Last week, I put on my first standalone VR headset. In total, it cost me less than $100. A relative was selling their Galaxy S7 Edge, and I found a Gear VR headset locally for $5. I cleaned up the headset, replaced the face-padding, flashed a custom ROM onto the S7 to maximize performance, and started exploring what this mobile VR platform had to offer.
Since the beginning of this year, I had began looking more closely at VR as a technology, reading news articles and following product launches. But as for many people, the cost of entry was too high for things to go any further. I didn’t even plan to have a Gear VR headset as my first HMD. The opportunity presented itself; I was helping someone out – the cost was reasonable and the potential utility – unlimited.
Despite this however, my expectations were low, very low. I was mentally prepared for disappointment. I knew it was not going to be the best of the best VR tech has to offer. And since first putting on the headset, I have certainly seen some weaknesses of the platform. But I have also had a really quite amazing and fun time.
Bigscreen, humble people
I have not pursued many social interactions in VR so far, but some of the encounters I have had in Bigscreen have already left a lasting impression. It does feel like we are still in the pioneering days of our VR future – I sense there is a camaraderie among VR denizens. And the people I have met where friendly and considerate – a little kid looked at me from across the room, said “hello James!” when he arrived after I did, and said “bye guys, I have to go” – when he left. Fast forward a few years and maybe there will be a lot more hostility to strangers – or maybe not.
I do appreciate the social aspect of VR is both profound and significant – it will change peoples lives, just as the internet it runs on has already done. But it was some of the more visually immersive moments that have really gotten my attention.
The car chase that opened my eyes
Up until the moment Blade Runner 2049: Replicant Pursuit had downloaded, my ride through the world of mobile VR had been somewhat – pedestrian. But things took a sudden turn when I found myself in the front seat of a futuristic Spinner – looking out it’s windows at the neon-lit city around me. Yes, the graphics were a step down, but the level of immersion – the feeling like you where really in that vehicle, travelling in that world – was a compromise I would gladly make again and again. The Slice VR developed ‘Welcome to
Virtual Reality’ also had a similar moment for me when you are seated inside a small spaceship. These scenarios didn’t just completely place me in a different reality, they also showed me a glimpse of things to come.
A new way to play
The experiences I describe above, left me with a sense that with VR, we are re-examining in a fundamental way, what games mean. Jason Rubin (VP of Content at Oculus) recently spoke in an interview about game development in the context of Mobile VR. He talked about understanding the limitations of Mobile VR hardware, but at the same time – appreciating that games do not need cutting-edge graphics to be incredibly immersive and fun. Convincing worlds and experiences can be brought into existence by combining creativity with programming skill. And then there are the entirely new kinds of games that are only possible in VR. This leaves me very excited for the Oculus Quest. Not only am I being freed from the chains of 3DoF and allowed to physically move around and experience the virtual world – but by presenting Quest as a Games Console – Oculus are creating an opportunity for a more intense focus on what VR games are and what they can be.
The unnerving ‘Dinner party’
I cannot leave unmentioned the one other truly standout moment during my first week in VR. After launching the Within app, I downloaded (hoping for the best video quality) the award-nominated 360 degrees VR short film Dinner Party. A combined audio and visually immersive journey, I was immediately sucked into the narrative and unquestionably knew; this is how I wanted to experience story-telling going forward. The experience was incredible, and so disturbing – I had to ‘get myself out of it’ before the conclusion.