During my PhD I had the opportunity to visit an academic virtual reality laboratory. Professor Mel Slater, who at that time was based at UCL just down the road from my lab, had put together a state-of-the-art VR Cave and demonstrated to us various experiences that were possible in virtual reality. We started off by visiting a world made entirely out of colourful, child-like, crayon drawings – that had been scanned in and placed in various locations around the 3D environment. I was amazed that, despite the simplicity of the artwork, it nonetheless felt like you had departed the room you started in and were fully immersed and present in an alternate universe. He then showed us a world he had developed to help people get over their social phobias – a bar, in which realistic human avatars would cheerily greet you as you enter and then engage you in conversation. At that time such mind-blowing experiences were only available to people with a budget of £250,000-£300,000. 4 years ago I invested in the first consumer ready HTC VIVE set up and once I’d got the powerful graphics PC all set up it had set me back the best part of £2,500. Now everyone can get involved as the Oculus Quest (the first stand-alone headset that gives an extremely high end experience, without needing to be plugged into a computer, launched earlier this year) costs just £400-£500.
No longer is VR a toy for the super-rich, or available only in VR arcades. Everyone can get involved for a miraculously reasonable price. So this month my blog is dedicated to my top 10 VR experiences.
My Top Ten VR Experiences to Date
- The Tree [Viveport — 2017 — New Reality Co — 360 video on headset]
From seed, to seedling pushing up through soil, drips of rain falling all around, pooling in the crevice in which the baby tree takes it’s first steps. Breaking through to the surface, user first encounters small flora, fauna and fungi on the jungle floor. Throughout the user is gradually rising so as to remain level with the tip of the young tree. As it gets towards full size the interface between user movements and point of view (POV) in the head-mounted display (HMD a.k.a. headset) fundamentally changes; giving the user a uniquely VR experience. Just by leaning forwards, backwards, left and right ever so slightly the POV rapidly zooms north, south, west and then east enabling you to see up close what’s happening in the boughs of the adjacent trees and down on the forest floor by leaning down. Macaws, tamarin monkeys and leopards are discoverable with precise movements of the body and head. Once in the desired location you must hold the body position very still to inspect the beautifully detailed 3D rendering of each creature. Very clever use of animal sounds alert you to the possibility that the scene might be more explorable than it first seems (given the entirely passive user experience of the first 2 mins). It then switches back to passive for the final, quite moving and emotionally poignant stage, where human voices shouting at each other in the distance precede the lighting of fires. Those distant fires spread towards The Tree and eventually engulf it in flames. The moment you look down and realise that your trunk is on fire is extremely alarming (provoking empathy for trees??) and seemed to trigger the final forced perspective change: in which the POV pushes away from The Tree’s trunk (to reduce the sense of personal threat??) — such that you becoming a more objective spectator — with the POV elevating to take in the full spectacle of The Tree burning in the middle of a huge steamy jungle. Excellent light throughout. The dark murkiness of the beginning. The almost dazzling shards of sunshine that dapple their way through the canopy to strike shadowing strips on the jungle floor. The gorgeous sunset, moon and milky way lighting is also extremely atmospheric.
2. Virtual Reality To Help Adoptive Parents [Innovate UK Conference, 2017, The Cornerstone Partnership, 360 video experience on Headset]
This company have created a truly stunning VR experience that helps prospective foster parents understand what they are getting into by helping them see through the eyes of an abused child. From hearing a muffled parental argument going on from within the womb, to a toddler’s eye perspective on witnessing drug abuse, neglect and mistreatment, and concluding with a childhood altercation in the school corridors, this experience is a brilliant example of how VR can be used as an empathy machine. Most of us will never really truly understand what it would be like to be raised in a horrifically dysfunctional household — the fear, the hunger, the pain — but this VR film can help us completely re-evaluate what we think of and how we handle the errant behaviour of certain children (and the adults they become, for that matter).
