You will always remember your Virtual Reality come-to-Jesus moment. For me, it was on the show floor of E3 2014. I waited in line for an hour or so for a chance to strap on a headset that made everyone look like they were cosplaying Geordi La Forge from Star Trek: The Next Generation, if Geordi’s visor was a cinder block. The screens in front of my eyes turned on, and suddenly I was inside a fighter-jet spaceship, flying through some kind of asteroid-field space-station ruin. An enemy ship started firing at me—and I turned my head, physically turned my head inside of my cockpit, to get a good look at the bastard.
When they pulled off my Oculus visor, the real world didn’t feel right for a few seconds. The mind runs to Neo in The Matrix, gasping for air when he wakes up into actuality—or the stories about people trying LSD at Woodstock, needing some wise experienced mentor to talk them down from an out of-body experience.
2015 is the year that Virtual Reality officially arrived at E3. There have been rumblings about the Oculus Rift for years—Facebook bought it in 2014—and this year, Oculus announced a partnership with Xbox. Microsoft also debuted the HoloLens this year—not quite Virtual but rather “Mixed Reality,” which can imprint a holographic overlay on top of the real world using Google Glass-ish technology. And Sony brought their Project Morpheus to the show floor. Is Morpheus in competition with Oculus? Is this another Betamax/VCR/Blu-Ray/HD-DVD thing?
When I talked to Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe, he sounded philosophical. “We’re all pioneers,” he said. “It’s the very beginning.” There is a Virtual Reality industry now: Here’s quick guide to what I saw.
I had five experiences with Morpheus behind closed doors. The Playroom VR is a five-person game. One player puts on Morpheus and plays a monster attacking a cartoon city, destroying skyscrapers via headbutt. The other players stare at a TV screen and dodge the monster’s attacks, before counter-attacking. This is the argument for Morpheus as a PS4 add-on—the equivalent of the PlayStation Move and the PlayStation Camera and all the other add-ons to a console that you never really use.
I also played Super Hyper Cube, a lo-fi puzzle game where you have to move different-sized blocks through specifically-shaped holes in digital walls. That is the least exciting way to describe anything, but many Virtual Reality games suggest primordial Pong-level videogames suddenly brought into the three-dimensional world. (Super Hyper Cube probably best described as the 3D Chess version of Tetris.) Harmonix has Musical Visualizer, a non-game that creates 3D experiences that correspond to songs. It’s the iTunes visualizer, if the iTunes visualizer was also the wormhole sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. I watched Musical Visualizer create a 3D screensaver set to M83’s “Midnight City,” and thought it was totally useless and so beautiful I wanted to cry.
VirZoom offers a new angle on Virtual Reality. You operate it by riding a bike—an exercise bike, ideally, although you could also convert your own bike into a stationary bike. Although I was pedaling in the real world, I was a horse in the digital world. The faster I pedaled IRL, the faster I galloped IVRL. After I pedaled for awhile, I picked up a power-up that gave me wings. I guess you could compare VirZoom to the Wii Fit. It seems like there might be a problem with balance. Here is exactly what I marked down in my notebook after playing VirZoom:
flying — I’m f—ing flying
The most interesting experience I had with Morpheus behind closed doors was London Heist. You’re riding shotgun in a getaway car; bad guys attack, and you shoot them. The shooting wasn’t the interesting part—although it was funny to see how bad my actual aim is, as opposed to the graceful “aim” of an old-fashioned controller-and-TV-set first-person-shooter. London Heist utilized two PS Move Controllers to simulate your hands. When you reload, you don’t hit a button. With your left hand, you hold the gun; with your right hand, you pick up a clip. The experience of bringing my two hands together to reload the clip felt weirdly invigorating and entirely brand new.
Sony is also showing off a game that could theoretically reinvent multiplayer sports. It’s called Rigs, and it’s sort of a hybrid between a shooting game and a sports game. This video describes it better than I ever could: All I can say is that, when I successfully scored a point (by jumping my robo-suit through a mechanical ring) I felt exactly as excited as the one or two times in grade school that I successfully shot a basketball through a hoop.
It is not accurate to describe the HoloLens as Virtual Reality, I guess—although you could make the argument that none of these devices are the Platonic Ideal of “Virtual Reality,” the cyberspace that you send your brainwaves to while your body stays behind. (You could describe Morpheus and Oculus as wearable TV screens.) But the HoloLens doesn’t block reality from you—instead, it attempts to mix digital imagery into your field of vision.
There’s a Halo experience on the show floor where the HoloLens guids you through the equivalent of a videogame tutorial. Looking through the Lens, a blank table suddenly becomes a hologram, with your Chief Spartan giving you a map of the level you’re about to fight through. You know in the Iron Man movies, all those scenes where Tony Stark is waving his arms through the air and moving holograms around? HoloLens is that, if Tony was wearing a large visor that he had to occasionally adjust because the weight was hurting his nose.
