VR: Initial Thoughts and Observations

Posted June 3, 2018

I've been fighting it, not so quietly, for some years now: the urge to dive into the deeper end of virtual reality (i.e. beyond Google Cardboard). My partner is not a fan, and that's part of what's held me back. Well, that, coupled with the cost of getting into the gear. But recently my 2013 laptop started to fail (five years, not at all a shabby run) and so I was looking for a new system. I realized that yeah, I could replace it in kind with another Lenovo Yoga, touchscreen and all, but really, I didn't use that functionality a ton and for the same price I found an Acer gaming laptop (a Predator Helios 300) that's VR-compatible. Under a thousand dollars. It was the nudge I needed. I think I had the laptop all of a week before I ordered an Oculus Touch (fortunately, I had rewards points saved up such that the Oculus was 'only' $150).

I've had it about a month now. I thought it might be a good time to post initial thoughts at this stage in the technology, if only for interesting retrospection years from now.

Despite this guilty indulgence in which my partner, Sam, has absolutely zero interest, I am pleased to report that as of the time of this writing he is still speaking to me. He does say that it's weird to have me both present in the room and yet Not Really There. (We have a small condo in notoriously-expensive Honolulu, with insufficient space to really separate, so we're still gaming in the same room.) In particular, he's been incredibly patient with me exploring social games like Rec Room where I'm talking to other people who are Somewhere Else. He is a little less patient when I play paintball or take on a quest, because I often get excited and raise my voice as if I really need to project to the person on the far side of the room (when in fact they could hear me just fine if I spoke in a normal tone... but they feel far away, and that's hard to overcome). My virtual acquaintances and I sometimes wonder what our neighbors must think we're up to...

Plugging in to Unplug

Sam told me that he was most surprised by the fact that, as a strong introvert, a woman who is often weary after a day at work extroverting her butt off, that I have been gravitating toward multiplayer VR as a way to unwind. Admittedly, I do have to take frequent breaks to be alone, and it's sometimes hard finding people who aren't creepy or mean (particularly given that I'm A Woman On The Internet), but ... well, while this may sound ill-adjusted of me, it is fantastic to come home, shed work, be anonymous, and just. let. go. Hang out. Play meaningless games. Have conversations about how we're going to get past this next part of a quest, or play charades with a group of fun people without having to deal with all the effort of Going Out.

Last night I visited a surprisingly real-feeling club, where the music got louder the closer you went to the speakers, people were dancing together to the pounding beat, and when you needed a break there were quiet nooks far from the din where you could decompress. I hung out, danced, enjoyed the feel of it, and remembered why I loved clubbing so much when I was younger. I stayed just long enough, and left precisely when I wanted to. When there's no Getting Ready for a Night Out, and no time in transit to get there or back home, it feels perfectly acceptable to head out the moment you're weary of the scene.

Then again, sometimes the social experiences are ... awkward. I went to an open-mic event in AltspaceVR one evening last week. I didn't know about the event beforehand, I just saw it on a schedule when it was nearly over and I figured I'd swing by and catch the last bit of it to see what it was like. Every person who wants to get on stage gets seven or so minutes to perform, just like in a coffee shop or a bar or what have you. I had enough time to catch perhaps two acts... I entered the room in the middle of some guy on stage giving a monologue about his recent breakup, and how miserable he was feeling, and how he'd actually thought about suicide, but fortunately was on a good path now and optimistic about the future. Before we got to the feel-good ending, this stranger was telling a room filled with other strangers (at least strangers to me) increasingly darker and darker thoughts. At one point he said to us, "I can't look at you all right now, I'm going to turn my menu on so that I'm looking at that and don't have to look at you. It'll help with the stage fright." Then he started crying. People in the audience were silently emoting hearts and frowny faces and tears above their heads. I ... I wasn't sure what to do. I felt for the guy, even though I hadn't caught the whole story, but I was trying to relax, and this was not helping. However, to just disappear (which would have been noticeable, given there were maybe 15 people in the audience) while this man was pouring his misery out seemed beyond cruel. So I stayed. I emoted appropriately. I even stuck around for the last act, where a woman sang an a capella song from the 30s (Get Happy), which sounds like a nice time except that before she sang it she told us she loved the song because it made her feel closer to her grandparents, most of whom were dead. I left after she was done, somewhat thankful that the event itself was over and so the timing of my departure was less awkward, but also curious if the whole hour had been like that.

