Virtually Unimaginable

A few decades ago, the idea of using technology to fully immerse yourself in a world of someone else’s design only existed in science fiction. As we see all the time though, science fiction has a tendency to become science fact. The past few years have opened up pandora’s box of VR offerings. From pieces of cardboard to full-on warehouse arcades; VR gaming is without a doubt one of the most exciting current trends.

The reason it’s so exciting is because true virtual reality carries with it the promise of a revolution in not just video games, but entertainment as a whole. Not necessarily something to replace what we already have, but a brand new medium that has its own set of rules. A new creative frontier. A 3d canvas that places you at the center of the art.

Creators rejoice, but consumers might scratch their heads. Johnny customer needs to know: Is 21st century virtual reality ready for Matrix-level immersion or are we all just being tricked into buying another Virtual Boy with a fresh coat of paint? What you’ll find today is less of a doorway into fully realized game worlds that the idea of VR promises, and more like a window into what will inevitably be possible assuming VR takes off.

In this installment of State of the Art we’ve done a deep dive into the current state of VR in hopes of giving readers a better idea as to whether or not they should embrace this new technology or if it’s going to go the way of the dodo.

Hardware

So you’re looking to buy a VR headset huh? There are so many to choose from. Here’s a full rundown of the three options gamers have that, at the time of writing this, are currently worth any sort of mention. Yes the Gear VR, Oculus Go, and Google Cardboard exist but they don’t really present themselves as something for the core gaming audience. 

Playstation VR – $299  

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  • Only console exclusive VR option
  • Outputs at 960p single screen resolution
  • Uses Playstation Camera + Motion sensors for tracking
  • Can use regular controller or Playstation Move controllers
  • Playstation exclusive VR titles

Oculus Rift – $399

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  • Runs on Steam VR platform & Oculus Store
  • Outputs at 1200p with one screen per eye
  • Requires a gaming PC
  • Uses Oculus Touch controllers
  • Uses array of cameras and sensors for tracking

 

HTC Vive – $699

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  • Developed alongside Valve
  • Outputs at 1200p with one screen per eye
  • Runs on Steam VR platform
  • Touted as the best VR experience available to consumers
  • Uses sophisticated outboard sensors and a single camera on headset for tracking

 

So now you have a pretty good idea of what to expect out of the three flagship VR devices available right now. Each one has its own strengths and weaknesses. Including one weakness that they all share: wires. If you’re in the market for a VR headset, consider this your fair warning that all three of these use very long cords that can (almost inevitably will) be tripped over at some point. Wireless technology just isn’t capable of delivering full 1:1 motion tracking compared to wired connections.


Sledgehammer, Meet the Fourth Wall

So for this section, I’m going to be writing in first person. It’s me, Mason. Hello readers, I have shed my all-powerful KontrolFreek voice in favor of my own for the sake of sharing my boots on the ground experience with you readers. I just couldn’t write about myself in the third person without feeling like a sociopath. Don’t worry, I’m not that bad once I’ve had my morning Gfuel.

Now here’s where the fun starts. In order to understand what to expect when you first bring home your shiny new toy of tomorrow, I did a test. Playstation VR was what I could get my hands on immediately, and so that is what I went with. Over the past month, I’ve been trying out all sorts of games and VR experiences so I can report my thoughts back into this blog post. Its been an entertaining July for sure, and I’m happy to say that I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the PSVR even though I was slightly skeptical of how it would perform as the headset with lower specs and price.

To sum it up, my experience with the PSVR had plenty of mind blowing moments; segmented by a few hiccups that brought me out of the immersion.

Time to Play

Unboxing

As is the standard with most tech products nowadays, unboxing the PSVR is an experience in and of itself. The box containing the headset itself is very high quality and opens in a way that presents the headset to you in a way that is reminiscent of a treasure chest.

The presentation of the headset itself really does help to build anticipation for actually getting to use it. Also, the inside of the box is layered with some very high quality protective foam which allows for the box to double as an actual way to transport the headset. A total plus for sure if you’re looking to show off your brand new hardware.

Finally, All of the necessary wires and the outboard processing unit (a black box that looks like a mini PS4) are packed away neatly in a small box and labeled with numbers that I’ll explain later.

You can tell Sony put a lot of thought into the unboxing experience, and as someone who appreciates great package design, I was certainly a fan. Not long after opening, I began to develop a theory as to why opening the box was so impressive…

Setup

Also included in the box was a huge booklet that shows you how to set up the headset, this is where the numbered wires come into play. And boy are there a ton of wires.

I feel like I should mention I was setting it all up in my living room where my roommates and I have meticulously set up the entertainment center to reduce the amount of exposed wires. Needless to say, the amount of wires this piece of tech needs throws any semblance of good cable management out the window. But the great thing about VR is that you don’t even get to see those cables when you have the headset on, so my OCD was allowed to rest easy. I can’t say the same about my roommate’s though…

Setting everything up was not the hardest thing in the world. If you can assemble a lego set then you can set up the PSVR. It really just requires a whole bunch of plugging things into other things, calibrating the main thing, and then using the various adjustment buttons to fit the thing perfectly to your head. The inline controls with included headphone jack were very convenient as well.

