The first time I pulled the two-billion dollar device off my head, I felt nauseated. I was ferreted away in a booth in a corner at GDC, having just had my first taste of both Eve: Valkyrie and the Oculus Rift in general, and I felt like puking. This is not particularly noteworthy. People have been talking about the OR's puke-making "immersion" capabilities since it was first heaved into the toilet bowl of gamers' minds two years ago.
But I had assumed that this nausea was something I was stronger than—physiologically, mentally, perhaps spiritually. In my head, my strong, Midwestern constitution is not upset by this new technology. Rather, it relishes it. I envisioned soaring among day-glo dots, creating new universes with the flick of my finger, a VR cowboy and a prophet of the new flesh.
And yet: I did not transform. The flesh remained, alas, pasty. I was in a gray cubicle with two CCP marketing execs, and they asked me what I thought. I thought: The Valkyrie show demo begins in a deep blue tunnel. You're in the cockpit of a ship, and that cockpit never isn't in your mind—something that's helpful as you shoot out of the tunnel and into a diffuse reddish space, swarming with enemy ships, and go twirling about space trying to get a bead on an enemy ship.
That you can still see the cockpit as you look up, behind, over, and down is what makes this a game and not a panic attack simulator. The Rift's 3D capabilities ensure a static environment in your foreground, and when I surged toward and almost collided with an enemy ship, fire trailing out of its engines, it created a tangible, intelligible thrill that even something weighty and fine like Titanfall doesn't approach.
I thought: There is a lot of chatter around virtual reality, and much of it is very stupid, but when Sony’s Shuhei Yoshida and Oculus’ Palmer Luckey and their ilk call it "a new medium" they are not speaking hyperbolically. At worst, they are hedging their bets in advance of the fact that, I surmised, no one seems to know what the fuck to do with this stuff.
And so I went out in search of that what the fuck. There is still, clearly, a lot of work to be done on Valkyrie. CMO David Reid talks of adding in different mission types, class-based combat, and finally (and perhaps most importantly) those connective threads between the in-game action and the greater Eve universe, which persists and evolves second-by-second today as it has for the past decade.
But Valkyrie is dazzling, as it intends to be, and it feels surprisingly like a game, something built for and around this new medium. I asked everyone I talked to what they had to unlearn in the process of developing for VR, and the best answers I got were pragmatic: the sense of movement had to be different, there were some big-picture user interface considerations that were new. I think what I wanted when I asked developers this question was for them to answer, with a wide-eyed seriousness that shook me, "Everything." But that is the type of thing that happens in science fiction movies, and we, of course, live in the real world.
The next morning, after transforming my body into a crockpot full of burritos and whiskeys that then came seeping out of my pores in a cold, restless sweat overnight, I added a cup of boiling hot coffee into the mix, because I apparently do not understand how the human body works, and went to try out something called the Omni. You may have seen videos of this thing over the course of the past year. It allows you to jog in place while wearing a VR headset, an effort which connects the dots between the VR display's output and the controller's input. This may not be the Holodeck, but it promises the ability to truly walk through Los Santos, or wherever.
I was terrible at it. The thing is that it's not a treadmill; I stood atop a slippery concave disc, sliding my feet downward in the direction I wanted to go while wearing a special pair of Omni shoes that I'd slipped on after handing over my damp, floppy Chuck Taylors in a hungover daze. I heaved my enfeebled body into a flexed upright position, gripping the safety bar like someone trying to endure a fishing trip while slapping my feet through the training mission, armpits growing damp. I spent so much time running into enemies that the attendant worried aloud that she had given me the incorrect instructions, but eventually the training ended, I received my disc-sliding diploma, and I moved on to the full game: a horror military shooter called Travr.
It was the near future, and I had a gun
And so I walked into a second Omni unit, where I was strapped into a harness that was connected to the upper ring of the device, and then all of my senses were covered in machines—big headphones and an Oculus Rift—and I knew: I was trapped. If I wanted to run away, I couldn't. (This is ironic.) The game began. It was the near future, and I had a gun. The second I entered some glowing red elevator and began plummeting downward, lights strobing, floor telescoping downward and upward, I knew I was in trouble. Because it was clear: Travr does not give a shit. Travr is like: "SLIDE FORWARD! THEN STOP!" Then you stand there and it'll be like "SLIDE FORWARD!" and some shit will explode, and then you'll be shooting zombies and people are screaming at you while you slide around in another direction. Then a ghost shows up and she screams at you. Then it's over.