So anyway, I'm unexpectedly realizing that virtual reality is giving me a new form of an old-lifeline: beyond escape, it's also providing me with connection (for better or worse, I suppose). The nature of my work is that we move large distances every few years, which is not terribly conducive to making new friends and/or to staying in contact with them regularly — particularly given that I despise phones and videochats. Additionally, in the current stage of my career it is difficult for people to think of me as a human being with relaxing, silly ideas for fun outside my job. I am recognizable enough in Honolulu that I feel like I have to constantly be on. My personal behavior and my work persona are inextricably linked, and while most people worry about what their employer thinks of their social media profile, I am forced to be on guard for anything I do in any setting where I don't know people well. Not that I'm a wild person or anything, but I'm conscious enough of this fact that I never completely relax. And that's not very healthy.

It's so freeing to have time in the day to "unplug."

Okay, yes — I know I'm really talking about "plugging in." What I mean is, when I'm in these other places, I get a brief hiatus from thinking about my responsibilities. I can converse with people who completely don't care about what I do for a living; I love my work dearly, but one of the main drawbacks at this point in my career is that the second someone finds out my day job, they're often more interested in that than anything else about me, and I rarely get to really be myself with people other than my husband (my best friends live on the North American mainland or in the United Kingdom, and I see them rarely). Most of the fun people I know on O`ahu either live a distance away from me (at least by the standards set by Honolulu's infamously bad traffic) or I know them through work, and I'm The Boss. I am careful to avoid appearances of favoritism, so I try to keep my reports at arms-length, at least socially. Basically, I've had difficulty in Hawai`i locating other, well, nerds. And I'm finding myself at a point in my life where people my age have generally decided to have kids (which we consciously chose not to do), and that also complicates the ease of hanging out. Virtual reality eliminates these hurdles.

A New Way to Escape to a Favorite Place

I've always used games as a method of escape. I think of it as life/work balance. The first two decades of my career were mostly outside, so in that respect it has always felt okay to get some of my mental balance with screen time. Admittedly, these days I'm inside a lot more at work, and I should probably go for more walks... but the landscapes I love most are not accessible to me where I live. I realize what a terrible First World Problem this is, but I live in Hawai`i and really miss Alaska. One of the first games I purchased after the Oculus arrived was The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim VR. It's a new version of a game I already know well, a game I'd already used as my go-to hit for far-North scenery, but now I'm even more immersed.

Amusingly, one of the big downsides from 2D Skyrim that has been brought over into virtual reality is this: when I'm in my quietest moods and I just want to go wandering alone across Skyrim's sprawling, mountainous Nordic landscape, my Moment usually gets interrupted. One evening last week I found a lovely rock outcropping and sat down cross-legged upon it, gazing down at the river below. I could see fish now and then beneath the surface. The familiar soundtrack of the game lulled me, mixed with the sounds of flowing water and wind in the trees. The wind was made to feel genuine by a fan blowing gently on my skin in the Real World. It was twilight. The stars were coming out. I spotted a luna moth and a torchbug (a sort of giant lightning bug) flitting above me. It was peaceful.

And then, out of the corner of my eye... Dammit, is that a random wizard of some ilk crossing the landscape and picking fights with anyone he sees? Yes. Yes, it was. I said to him (aloud, silly as that was), "Dude, could you please not?" He of course could not hear me. I had to drop my meditative nature-gazing and fight him. I won, but it's hard to recapture your serenity after murdering a wizard by throwing streams of fire from the palms of your hands*. This happens in 2D Skyrim as well, but it's more jarring in VR, particularly since the fighting in VR is more physical — I stood up as he approached. You aim using your hands, just like in the game (and you can do so independently with your left and right hand, a nice touch that you couldn't achieve in 2D). Between that, the change from soft background music to Fighting Music, and the sounds of the battle still ringing in your ears, it's hard to just sit back down and chill out on the riverbank after that.

* NOTE TO SELF: I probably just need to hone my meditation skills more.

Oh, one other Skyrim-related observation: when you take down a grizzly bear and then you go to examine it up close, it's really big. Not as big as many of the grizzlies I've seen up close in real life. But big. In a way that you just don't get in 2D. I didn't know skeevers (essentially giant rats) were as big as they were. And the wolves are clearly some breed of dire wolf, for they are bigger than any wolf I've ever seen.

So... yeah. I think Skyrim VR is pretty great, though many people on the internet disagree. For example, Gizmodo's article entitled, Skyrim VR Is Everything Wrong With Virtual Reality Right Now. Dang. Harsh.