3. Escape Now [Steam, 2019, Beat Games, 360 video experience on Headset]
A VR travel documentary that makes you feel like you are actually in Paris, Florence, New York City, London or Egypt. Near universal accessibility as you don’t have to do anything other than look around as the host (who is always in the scene with you) narrates. I think it’s interesting that he didn’t present “down the barrel” i.e. directly into the lens of the camera. Whether or not there was some technical reason for that I don’t know, but either way I think that is very suitable way of using VR to do documentary work. It’s nice to feel like a companion of the host. You can look at what he’s looking at. Or you can look completely the other way and instead look at the people standing around you or architectural wonders and artworks that he is not referring to but in the same room. It creates a tremendous sense of freedom, just as you have when a tour guide shows you round a gallery or a museum. Many VR experiences do not allow for such a free sense of agency — despite the fact that you are fixed in place at the location the 360 camera was positioned. Rapid cuts leave you wanting more. His casual delivery and laid back personality makes a refreshing change from the more self-conscious and perhaps over-enthusiastic delivery styles of many successful TV presenters. This felt like a refreshing change from the norm. It felt like the future of docs is somewhere down that particular path.
4. Super Hot [Steam, 2016, Super Hot Team, VR experience on Headset]
One of my all time favourite VR experiences because it enables the user to do something that is completely impossible in the real world: take voluntary control over the speed at which time ticks by. If you move all your body parts very slowly, as you look and move around within each elegantly simple and stylish scene, the action unfolds in super slo mo. You get a fly’s perception of time. If you make any sudden movements of head, hands and particularly all body parts together, then the passage of time accelerates into fast forward in a manner that is proportional to the net sum of motion controller and HMD translocation in space (and thus eventually, after much trial and error, you find yourself able to control the passage of time intuitively). There is a tendency to assume this is just another VR shoot ’em up. That is not true. The small team of polish developers who put this together capture a unique affordance of VR brilliantly and then put control over that affordance into the hands of the user. A truly magnificent achievement.
5. Beat Saber [Steam, 2019, Beat Games, VR experience on Headset]
I like any VR game that encourages the use of dynamic body movements. I really enjoy dancing. Therefore I love Beat Sabre because it essentially makes you perform dance moves in time to the beat. It has become a daily part of many influential VR practitioner’s life and for good reason. It stimulates mind, body and soul. At expert level a person can boggle at their new-found capacity to perform dizzyingly rapid arm movements in time to music of significant complexity. Once again, disguised beneath a veneer of superficial fun and games is a stroke of genius that can genuinely improve a person’s well-being via encouragement of a form of regular exercise that defies the conventional outlets of the gym, running and various sporting activities. In the context of helping busy people to conveniently find the time to break a sweat — it is second to none.
6. A Fisherman’s Tale [Viveport, 2019, Vertigo Games, VR on Headset]
Gorgeous story-telling (French accent, gentle sarcasm), excellent devices for drawing attention to correct part of room for next progression (verbal nudges: increasing in obviousness from vague to precise; illumination of room: dim out areas already dealt with using lighting that feels like a cloud covering the sun, spotlight for major transition); seeing in minature actions that you yourself performed over the previous three minutes (circularity: having been instructed to perform specific movements in particular parts of the room it feels uncannily familiar when you see the actions performed, like your movements have been captured somehow — is this illusion?). And that’s just the instructional segment that teaches you the basic rules of that particular VR world. Making that a convincing part of the story rather the usual grind of feeling frustrated while you’re not picking it up quickly. Instead the whole process is a series of discoveries. The game itself clones the room you are in, all the objects and your own movements and then projects that out to the horizon on a x10 scale and then in the centre of the room on a table there is a miniaturised version of the world. Puzzles are cracked by focusing on manipulating either the larger version of you overhead, or the miniature version inside the doll’s house sized version. Ultimately you have to exchange objects “across the line” i.e. between different magnifications. Curious, magical, enchanting and intellectually challenging. A tour de force of perspective taking.