Then you pull your headset off and people are smiling and clapping and you're back in a convention center, and people are asking you to step out of the Omni, and you want to talk to them about what just occurred, because your arms and senses are all aching and you can't walk exactly, but first you have to take a second and sit on the ground in front of everyone and look at your floppy old shoes for a second. Like, what the fuck are these things still doing here.
Just to clarify: I did not shit my pants on the Omni. But metaphorically, sure: I shit my pants on the Omni. The thing about "immersion" is that it's actually surrender. You are telling everyone around you that you are checking out for a bit and that in that stead you will leave yourself entirely vulnerable. And so please be kind. If your significant other walks in from work when you have this thing on you have an understanding with them that they do not like come up and startle you or rip the headset off or smack you in the back of the head because you spent the rent money on an omni-directional treadmill. If we're going to spend a lot of time doing this stuff, we're going to need social rules about it. We've started to discover this already with wearables and the Glasshole phenomenon, and VR is the grand-daddy of all wearables.
Which is maybe the skeleton key to understanding Facebook’s acquisition of the Oculus Rift: it’s a bet on this technology as the center of human attention, at some point. People talk about VR with a mix of fear and awe, and this is appropriate. Both impressions deserve interrogation.
I feel equal parts of both, and I'm not sure exactly how that’ll change when I have one of these things in my house. Excited, sure, but there’s also no mistaking how much you give up when you put one of them on. I have a hard time on mass transportation not imagining someone slitting my throat—like, just walking in, seeing that nice, exposed throat, and opening it. Were it to happen some morning, as I gushed blood all over my T-shirt and slumped against the window, I'd think: makes sense. And then I’d die.
What I'm saying is that I have some trust issues, at least in regards to physical spaces and not getting hurt in them, and that VR headsets are going to not just prey on them but, I think, validate and universalize them. Consider, friend, something called the Sulon Cortex. This headset combines virtual reality with augmented reality: the demo I did started off with me shooting pixels in a hastily constructed room outside of GDC, before I walked into a portal that overlaid that room with a PS1-era spaceship.
The calling card of the Cortex is the way it uses your immediate physical context within the game, so you are encouraged to walk around in your actual room in order to explore the digital one. But you don't forget the dimensions of the real room you're in; you know a wall is nearby, and it's not the one you're seeing, and so the experience is remarkably close to being blindfolded and forced to dodder about, arms out-stretched. I was supposed to walk toward a zombie at one point, and as I took hesitant steps toward it, the attendant chided me, "You're not scared, are you?" The answer was yes, but not of the zombie: It was the fucking wall, which was right there a second ago.
Into this fray, obviously, steps Sony's Project Morpheus. It is as good as you have been led to believe. The exact second it alights upon your head the thought is: balance. Grace. You look like an idiot while wearing any VR headset, Morpheus included, but at least you don't feel like one here. Dare I say it: you forget that it is there.
Its nearest analog is probably Sony's other recent triumph: that is, the Dual Shock 4, that marvel of weight and balance and curvature and texture to which we are clearly intended to spend several thousand hours connected. One gets the same feeling from the Project Morpheus headset. Whereas most VR headsets struggle with weight, the Morpheus exudes a pleasant solidity; whereas most struggle with screen fidelity, this one is bright and crisp; whereas most make you want to vomit, this one brings you a glass of cool ginger ale and kisses you on the forehead.
Even its cheery blue lights are welcoming. I would die with this thing on my head, and I almost did, in Sony's terrifying underwater exploration demo The Deep, which stopped working halfway through and then snapped back into crystal clarity as an enormous shark went apeshit tearing apart my protective cage. (Again: people are screaming at you throughout this demo. There should be less of this.) I played Valkryie on the Morpheus, too, but another minor malfunction distinguished it. A Windows mouse pointer floated in mid-air in front of my face for the first couple minutes, just in my left eye, and not somewhere out in the spacy field but right up on the screen's surface, an inch or so from my face. Half of my brain was inside of a computer monitor, at least momentarily; someone moved the mouse, and it was gone, and I was flying.