VR is More Ergonomic, More Active, and Less-Snacky

As I come to this point in the essay, I realize I need to take a break. My neck hurts. My shoulders are somewhat tense. It reminds me that in VR, your head does whatever it wants to. It looks where it wants to, it stretches when it feels like it. It's natural. To look over your shoulder, you ... turn and look over your shoulder. And you feel the stretch in your spine as you do so. While you can play many things sitting (or even lying!) down, many of the games I enjoy playing are best played standing. You avoid getting hit during a game of paintball or laser tag* by moving your body. You throw frisbees in disc golf by using the exact same arm motion you do to toss a frisbee in real life. When I was in the club last night, I was really dancing — I moved with the music, and watched my shadow dancing on the wall next to me.

* AN ASIDE: I had to search for the proper spelling of lasertag laser tag and it turns out there is still a place where you go in Honolulu to play physical laser tag. $10 per game per person, though, so I plan to stick with playing from home for 'free'.

My favorite workout right now is playing Beat Saber, a game recently described in an article at The Verge as the neon-soaked VR Star Wars / Guitar Hero mashup you didn’t know you needed. That's a pretty accurate description. You have a red blade of light in your left hand and a blue blade of light in your right. Red and blue blocks fly toward you in perfect time with the music, and you must slice them with the appropriate blade. You choose the difficulty, so you can start slow and ramp it up. And if you'd like, barriers will also come at you, forcing you to side-step or squat (but fortunately not to jump... that would just be perilous to do in a VR headset). It makes me move, makes my sweat, opens up my shoulders, and generally makes me feel good. The music is catchy, too.

On a final wellness-related note, I have found myself snacking less, an activity which I unfortunately have come to associate with gaming since I was but a wee lass. You generally have to remove the headset to eat or drink; I see that as a feature, rather than a bug.

VR Is Also Somewhat More ... Dangerous

It's true. You can get hurt. There's even been one recorded fatality.

Thus far I have:
  • Pulled objects off of a bookshelf while playing paintball

  • Nailed my hand painfully on a cabinet during a tennis backswing, which sent the controller battery and battery cover flying; it took me quite a while to find them, and all the while I could hear the woman I had been playing tennis with laughing at what she could hear of my conversation with Sam while we searched

  • Spilled a couple of drinks in frightening proximity to the new laptop

  • Kicked my cat (thankfully, not very hard; he is fine)
So yeah, maybe use the guardian technology that comes with your headset, and set the boundary more conservatively than you need to, and don't have drinks nearby, and possibly secure your pet before it gets underfoot. I personally am not a huge fan of the graphic technique the Oculus guardian uses, because it shifts what you see in a slightly virtigo-inducing way, so when possible I've taken to standing with the back of my legs against the couch, conscious of the fact that if I lose contact with the couch I need to take a moment to readjust, and I just keep objects out of reach.

But What About Motion Sickness??

On another health-related note, a lot of people seem to be concerned about motion sickness in VR. It's true that, particularly at first, your brain sees your body moving while your feet aren't necessarily assisting, and it's understandably concerned about that disconnect. This can result in an unsettling feeling, but there are ways around it. For me in particular, it really didn't effect me in most games, and dissipated quickly (i.e. it was only an issue during my first session) in the one game that did make me queasy. Then again, I generally am immune to motion sickness, and I love boats and flying in small planes. Your mileage may vary.

Delicate Equipment

There seem to be two schools of thought in the VR community: either leave your stuff plugged in, hard-mount your motions sensors, have a nice system for managing your cables and hanging up your equipment... or take the risk of the equipment getting dirty or damaged or risk bending a pin in the specialized HDMI cable when you're plugging/unplugging the headset (but at least it won't over heat if it's not plugged in!). Basically, there are a lot of threads on this out on the internet. I don't have a permanent set up. My apartment isn't conducive to that. At first I was a Really Good Girl, and I put all the gear away after every use and took the time to set it all up again before every session. Predictably, I got sick of this, and risked leaving it out, despite owning three cats, one of whom has an annoying habit of chewing cables. I did take the time to police the cords, tuck things away in such a manner as to generally cat-proof them.

And it worked! For a few days! No nibbles!

Then Friday night when I tried to use the system it wouldn't start. I've had it less than a month. After much troubleshooting I ran my fingers down the cord from the headset to the laptop, and sure enough something had sliced into it. (Something with a sharp edge, not a kitty tooth.) I could see the wiring. Dammit. So I called around and most stores that should carry such a cable only carry the entire setup, not the individual parts, because not enough people have this stuff yet to make the supporting hardware a Thing of Demand. Miraculously, I was able to get it running again (thank god for duct tape! (yes, seriously)) and in the meantime Oculus is mailing me a new $50 headset cord.

