grip to the Wii’s Nunchuck controller. Using a controller is natural for me, so it barely bothered me, even though I wasn’t using my whole hand naturally. Playing HoloLAB Champions I was very aware of the controller, but only because I had to use it to interact with the game properly. Despite not being human-imitative controls, per se, these games and experiences worked with no obtrusiveness.
Only one VR experience felt awkward in terms of control and it wasn’t even one I wrote about because I was only on it for a minute or two. This had a user pilot the experience with a joystick in conjunction with head movement. One could look around, but one couldn’t move without using the joystick. It felt stilted, straddling two worlds as if its development had begun for a traditional game platform and someone decided that VR looked promising. I would imagine that this is more the norm right now than the more streamlined experiences I had, though I can’t truthfully say that I know this for a fact.
Ultimately, I was impressed with my VR experiences. It isn’t exactly like what pop culture has been throwing at people, but in many cases, that’s a good thing. It looks like we have improved beyond expectations. It’s not so immersive that we’ve made it to Digimon or the Holodeck from Star Trek, but these scenarios don’t seem as impossible as they did at the times of their conceptions.
Actually, at this point, it seems a little silly to be looking forward for VR, at least for the common gamer (devs, keep on working, please!). It would be amazing to get to those advanced dreams. But things are honestly pretty amazing right now. I feel like it’s time to slow down a moment to interact with technology that’s at an amazing point right now, if possible. VR might not be exactly what we expected ten or twenty or even thirty years ago, but it’s pretty damn good. It’s time to get excited about it!