I would gladly die with this thing on my head, and I almost did
The cyberpunk hacking sim Darknet plays with these sorts of malfunctions intentionally in its demo, growing stylishly pixellated, its Wintermute voiceover mutating toward the end. When I was done playing it, I asked its creator a stupid question: Why cyberpunk?
"I'm going to give you a stupid answer," he responded. Wearing the Oculus Rift made him feel like a hacker; hence: hacking game. But he also didn’t really like cyberpunk fiction, he said, which presents “an almost cartoonishly dystopian future, where using technology means risking pain and infection.” This was not a world in which he intended to make players spend time, and so he wanted to tweak the bleak mores of the genre. A generous thought, given how closely the actualization of virtual reality yokes our world with the gloomy one of cyberpunk fiction.
In his classic early books, William Gibson took pains to delineate between a cyberspace and a meatspace, but the issue in practice is that they aren't so cleanly divisible. Culture today transforms and is propelled in a shared electronic dream, as Gibson predicted, an entity through which we live personal and public hallucinations, but cyberspace still lacks a spatial element. We have never moved through it, per se, except in online games. The re-emergence of VR, and its co-option by a social network, reawakens the hope for an electronic world that we can traverse and engage more corporeally. But so far our overeager attempts to get all the way there refuse to, well, get there. The Omni insists upon the meat, which is why meat was all I could think about while fastened within it; it shot the electronic world up through my body and into my heaving arms, my churning stomach. The Cortex attempts to digitize our physical rooms, instead of our bodies, but our walls then fight back, reasserting themselves in our brains as valid, real: something to collide with. (In fairness, the Cortex beeps when you’re close to a wall, but I envision toppled bookcases all the same.)
The electronic world is marshalling its troops to colonize the physical one, and even if it is repelled the coming clash will be fascinating to watch. We may or may not be entering an age of virtual reality, in which what we've needed to unlearn is suddenly clear, in which my questions will have obvious answers. But we are unquestionably entering the golden age of shitty virtual reality, in which many of the brightest people on the planet attempt to commingle these two worlds that so clearly resist each other like a claws-out cat resists a dunk in a bathtub.
Our attempts to overlay drywall with polygons and battlefields with concave discs will not end here; there will be more mouse cursors floating before our eyes, more burritos to queasily keep down. Our boyfriends and girlfriends and parents and children are going to yank these devices off our heads, terrifying us, and we're going to terrify them, strapped into these glowing monstrosities for hours at a time. You’re gonna run into the wall. There will be lots of pornography.
The solution, anyway, will be in the art. Simpler seems to be better, so far: the straightforward puzzles of Darknet, for example, or the IMAX-like filmmaking of Zero Point, both of which treat VR as a sort of big, awesome screen, with occasional 360-degree flourishes. This makes a lot more sense in practice than going whole-hog on a first-person shooter. It’s easier on the eyes, the brain, the stomach, and the game. Somewhere between these simpler experiences and the immediate, dazzling Valkyrie—which goes all-in but works—exists a perfect elucidation of this medium's capabilities.
But that perfect elucidation is a million brilliant, glittering clusterfucks away from fruition. The Oculus Rift raised a possibility that Project Morpheus makes a reality: Hey, you guys, we're all gonna own one of these things pretty soon. And videogames are going to get so, so weird as a result.
After I finished the Cortex demo—the one with the zombies I wasn't scared of—I went to a tent to talk to its creator for a little bit. In one of the truly inspired bits of conceptualization I've heard about VR, he referred to his headset as not VR or AR but as "spatial gaming." He also told me about its point of inception. He was having a Resident Evil marathon with some friends and dozed off, and while asleep he dreamed that he was in the game. "I got destroyed," he said. "The zombies came, and I was shooting them, and I ran out of ammo and then I got mauled and I got ripped apart. My arm was dangling around, my leg was actually somewhere else, and it was actually—the leg was walking. It was surreal. And I woke up panting. I was short of breath, and the guys said, 'Are you okay?'"
He was fine, he said. Then he got to work.
Header image via Dave Pape
Nicole Stenger image via Stenger
Project Morpheus image via Davis Cox