I think I should go back to being a Really Good Girl and put the darn thing away each time. Sigh. Anyway, the gear is kind of delicate, and none of it is cheap.

Vision in VR

I've been blessed with excellent vision my entire life. Then, about three years ago, the day that all my elders told me would happen came to pass: I needed reading glasses. And this situation had made it really difficult for me to enjoyably use Google Cardboard, but I knew that if I needed to, I could get a prescription lens adapter. I was surprised to find out that I don't need glasses at all in the Oculus headset, and that I can often read easier in the headset than I do in real life. Weird. Then again, my husband has pretty much always worn glasses, his glasses don't fit inside the headset, and he can't seem to see anything clearly, which makes me slightly sad because I'd like him to experience some of the things I'm talking about*.

* NOTE: You may recall that I said he has zero interest in experiencing VR, so it's not worth making the headset work for him just for these brief moments of shared understanding. I suppose there are some chasms that even love cannot cross.

It's Still Experimental

Another thing I'm noticing is that people are still figuring out what to do with VR.

There appears to not yet be a standard as to how you control yourself in VR games. So switching back and forth between different games can be challenging, especially when the controls are similar but not quite the same.

Not everything is a game. There are lots of experiences and some utilities. Some of it is intuitive and near flawless, like Google's free Tilt Brush, while other offerings are either slightly less intuitive (like Google's also-free Blocks) or the level of image resolution keeps from delivering fully on the experience (like Google's also-also free Google Earth VR).

A lot of the experiences that promise serenity and meditation are still too graphically poor. For example, I bought a promising experience called NatureTreks VR , and it's great in many ways — particularly for the price (I got it for $6.99) — but animals that appear in it feel so out of place that it's really hard for me to use it as a place to relax. I've decided against requesting a refund or uninstalling it, though, in the hope that it will get updates and improve over time.

I'd seen 360 photos, but the idea of three-dimensional films was new to me until this new journey. I shall likely always remember a short independent film called Keyed Alike simply because it was the first such movie I'd experienced where you are in between the characters and are forced to decide, just as you do in everyday group conversations, who to focus on. If you watch the speaker, you may miss the other person's reaction to what was said. If you watch the person who is listening, you may not notice an important facial expression or body language that augments the words being spoken. And then sometimes some new thing happens unexpectedly behind you. Of course, if you want you can replay the experience as if you had a super photographic memory and change how you observe the situation, so I suppose there's that.

I am intrigued to see how this perspective in 3D films will play out in graphic adventures in VR. I haven't purchased any yet, but there are murder mysteries out there, and I wonder if you'll have to Not Miss Pertinent Details, or if, like standard graphic adventures, everything will be there for you to find, if only you are persistent enough. I'm guessing that will be the case, if for no other reason than to avoid making people really upset with games that might be too challenging.

If there are enough VR films/experiences out there to actually determine trends, one thing I'm noticing is that people are understandably using this medium to help you walk in someone else's shoes. I am a Man comes to mind; it's "an interactive virtual reality experience set to the historic events of the African American Civil Rights Movement. Users [...] witness the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Worker’s Strike and the events leading to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." Predictably, it is not a comfortable experience. And that's fine, because I knew it up front. But I've also experienced a few films that seem to be about one thing (the film Ctrl (Remastered) is presumably about eSports, for example) but then ends up being about something completely different (in this example, domestic violence). The YouTube video of Ctrl (Remastered) actually does warn you that it is a dark, serious drama with scenes that some might find upsetting, but I didn't receive this warning before I viewed it through another distributer. Again, maybe it's that I'm using this tech to unwind, and so I'm not as prepared for Unpleasant Topics, but it seems to be a pattern that experimental independent film designers are drawn to, particularly as a lot of these films seem to be funded on grants, and thus must Serve A Purpose.

Dreaming in VR

This last bit is neither here nor there, neither positive nor negative. It just is, but it's funky so I feel the need to point it out. It only took a week or so to start having dreams where I floated around like you do in many VR games, where I dreamt that I walked using a joystick, or where I would find limits in where I could go in my dreams (equivalent to the guardian system that Oculus uses to graphically tell you, "Yo — you're about to smash into your bookcase.") This is odd, but not unpleasant.

Got thoughts?

Feel free to contact me on Twitter. @isquiesque