Far more interesting is Project X-Ray. I was inside of a normal room, and suddenly, the walls started breaking open, and little flying robots flew out. I shot at them—using a reticle in the center of my field of vision, and an Xbox controller. I’m trying to figure out how to explain this: I was moving around a square room, shooting at tiny flying monsters, and whenever I missed them and shot at the wall, the digital wall appeared to break open—even though I could also see the actual wall behind it.
The field of vision inside of the HoloLens isn’t great—it’s a tiny square of Mixed Reality Imagery inside of your very large field of vision—but Microsoft is clearly very early in the process, and what I saw looked impressive and totally different. The best argument for HoloLens is their Minecraft experience. You can look at a blank wall and transform that wall into a 2-dimensional screen—although it’s really more like a hole to the Minecraft universe, since you can get up close to the screen and stare around the corners of the frame. You can also turn around and transform a blank table into a 3D layout of the Minecraft universe. At no point in this process is there a TV screen involved.
The first thing you notice about Oculus is that it just feels better on your face. I’m not sure I can say it feels “good.” But it feels snug, and ergonomic—like something your parents would not immediately physically rebel against. When I talked to Iribe, he proudly pointed out that the headphones are built into the model—whereas anyone trying Morpheus this year got to experience the odd intimacy of a Morpheus technician securing earphones over your ears.
The second thing you notice about Oculus is that the games they are displaying could absolutely be contemporary games on any device. I played two: Edge of Nowhere, a horror-adventure about a guy climbing through a snowswept cavern and dodging weird monsters, and Chronos, a fantasy-action game with a punishing degree of difficulty that felt very Dark Souls and a ruined-majesty look that felt very Shadow of the Colossus. I only played one level of both games. I’m not sure either one would be, like, the Most Exciting Game on the Xbox or the PS4. But they felt modern—you would believe them as moderately acclaimed downloadables. (Interestingly, both games were 3D adventures, where you controlled a little figure: Most of my previous VR experiences were first-person.)
The third thing you notice about Oculus is that, moreso than Morpheus or HoloLens, it’s already pivoting away from the idea of Virtual Reality as a game. I got to try out something called the Oculus Touch, which gives you a couple little controllers that transform into your “hands” when you put on the visor. Using the Touch, you can actually reach out and grab things. Inside of the Virtual Reality, I was at a table filled with toys: I grabbed a robot and shook it; I grabbed a lighter and flicked it on. I have actual physical memories of doing both of those things.
More revolutionary: When I used the Touch, I was across the table from a floating digital head and two floating digital hands. These belonged to a guy who was one room away; theoretically, he could’ve been a hundred feet away, a country away. He talked to me and guided me through some demo-ish things—whoa, we’re in space now! Because Oculus is now a Facebook joint, the long-term use of this seems obvious: Five or ten or fifteen years from now, Facebook Chat will be replaced by Facebook Holy Crap My Friend I Haven’t Talked To In Years Who Lives Ten Thousand Miles Away From Me Is Talking To Me And Also We’re In Space For Some Reason.
Is Virtual Reality a bubble that is going to inevitably burst? I tend to be skeptical of videogame-industry gimmicks—remember Kinect?—and the technology industry loves to declare something the Next Big Whatever and pour money down a dark black-hole pit of nowhere. The Rift is apparently shipping early next year, at an announced cost that will maybe be arond $400-$500 or maybe more. Morpheus is scheduled to maybe ship around the same time, for maybe quite a bit more money. HoloLens has no release date, no apparent price—it could be the device that will appeal to the most people, insofar as it’s a blend of normal reality and gamespace, or it could look weirdly old-fashioned when we’re all building digital houses for the digital girlfriends we don’t tell our wives about.
From a videogame perspective, Virtual Reality feels like a step-forward/step-back proposition. Step back: wow factor of seeing everything in a physical way inevitably hits up against the reality of playing games that are way less interesting than you’re used to. Step forward: Hey, the first round of games on a new console is never good—and I can’t stress enough, you are walking around inside of the game. (No, you probably wouldn’t buy a Horse Simulator for the PS4. Counter-argument: You’re a horse that is flying.)
The questions about Virtual Reality are simultaneously banal and existential. Do people want this? Enough to pay a lot of money for it? Enough to put hardware on their face? The fact that Oculus Rift feels notably less clunky than the other devices is a step in the right direction. The fact that there are already a multitude of experiences—from shooter gameplay to 3D mapping to M83 to flicking a lighter to f–king flying—is also encouraging. I can’t imagine the typical consumer spending five hundred dollars on this stuff right away. I also can’t imagine the typical consumer trying Virtual Reality and forgetting it. For right now, Oculus > Morpheus > HoloLens. But it’s still just the very beginning—and anyone who’s read the Book of Genesis knows that even God had to start over to get old-school reality right.