Last week I was unexpectedly given an opportunity to try the Oculus Rift for the first time. While I was out traveling for my job one of my coworkers invited me over for dinner and to take a look at her husband’s new Oculus Rift. Conspiring with a friend of his, she had been able to get a version made available to developers and give it to him as a Christmas gift.
I’m going to stop right there for a moment because some of you are thinking right now, “did I just read that correctly?” So in case you missed it the first time and find yourself incapable of re-reading a sentence for obscure but completely legitimate ethical reasons I will repeat what I said:
The wife. Bought an Oculus Rift. As a Christmas gift. For her husband.
Anyway, after dinner my coworker’s husband (let’s call him Wade or Owen, something like that) set me up in front of his computer and lead me through my first game session with the Rift. Before being invited over I was not all that excited about this new technology. I found it interesting in the same way I would consider virtual keyboards or robot vacuums from Brookstone novel or clever, but I did not take it seriously nor did I ever consider owning one. However once the goggles were securely on my noggin and the demo program had been fired up, the Oculus Rift had my full attention.
There was a moment about five seconds after the menu screen appeared when I realized the desk I was seeing was not the desk physically sitting in front of me. Despite the simplicity of the graphics my brain had unwittingly believed the construct before me to be the same desk my hands were resting on. Wade, my gracious host and tour guide invited me to explore my surroundings and then started the first of two demos.
Demo number one was a simple roller coaster program in which I was free to sit back and enjoy the surrounding landscape. Let me tell you it was breathtaking and not because the graphics were beautiful. Despite the obvious flaws in the rendering of the environment I nevertheless felt like I was occupying the space my eyes were seeing. First I was drawn straight ahead to the English castle the roller coaster had been built around. Then as I pivoted my head in the physical world the virtual world fluidly materialized around me in every direction and I discovered additional towers and stone walls wherever I turned.
Then there were the mountains. Off in the distance I could see snowcapped mountains and all I could do was gawk in wonder. I’m sure my repeated exclamations of “unbelievable” and “this is amazing” as I swiveled in a desk chair did not look nerdy or inconsistent with my actual surroundings at all. Not in the slightest. At this point the “click, click, click” of the roller coaster began to slow and I turned my head back to center just in time for the first of several near vertical drops.
My stomach lurched. I’m not kidding, my gut had an almost identical response to this imagined descent as it would have had I actually been riding a roller coaster. Have you ever been in that half-sleep state when you have just about dozed off but for whatever reason you feel like you are falling and suddenly your body jerks in response?
That’s what this experience was like. Apparently my brain is so reliant on my eyes for determining reality that my body responded in kind. It was a little unnerving, though not as much as the dinosaur (that comes later).
Next Wade loaded another demo, this one titled “Don’t Let Go.” I was hoping to embody Kate Winslet in this one so I could personally let Leonardo DiCaprio sink into the ocean but no dice. Instead the object was to hold the two “control” keys on the keyboard and continue holding them no matter what happened.
Well it is so long as you aren’t concerned about peeing your pants in the apartment of someone you barely know. In the game you are sitting at a desk in an office. There is a laptop in front of you, a door to the right, and few cabinets or shelves along the wall to the left. What you experience next is a series of scenarios meant to spook you into letting go of the keys.
First the game goes easy on you and sends a swarm of buzzing flies or bees. It’s hard to tell which exactly; the graphics on everything look like they were created circa 1999, but that does not stop your brain from believing. Which is a bit startling to realize it isn’t so much detail as it is spatial depth that convinces your mind that the surroundings are real.
After the flies exit the room the door opens and in walks a velociraptor. Now, I know he was not real. And I’m sure you know that he was not real. But my brain was pretty sure I was wrong and decided my fight or flight instincts should be set to threat level orange-you glad you didn’t drink a lot of water beforehand. The instinctual response was not as strong as it would have been had a real predator walked into the room, but as the dinosaur slowly approached my side I had to intentionally remind myself it wasn’t real so that I could remain calm enough to keep hold of the control keys.
From there it only got worse and I won’t bore you with the details but I did manage to hold on until the very end. However the anxiety brought on by anticipating the next unknown challenge was strong enough that at one point I considered letting go just to end the experience. When Wade asked me if I wanted to try the Alien: Isolation demo next I politely declined. I had only packed enough clean pants for three days and I was already running dangerously low on dignity, thank you very much. However I did take him up on Elite: Dangerous.
I’m not a space sim guy. That sort of game has never really appealed to me. But as soon as Wade (did we decide on Wade, or was it Owen?) booted up the game I was instantly a fan of the genre. And my gracious host didn’t just have the game and the Oculus either, no ma’am. He had the full cockpit setup complete with joystick and throttle which added to the experience. I could have spent hours flying in and around the asteroid field, watching the space debris float Elite: Dangerously close to my ship, but unfortunately I only had about ten minutes of time left before I had to leave. However in that short timespan the word “immersion” took on new meaning. I was no longer in a cozy, one bedroom apartment in the American Midwest. I was a lone pilot braving uncharted territory in deep space; I was a small child living the dream of riding in the cockpit of an X-Wing with Luke along the surface of the Death Star.
I was Lost in Space.
Surprisingly (to me at least) I left the apartment excited about the new tech and amazed at just how tangible the virtual world it created felt. Nothing was rendered with enough detail to fool me– not really— but it didn’t seem to matter. It is sobering to realize as much faith as I place on the veracity of what my eyes see and what my mind interprets that they can be so easily fooled and in the right context will “believe” anything. In fact, that reality gives me pause when considering whether this technology will primarily be beneficial or prodigiously destructive in the lives of individuals and culture as a whole once it is released to the general public and potentially integrated into our daily lives. Nevertheless, I cannot also help but feel a sense of childlike wonder over all the previously impossible possibilities made available by the Oculus Rift. I know personally there are dozens of fantasy and sci-fi MMO worlds I would love to experience in the same way I was able to travel through space in Elite and I eagerly anticipate the day when that becomes a reality.
Of course, not all of us have something new and exciting on the horizon. I feel a little bad for my new friend Wade. Poor guy, his Christmas gifts from here on out are going to be all downhill.