I Survived a Week in the Virtual Reality Worlds of E3

Dan Tynan
Yahoo Tech

I was hurtling down the Pacific Coast Highway with nothing between me and the asphalt but a flimsy road luge. I swerved around a Toyota and passed directly under an 18-wheeler. When the road rose suddenly, I went airborne; my stomach floated up to my throat, and for a moment I was weightless.

My palms were sweating, my heart was racing, and I think I may have screamed. All of which was highly embarrassing, because I wasn’t really riding a road luge down PCH. I was reclining in a beanbag chair in a trade show booth, with a virtual reality headset strapped to my face.

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Not a headset you can buy today. (Thinkstock)

I spent most of last week at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), where the giants of the gaming industry converge to show off their latest toys. “Impressive” doesn’t begin to describe some of the things game developers are doing these days. No wonder teens are addicted to their consoles. If I didn’t have to work for a living, I’d join them.

Also see: The Top 10 Family-Friendly Video Games from E3

But I wasn’t at E3 to admire the amazingly realistic graphics of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare or the breathtaking beauty of Destiny.

I was shopping for my holodeck.

Let’s face it: Dad wants to be able to drive a Lamborghini at Le Mans without killing himself. Mom wants to lounge on the beach with a good book and a cool drink, far from the annoyances of children and spouse. Kids want their own planet, ideally as far away from their parents as possible (while still having someone around to do their laundry, of course).

The safest and most cost-effective solution? A home holodeck, obviously. Just like the one from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In the past 20 years, games have evolved to provide realistic first-person perspectives in worlds that look nearly real, whether you’re playing quarterback in Madden 15 or killing zombies in Dead Rising.

Virtual reality is clearly the next step. Instead of holding a joystick, you will be the joystick, navigating a virtual world in much the same way you do this one. Kind of like the movie Tron, only not lame.

And, sadly, not yet.

Feed your headset
Today, every VR experience starts with a headset. A VR headset contains two small displays, with their imagery slightly offset to give the illusion of three dimensions. These mini TVs are strapped to your forehead, along with tracking technology that determines your head position and orientation inside the virtual environment. By moving your head or turning your body, you get a full 360-degree view of whatever game you’re inside of, and you can move around at will using a controller or just the headset itself.

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Sony’s Morpheus

The road luge experience I described above, for example, was a demo built to show off the Project Morpheus headset, which Sony unveiled last March. The company has not revealed when it will be available to consumers.

While the headset is not as heavy as it looks, it’s not like slipping on a pair of sunglasses, either. You also need separate headphones, though I can imagine future versions of Morpheus incorporating these.

The luge ride was exhilarating and felt more real than any other VR sim I have tried. That’s partly because no controller was involved — I steered by moving my head slightly to the right or left — so I was never distracted from the experience. But the graphics were chunky at best; there was no mistaking that semi for a real truck.

The other big VR headset maker, Oculus Rift, was out in force at the show (though, as with Morpheus, you can’t buy one yet). I tried out an upcoming title from 505 Games, ADR1FT, using the newest Oculus HD gear.

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Inside a sci-fi world, thanks to the Oculus Rift.

ADR1FT puts you in Earth’s orbit, where your ship has been pulverized by space debris, your crewmates are dead, and you must figure out how to get home. Yes, it’s the plot of Gravity, only without Sandra Bullock in her skivvies. Designer Adam Orth says ADR1FT was in the works long before the Alfonso Cuarón movie came out, but it’s a helpful reference point for people.

I could have easily spent an hour in space, listening to Beethoven (apparently the only thing you can hear in space is classical music) and hoping George Clooney might float by. Again, though, what made Gravity the movie so compelling was the astonishingly convincing depiction of being in space. Inside ADR1FT, I was definitely staring at pixels, not stars.

Beer pong in Tuscany
Donning a pair of Ray-Bans on steroids gets you only partway toward virtual nirvana. There are dozens of smaller companies looking to extend the experience to your arms, legs, and other extremities.

For example, Control VR is planning to make a pair of cloth gloves with motion-capture sensors sewn into them. These connect to a headset and a chest harness with a camera in the center that makes its wearer look a little like Iron Man.

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Control VR’s sensors

When I put on a headset, I found myself on a hillside in Tuscany, facing a series of tables displaying various objects. I was told to use the gloves to pluck a pingpong ball from a plastic beer cup. Only, when I tried to do it, my finger disappeared into the side of the cup. It was like trying to pick up an ice cube with molten-hot tongs.

An engineer cheerfully explained that he’d cobbled together the demo in two weeks, so bugs were to be expected. The shipping product will be much sleeker than the prototype, he added. The company launched a Kickstarter campaign a week ago and has already exceeded its $250,000 goal. Apparently Tuscan beer pong is a thing.

Sony’s Morpheus also gives you hands by using the PlayStation 3’s Move wand controllers. I tried a demo in a Medieval setting where I was allowed to wreak havoc on a mannequin dressed in armor. I picked up a broadsword and re-enacted the Black Knight scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But if I extended my arms too far, they appeared to separate from my body at the elbows, which was disconcerting, although strangely in keeping with my Python interpretive dance.

Getting a leg up
Then there’s your legs. Omni by Virtuix is a system that lets you literally walk through a virtual environment. First, though, I had to put on slippery shoes, and then step into a circular dock with a waist-high railing and a concave bottom. A hefty harness kept me from falling out of the dock. The idea is to lean forward, take long strides, and slide your feet backward, not unlike cross-country skiing.

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Omni, by Virtuix

I started out on a virtual street in Amsterdam just to get my bearings. CEO Jan Goetgeluk assured me that the skimpily attired women dancing on the sidewalk were not prostitutes. But looking at the not-prostitutes sent me careening toward them, and I ended up falling into a canal and crashing the system, something Goetgeluk said he did not know was possible.

The actual demo involved going on a two-man mission inside some dimly lit caverns, eventually finding and slaughtering a bunch of ghostly zombies using a gun-shaped controller. Of course. But leaning forward and sliding my feet felt only slightly less unnatural than moving around by tipping my head.

Goetgeluk says he’s already sold hundreds of these things at $500 a pop, VR headset not included. I am betting none of his customers are married.

Get real
After a few days of touring imaginary 3D landscapes, I was happy to return to the real world. It is a strange experience to be in a VR world. In a sense it puts you in two places at once.You have extra hands that you can control, kinda sorta, but that aren’t really yours. Or you look down to find a button on the controller and see only your virtual feet. More than once I made a gesture inside a game and hit somebody standing near me, or was startled when someone spoke to me, like the voice of God from beyond the clouds.

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A VR demo at E3.

Seeing others use VR gear is equally weird. Standing outside the Oculus Rift booth at E3 watching 20-odd people sit motionless with black boxes strapped to their faces was a little freaky.

Wired magazine recently counted how many cover stories it has published in the past 12 years declaring that “VR has finally arrived.” The answer: six, including in the most recent issue. Eventually it’ll be right. But ultimately people won’t need to strap themselves into weird contraptions; VR tech will be built into the walls of their homes.

Bottom line: Virtual reality is still more virtual than real, but it’s getting closer every day. I suspect I’ll never get to install a holodeck in my home. My son and daughter? That’s another story. And if I’m lucky (and still breathing) maybe they’ll invite me over to play.

Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.