Virtual reality. Its something many of us regard with considerable awe. A technological enterprise marshaled from the annals of science fiction. Conceived in prodigious realms and auspicious futures far beyond our primitive capabilities. A future when lost limbs are regrown by medical miracles, hover cars are affluent forms of transportation, and alien species have integrated into a society free from racial segregation. Where long theorised ideas about the consciousness of artificial intelligence and whether they indeed dream of electric sheep are arbitrary concepts, with androids now contributing to taxes and granted the right to vote. Yet here we are, in the here and now playing virtual reality games on a PlayStation. Simulated constructs where you can do anything, be anyone and go anywhere. You can scour the inhospitable continent of Skyrim. Drive various super cars from the drivers perspective. Or obliterate the swollen ball sacs of the hellish tormentors that litter Doom. The possibilities are endless, the immersion limitless. But is VR really worth the price of admission?
Let me start by saying that I don’t own one, because I flat-out refuse to pay for a peripheral accessory that costs more than the hardware I need to play it on, but I know a couple of friends who do. Both have praised the uniquely captivating experience, with one buying a PS4 specifically for the VR. After a time I began to find their ardent endorsement of the PS VR infectious, to the point that I had to sample it for myself. So on a blustery frigid Sunday afternoon the family and I visited one of them that lived within walking distance to discover what all the fuss was about.
My girlfriend and mates respective partner were largely apathetic about my first foray into virtual reality, so instead busied themselves with entertaining my daughter and engaging in other idle gossip, that I’d no doubt be privy to later. The first thing I noticed having adorned this conspicuous looking tiara is just how comfortable it was. It’s easily adjusted to even my bulbous shaped cranium, resting comfortably on my head without much discernible weight on my neck. It takes a few minutes for your eyes to comfortably adjust as your peripheral vision is severely compromised by the visual limitations of the headset encroaching on how you’d normally perceive the world. With the motion controls in either hand I took my first awkward steps into a virtual world.
I only played two games, the first was featured on “PS VR Worlds”, a glorified tech demo really where I fumbled my way through a diamond heist, which turned out to be an exercise in confusion. Trying to manoeuvre the controls that function as your hands is initially very disconcerting. It was however amusing sitting in a simulated pub admiring the very realistic interior, picking up a cigar from the table, lighting it, and then mimic the sound of inhaling the tobacco smoke and exhaling as if I were smoking it myself, with the character simulating my actions. The controls though functional are rather tricky to master though. Shooting for instance can feel disconnected and difficult to aim with any precision, with no reticle to aid you. But once you get the hang of it things become far more comfortable. Having finished my short, somewhat successful stint as a master criminal I delved into a far more familiar landscape: Skyrim.
“Skyrim VR” is ostensibly just virtual tourism, an ambitious destination considering the size and scope of the environment, prompting a desire to explore I hadn’t felt since I purchased it originally back in 2011. At times it felt like I was there, breathing the cold, piercing air. Observing the residents of Whitrun going about their scripted saunters. And even though the VR experience was coercing only two of my five senses into believing it was real, somehow that was enough to be entirely captivated by this world again. The motion controls are for the most part cumbersome, jarring and more than a little refractory, but so too is the combat system, which kind of neutralise one another. I wish I’d got more time here to really get a sense of what this has to offer, as my real life counterpart had to leave. But my temporary residency in the virtual world did inform one very apparent truth: that I need to get the PS VR, just not yet.
PS VR is just too expensive for what it is, despite being the cheapest premium VR device on the market. What it does is impressive, adding substantial creative expression to its extravagant dimensions. But as of right now it’s still adolescent and perhaps even a little shallow. Technically competent for sure, yet devoid of any substantial content that makes it a worthwhile asset. It’s perfect for socializing, having a few drinks with friends and indulge in the hallucinatory tech demos that are impressive to experience. Laughing at one another’s macarena style movements and spasmodic flinching. But as a solo experience it’s really rather hollow. Immersion is somewhat limited too, particularly when you have your daughter clamouring over you demanding that you take off the headset because she believes you’re hiding! Of course my daughters ability to antagonise you personally should be relatively reduced. Perhaps with a hand recognition software that could detect the faintest gestural nuances of your movements instead of an arbitrary move controller might provide a more intuitive solution to the stilted control scheme. I don’t know!
But my initial reservation to VR has drastically changed from a sceptical naysayer to someone genuinely excited about its future. There’s a definite potential with it, it’s just unclear what that explicit potential really is!