Wow. Ow! Or, “A day with Oculus Rift”

Disaster Area’s blacker-than-black stunt ship

My new Oculus Rift arrived by Canada Post on Friday afternoon. It’s elegant, packed with high-tech optics, and — like Hotblack Desiato’s stunt ship in Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe — it’s so black your eyes just slide off it. Every part of the Rift VR headset, including the packaging, is elegant, solid, and so very, very black. On the top of the box is embossed the black, sideways “O” of the Oculus logo, which is somehow even blacker than the surface of the box. I knew I had something good.

Black on black. An Oculus Rift in its box.

Setting up the Rift is made easy by a setup wizard, which uses a combo of drawings and video to walk you through everything from pulling the protective film off various surfaces to positioning the motion sensors correctly. As a tech writer, I appreciate clear, concise instructions. Oculus clearly hired some talented people, because the Rift user manual is a pleasure to just look at. But enough about the instructions. Let’s get to the good stuff.

What Rift apps have I tried in my first day? Among the free apps included with it is a short, but wonderful demo called First Contact. The lights come up on the inside of an RV/mobile home that’s just packed with broken and worn out bits and pieces of computer and robotic technology. Helped by a little robot buddy, I learned how to pick up and manipulate objects.

And punch furniture.

That last one isn’t part of the simulation. Immersed as I was in a virtual space, I forgot to be cautious about reaching quickly to grab something in virtual space only to skin my knuckles on a set of very real shelves.

Ow.

The feeling that you’re in a real space is overwhelming. You’re not just watching a computer simulation. You’re in it. You’re part of it. And when you remove the headset, you feel like you’re returning home after travelling somewhere.

Other VR apps I’ve tried:

  • Google Earth VR. I try to describe the feeling when confronted with the entire globe floating in front of me but I end up just sputtering things like “wow” and “that’s incredible”. Every part of the planet has been photographed, mapped, and modelled in 3D. Just reach out, move, and examine any part of it. At one point, I found myself towering over a waist-high miniature St. Paul’s Cathedral like Godzilla on a sight-seeing tour of London. Again, “wow”.
  • Facebook Spaces social VR. For something that’s supposed to represent the future of social VR, it was fun but disappointingly shallow. The environment is a 360-degree park photo (not 3D) and you’re glued to one spot. You can sketch objects in 3D, take selfies with a (shudder) selfie stick. You can call someone in Facebook Messenger — or so they say, because none of my calls went through. They’ll have to add some meaningful content and functionality here before it’s worth Facebook’s massive investment in Oculus.
  • Robo Recall from Epic Games. It’s a first-person shooter where you blow up angry robots. Simple enough. Within your limited real-world space, you can dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge projectiles, but larger movement means “teleport” point-to-point in a small space rather than moving naturally through the virtual space like a regular FPS game.
    Shooters generally stress me out, so while I’m impressed by the immersion, I had to pull off Rift abruptly to catch my breath. That’s a testament to the immersiveness of the medium, I suppose.
  • Rec Room. It’s an oddly simple app, in which you meet other people (real people), as represented by minimalist avatars, and chat with them while playing games like ping-pong, darts, frisbee, and basketball. One room lets teams fight robots in a laser tag arena. Another has people playing a game like Pictionary but in drawing in 3D. Good, relaxing fun.
  • High Fidelity. This one isn’t so much an app as it is a test platform for VR technology, and it’s something I hope to engage with more in the coming weeks. Philip Rosedale, once founder and spiky-haired front man for Second Life, brings us project for building a VR simulator engine. High Fidelity isn’t the end product, but a framework on which virtual worlds can be built. It’s fascinating to see it evolve slowly, but a bit frustrating that the UI for their test “sandbox” is so poorly implemented. Everyone should keep their eye on High Fidelity, because I have a feeling that it’s going to form the underpinnings of a lot of VR spaces.
  • Linden Lab’s Sansar. Just kidding. Sansar, the long-promised virtual world from the makers of Second Life, is still MIA. I hope they decide to open it to the public soon, but for now it’s still in a closed beta.

Some people sneer at the thought of a social virtual reality, skeptical that the technology is anything but isolating. Over a decade and a half of Second Life users will disagree, however. Virtual reality has been around for a long time. Though it has traditionally been accessed without the immersive headset, as in ActiveWorlds, There, and Second Life, these virtual worlds thrive on social interaction.

As a passer-by said in Rec Room said last night, this app wouldn’t be even slightly interesting if you couldn’t chat with real people in it. He’s right. The best, most engaging content for VR headsets won’t be solo experiences — they’ll be social.

In 2003, Philip Rosedale once commented that sex was the secret sauce that makes a virtual world work. He was wrong about that. It’s bigger and more significant than that. Virtual worlds are about real people. Social contact is the secret sauce. It’s what makes the experience significant. The shooting, flying, dodging, teleporting, and 3D painting might be just secondary gimmicks.

Alright, they’re fun gimmicks. And occasionally painful gimmicks. In the course of one astonishing day with Oculus Rift, I’ve punched or tripped over real furniture three or four times and tried to lean against a virtual wall only once. I think I’m doing well with only minor bruises. Ow.