Thanks to the generosity of my perpetually early-adopting friend Pete, I had the opportunity to enjoy my very first Virtual Reality (VR) experience, using the Steam HTC Vive. It's not quite the holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it feels like the first step on the road to that technology.
As seen above, stepping into VR requires a number of peripherals: in this case, a pair of hand controllers, a set of earphones, and most importantly, the VR headset itself, which places a high definition display centimetres from your eyeballs. This is the key to VR's immersiveness; your entire field of view is covered by the screen, providing very lifelike visual stimuli.
Pete's demonstration took Steve, Mike, Jeff and me through four different worlds: the introductory orientation demo, a brief underwater vignette, a science fiction target game, and a zombie shooter.
The first thing that jumped out at me during the demo was the weird feeling of disembodiment when I held the two hand controllers up in front of my face. The VR system knows where the controllers are and models them in stunning high fidelity, but of course it doesn't know what my hands look like, so even though I could feel the controllers and knew they were in my hands, I couldn't see my hands manipulating them. "I can't see my thumbs!" was a common cry during the demo.
The other question that leaped immediately to mind was "How am I going to avoid smashing into something in the real world?" Sensors on the wall (you can see one behind me at the upper right) mark a virtual boundary on the floor. If you approach the boundary, a translucent wall of light springs up in front of you, warning you that you're about to leave safe territory.
You don't use the hand controls in the underwater vignette; you're simply transported to the deck of a shipwreck on the ocean floor. Fish and manta rays swim about, and you can walk around a bit on the deck to explore it. Then a massive blue whale swims up and casts a baleful eye on you, close enough to touch. I did, in fact, reach out to touch it, and I half expected some tactile sensation, so realistic was the visual illusion.
Space Pirate Trainer places you in a futuristic city of neon. You're on a glowing platform, equipped with twin laser pistols, or if you prefer, a pistol and shield (controlled, naturally, by your hand controllers). Small robots swoop in from all sides, blasting you with lasers, and you do your best to shoot as many as possible before they murder you. The zombie shooter Pete showed us next uses essentially the same game mechanic, but with a horror skin.
Describing the experience in print really doesn't capture the look and feel of being inside these virtual worlds. They are so immersive that when I took the rig off, I blinked, disoriented, because it felt like I'd just returned to the world from a long journey to another place. This really is a transportive experience.
And this is just the beginning. Software developers have hardly begun to explore the vast potential of this technology. An exciting new world awaits.