After everything was set up it was off to the races…

The Games

Putting the headset on for the first time, I was greeted with what seemed like a giant movie theater screen sitting right in front of me. A nice first impression for sure. I created a folder on my console full of small VR experiences that were either cheap or free, and was also given a few games by the owner of the headset. My selection of VR games was pretty robust considering my budget (or lack thereof), and I quickly gravitated towards a select few. Here are the most notable favorites:

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What a treat this game was. Partially created by Justin Roiland (one of the minds behind Rick and Morty), this game sets you as a new employee in training who gets to try out a brand new VR training video. You are then sent through a gauntlet of small puzzle challenges that revolve around finding a VR headset in each environment to proceed to the next. I can’t begin to explain how hilariously absurd this game is. In the course of maybe an hour and a half I experienced a creepy ASMR tutorial, stole a potty-mouthed tree dwelling critter’s batteries, played a xylophone made of bone to please two floating skulls, impressed some edgy teenagers by torrenting a movie, and was put on trial for my crimes. And all of this happened right in front of me.

Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes

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How can VR tackle a multiplayer experience? This game is how. Keep Talking is a simple concept that is extremely fun with a group of people. The way this works is one person puts on the headset and is presented with a defusable bomb. Meanwhile, everyone else in the room huddles around a manual with detailed instructions for defusing the bomb. Everyone has to work together to defuse the bomb and what follows is a frenetic test of how well you and your friends can communicate. By the end of the month, I would have people over and they would ask if we could play “the bomb game” again. It’s that fun.

Star Wars Battlefront: X-Wing VR Mission

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I’m a huge Star Wars fan. So it should be no surprise how blown away I was with this gem. That was the closest I’ll ever be to actually flying an X-Wing. In the first 5 minutes of this game you already get to experience what it’s like getting into the cockpit, looking back at your astromech droid, seeing the rebel fleet jump in from hyperspace, and even getting to jump to light speed yourself. It’s pure magic from start to finish, and you’ll immediately want to play it again after its all over.

Batman Arkham VR

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Star Wars not your thing? Maybe Batman strikes your fancy then? Here’s the game for you. This game perfectly illustrates the detective aspect of Batman’s abilities, and I nerded out playing it. Over the course of an hour, you’ll be fighting Penguin, getting jump-scared by Killer Croc, and Investigating the brutal murder of Nightwing. It was riveting from start to finish, and out of all of the games I played, this one actually had a poignant ending that made sense for the overall story of the main Arkham games.

In Conclusion

The past month with the PSVR was super fun. My friends and I were crowded around the television on plenty of afternoons. So many of my doubts about the technology were quelled. I am now a firm believer in VR as a brand new medium that even has potential outside of video games. But the tech still has a long way to go before it becomes a staple of at-home entertainment.

I was lucky enough to be able to borrow a headset for this test (if you want to call it that), but would I buy one with my own money? I don’t think so. It’s still prohibitively expensive for a PSVR to me, and I don’t think the price will go down substantially until the next generation. VR shows incredible promise, but it’s still in it’s early stages, and it’s going to take a while to convince the general public that it is the future.


The State of the Art

So where does this new medium stand as of now? It’s promising. Very promising.

The best marketing is word of mouth, and cobbling together the right words to explain VR to people is sort of like drawing what pizza tastes like. It’s possible, but it would be much easier to just have someone try it for themselves. This definitely makes it hard to market. Especially since the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive can run you almost a thousand dollars just for the VR hardware alone (gaming PC sold separately). Everyone who has tried any sort of VR immediately hops on board though. Which might mean that the medium will have to rely on the loyal believers in the tech for it to really break into the mainstream.

Support from creators is also a huge piece of the puzzle for VR. What good is the hardware without great games to play or films to watch? But so far so good. The content curators on all of the platforms continues to churn out some crazy experiences (check out Beat Saber to see what i’m talking about).

Another trend we’re seeing in the world of VR is the idea of a VR Arcade warehouse. Which is essentially laser tag in a warehouse that is mapped 1:1 with the virtual environment. This idea might be the thing VR needs to convince large groups of people to start believing in the idea. One day we may even have haptic suits that generate feedback and allow you to feel things that aren’t actually there. The promise of that alone opens up a whole plethora of opportunities for real emotional experiences that make YOU the main character. If you ignore the psychological implications that come with full unfettered escapism, that sounds so incredible.

As of right now in 2018, VR is fun, awe-inspiring, surprising, and still too early in its life cycle to be considered a mainstay. But the future of the technology and the creations made with it is so bright that it drowns out anything dark that threatens to dim it. VR truly does have the potential to sit itself on a throne next to video games, film, and music as a wholeheartedly unique way to experience someone else’s creation. We here at KontrolFreek will be waiting with baited breath for the moment when that new era becomes the current one and we sure hope that’s soon.

This concludes this installment of State of the Art. Please leave a comment or tweet at us and tell us what you thought!

What aspect of the gaming industry would you like to see us cover next? Let us know and maybe we’ll make that our next piece!