7. Moss [Steam, 2018, Polyarc, VR experience on Headset]
I think that VR has a capacity to create a sense of magic and wonder that is unsurpassed even by the standards of film and television (but not literature). The aesthetics of Moss has a phenomenal capacity to leave people awe struck. I have put several friends into it (I have the footage of them playing to prove what I’m about to say) who are hardened gamers with over 20 years experience apiece, who have experienced extremely hi-spec VR experiences such as the Star Wars experience at Westfield White City last Christmas, people who think they’ve seen it all and Moss — more than any other game — has left them just as enchanted as I was. Helping Quill — a gorgeously designed and animated cartoon mouse — on a quest guided by a charming will ‘o wisp is a genuinely novel experience because not only are you controlling her movements with the analogue joystick with one hand, but with the other “hand of God” you can move obstacles out of her way. Furthermore, the puzzles are genuinely challenging to crack and very imaginatively put together. So much of VR gaming is just stuff people have been doing in 2D or aeons. Moss is a VR game that takes the basic concept of a platform game and brings it into the 21st Century with very high production values and a generous sprinkling of that magical je ne sais quoi.
8. Mars Odyssey [Viveport, 2016, Steel Wool Games Inc]
Viveport — What a brilliant way to learn. I’ve never been that interested in Mars, after all the universe is a big place, but this game got me fascinated by it. Astronomers gather all sorts of fascinating information about heavenly bodies, but I’ve never really found a medium in which I could consume that knowledge as a form of entertainment. This is an extremely fact-based experience. It presents information in a manner that is both rich but also palatable. They help the user grasp the sheer vastness of Mars’s biggest volcano and canyon by positioning scale models of Everest and the Grand Canyon within the 3D scene. And they keep people engaged by having them run errands around the orbiter, perform maintenance tasks on real-life gadgets that are actually there on the surface of Mars right now and react to changing weather patterns. In one challenge a sand storm looms in from the distance and in a race against time you have to steer a remote control science tool buggy into shelter before the storm hits — with such effective sound design it’s a truly visceral experience. I was surprised by the variety of different modes of interaction with each successive scene. It never got to the point of being monotonous like some other similar game titles (e.g. Time Machine) that also encourage a more scientific engagement with the VR environment.
9. Sandman VR
Many years ago I was working at the BFI library and when I came out for a mid-morning coffee I realised there was an animation festival going on. I snuck into the demonstration hall where a dozen games developers had set up their demos and were awaiting the delegates who were about to emerge from the morning screenings. I made a beeline for the only VR headset I could see and the guy kindly let me have a peek. The user is aboard a canoe on a vast tree-fringed lake. The water effects — both audio and visual — were fantastically high fidelity and I immediately felt tangibly calmer. I was guided over the one side of the lake where it fed a stream that turned into a white water rapid. As I guided my boat down the tributary I heard a voice and turned to see an old man calling to his grandson. They didn’t notice me as I passed but I could observe their interactions which clearly suggested they were enjoying grandfather and grandson time together out in the countryside. Turning my attention back to the river I realised that I was nearing the rapids. The sound of the rushing water matched perfectly with the sense of proximity to different sections of the rapid (I found it very true to the genuine article; speaking as someone who has whitewater rafted down Victoria falls on the Zambezi river). The sense of audiovisual 3D acceleration as I shot down the fast section was so acute that I involuntarily found myself whooping, shouting and laughing with glee. Then I remembered that I was in a public place. I had completely lost touch with the outside world over the course of the 10–15 minute experience. When I took the headset off to see if any of the delegates had arrived in the demo room yet I discovered that there were people everywhere. While each of the other demonstrators had clusters of 2–4 people around them, a 15-person strong queue had formed behind me!
10. Do Not Touch [YouTube — Krispymedia — 360 video on phone— 2018]
Touching the art in an art gallery is forbidden. We all know that. But what would actually happen if you did? According to this imaginative interpretation it enables a person to cross from the real world into the virtual world within the painting. Not only that, you can jump from painting to painting — taking on the appearance of the art style in question each time. Really clever. Very creative interpretation of the medium. But not much goes on in quadrants 2, 3 and 4 (i.e. behind you and on either side); apart from the usual…