As I pull the head-mounted display towards my face I glimpse the new world in front of my eyes, just before I’m enveloped in darkness. Yeah, this is pretty fucking awesome. It’s like when Corvo puts on that mask in Dishonored, or like suiting up in a jetfighter. I’m like Master Chief riding a motherfucking motorcycle. Except of course that I’m sat in a suburban home on the outskirts of Oxford, which kind of breaks that fantasy. Here’s the thing, my brain knows what Oculus Rift is. It knows it’s virtual reality, it knows that people have described it as ‘the future’, as (literally) ‘a game changer’. It knows all about the stories of people who’ve felt nauseous and dizzy while using it. It knows that people have felt mortal fear through its use because their brain no longer distinguishes between it and reality. And yet, when I turn my head to the right, I expect to see the pristine windows of suburbia, and outside that drizzly, grey, pathetic excuse we call weather in England. But I don’t see gloomy clouds, I see bright sunshine; I don’t see bus stops and kebab vans, I see trees and pretty, continental-style houses. When I look up I don’t see lampshades and spiders, I see big chunky bars moving down over my shoulders, strapping me in to a fairground ride. Basically, my brain does a double-take.
Right, ok, this is awesome. Strapped in and ready to go. The ride’s called Cyber Space, and it’s like one of those swinging pirate ships. You know the ones where you seriously doubt that the one bar that straps you in will hold you in effectively. The ones where you genuinely expected someone to fall out while it’s upside down (and secretly kind of wanted to see what would happen if someone did). In this ride though, the carriages are all tiny. They only hold a few people, and they go upside down and all sorts of crazy shit.
The ride starts swinging, this should be great… Except that I’m not actually strapped in anywhere, not really of course. In reality I’m sat in an office chair with the posture of an octogenarian sloth. If they’d used one of these chairs on those rides I might have a problem. Fortunately they don’t… or do they…? …wait.
Ok, the ride’s swinging higher now, this is awesome! I watch the pretty little houses get smaller and smaller with each swing. Now bigger as we swing back down, and faster. I freely look around and take in the landscape, this is great. I turn and see a girl sat in the carriage next to me. Despite the fact that she has all the appearance and cognitive functions of a sex doll, even she couldn’t break the illusion for me.
Faster, higher; higher still. Wow, this is really… whoa, whoa!! Hang on, what the fuck, oh shit, oh shit!!! The ride had reached its zenith, and as it plummeted back to earth my stomach lurched and my heart leapt in to my mouth. My whole body felt the descent and I actually braced for impact. I wanted to reach out for the bars in front of me but then my brain gave me a reality check and I remembered that they weren’t there. I gripped the armrests on the office chair instead, telling myself that it wasn’t real but I actually felt like I was physically falling and my body was spinning! How was this even happening!!
The reality was no longer virtual. I was there.
And yet of course I wasn’t. It was batshit insane. Once it had started, once my brain had been fooled, it hardly stopped. It didn’t help that not only did the whole ride swing up to dizzying heights and back down again, but the carriage swung around on its own axis too. Just when I thought I’d got used to it, just when my mind had calmed and I was no longer about to rip the armrests from the chair, then it would throw me off again by quickly swinging upside down and around on the descent. As mentioned on this site before, I’ve tried out a few extreme sports in my life like bungee jumping and skydiving, despite being afraid of heights as a kid. It was partly a challenge to overcome a fear, but it was also fun once I’d tried it. This was different though, it felt more perilous, and I think maybe it was because I didn’t feel physically strapped in. Imagine getting on one of these rides, or any rollercoaster, and they sit you in an office chair. No straps, no bars, nothing to hang on to; nothing. You’d most likely return to earth having decorated the seat in a new shade of brown (or red, depending on your fate…).
Understand as well that I was going through all of this while two people were SAT WATCHING ME. I’m not sure exactly what I looked like, or what I sounded like even, but I’m guessing that if you ever wanted to watch someone do an impression of a skydiver on some bad LSD while a big black box is strapped to their face, then give them this.
That’s not to say that I had a bad experience of course; frightening, yes, but bad, hell no. Wetting-myself-exciting is what I’d say. And I only tried that one game, a demo too. The scope and wealth of opportunity for not only games, but more practical and educational software was something that I’m aware of, but it hadn’t really sunk in fully until I actually tried a Rift. Just take a look at this, it’s a VR experience in development aimed at educating people about the Apollo 11 mission - the first manned moon landing - by actually taking you there, letting you experience it as one of the astronauts, in virtual reality. They have a Kickstarter page too here, and you should also definitely check out this guy’s reaction to it on YouTube here. It’s an awesome way of using the upcoming tech of VR in new and interesting ways.
I was already set on getting a VR headset once the consumer versions release proper, but now it’s pretty much a necessity. Oculus Rift, along with the others (the potentially superior HTC Vive from Valve and Sony’s Project Morpheus), really is part of the future of gaming, and those who claim it’s not, well they probably haven’t tried it yet.