First Time for Everything is a blog format I am working on that involves trying something for the first time and then writing about it. It’s an endeavor in both trying to write more often and trying something new every week, thus breaking the cycle of constantly going home and watching Netflix.
The Brisbane Powerhouse is currently featuring a small festival called IRL Digital Festival, which mostly features videogames and digital art. I’m generally a big fan of both of those things and I happened to be at the Powerhouse anyway, so we hit a magic intersection here between interest and convenience. There are a lot of exhibits on display, all with varying levels of functionality and wankiness, but the exhibit that interested me most is the Oculus Rift.
The Oculus Rift is the new current frontrunner in the world of Virtual Reality. The Rift, developed by Oculus VR, is a headset that mounts on your face and offers ‘next-gen virtual reality’ with ‘Low Latency 360° Head Tracking’ and ‘Stereoscopic 3D View’. I’m pretty sure I understand what all of those phrases mean and it is all very impressive. Basically, you put one of these units over your eyes and it very much looks like you are inside of the virtual world. When you look around with your head, the display moves around with you, much like using your actual eyes in the real world. It makes for a much more immersive and realistic experience compared to the TV and monitor screens I’m used to.
I was lucky enough to have been at the Oculus display at an odd hour when there was very little traffic, allowing me to visit each of the demos without having to wait in line. There were nine demo units overall, but two of them ended up being repeats.
The demos on offer at the time:
- A short ride on a tiny rollercoaster inside of a giant living room, over lamps, books, and such, like you are a tiny, three-inch tall person. It was a pretty fun little ride and I’m sure I looked like an idiot as I tried to reach out and touch things as they passed by or put my hands up during the exciting bits.
- A sculpting demo where you can use two Wiimote-looking controllers to shape a ball of clay floating in front of you. While it was difficult to make anything specific, it was fun to at least try. I can’t really sculpt well in real life, so being less than skilled here isn’t really a surprise.
- A simple demo where you use a controller to walk around a cyberpunk room. There is a girl in the middle of the room, who is also strapped into a VR headset. If you remove her headset, she stares at you wherever you go after that. Kinda boring and a little creepy.
- Another simple demo where you walk around a European style grotto near the sea. In real life, it would be a great place to go for vacation to eat wine and cheese and do other bohemian activities, but since I know I’m really just sitting at a computer on my own, it’s pretty boring comparatively.
- An animated music video inside of a big empty landscape. The graphics are exactly the kind of Tron-esque imagery that you generally think of when you think of virtual reality. Spoiler alert: Some big giants show up at the end and that’s the best bit.
- A mech suit game where you patrol a rocky planet and blow up some other guys in their mech suits. You can look around inside your suit and and it all feels pretty realistic, despite the graphics being a little underwhelming.
- A demo where you sit in a living room and watch a video of John F Kennedy talking about the moon landing. This was, by far, the most boring option. Personally, I don’t need a virtual reality room where I watch videos on a screen; I already have a real reality room where I watch videos on a screen. For some reason, this was the demo that they felt the need to repeat. Maybe they wanted to demonstrate that the Oculus Rift could also be used as a sleep aid.
- A spaceship dogfight game where you try to shoot up the other guy. Pretty great. I flew into a lot of asteroids.
All of these demos illustrated a bright and compelling future for virtual reality. While the current focus is gaming, you can already see the potential for classrooms and businesses, using the headsets for lectures and meetings. It’s the next big step in telecommuting, where you can have all of your meetings in your living room and no one knows that you haven’t showered in two days. Let’s not forget the potential to be inside the movies we watch and attend concerts from onstage in a different country. At this rate, none of us will ever have to leave our houses or put on pants ever again.
Oculus is one of the big bleeding edge technology companies held up as an example for savvy, forward-thinking investors. Their Rift device and Tesla Motors’ electric cars are both widely lauded on the internet as the ‘next big thing’. There really doesn’t seem to be much standing in their way, except the fact that neither company has actually turned any kind of profit. The current internet is built on a graveyard of ‘next big things’ that never actually turned a profit and disappeared. The dot com boom and bust was filled with high minded companies built on hype that crumpled when opening offers on products went nowhere. Hell, I’ve worked for some of these companies. Does anyone remember the hip-e node, the ‘next big’ computer, built by teenagers, for teenagers? Of course you don’t. It was an overpriced, bloated hype machine that crumpled only five months after our products became available.
That’s not to say that Oculus is just a flash in the pan, but there has been a lot of hype built up around a company with very little proven track record aside from a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign and a lucrative Facebook buyout. While I understand that this technology is in its infancy, it still suffers from numerous problems, each one being a potential app killer.
First, the headset looks like sunglasses had sex with a VCR then strapped the baby to your face. I understand that appearances shouldn’t be that important to this kind of technology, but let’s be honest with each other. Phones, cars, and other luxury items are cool, at least partly, because they look cool. Google Glass was about to change the way we interacted with all of our devices only a year ago, but they made everyone look like a background extra from an episode of Star Trek. Even Google employees, given a Glass for free to test, stopped wearing the devices in a relatively short time.
Second, virtual reality was experiencing a huge boom in the 90s as well. Headsets and rigs were available at amusement parks and technology conventions as the next big thing, much like they are today. Their popularity was buoyed by a flock of slick, trendy movies like Lawnmower Man and Virtuosity. Despite this popularity, virtual reality all but vanished after this first heyday 20 years ago. The only real difference I can see between now and then is a redoubled focus on gaming.
Third, the technology doesn’t really seem to have progressed all that much from where it was in the 90s. Sure, it has improved somewhat in both graphics and interface, but definitely not in pace with everything else. In the past 20 years, the power of consumer level computer processors has increased exponentially. In video games, we have rocketed long past the Super Nintendo, all the way to the Xbox One. The last phone that you threw away was more powerful than your computer and gaming system from 1995 combined. The Rift strikes me as being two or three times better than what I saw in the 90s. Even if I’m being generous and say the Rift is 10 times better than what was around in the 90s, that still puts the Rift miles behind the times in terms of progress. In all fairness, a lot of the progress made by the Rift can probably be accounted for in the progress of both processors and computer graphics in general. I’m sure someone can point out that I don’t understand Moore’s Law and that I’m an idiot and you’d be right, but I think you get my point here.
Fourth, Oculus is just one company producing the flagship product in an emerging industry. The Segway Scooter was the next big thing in personal transportation, both economically viable and environmentally sound, yet we ridiculed any jerk cocky enough to putter down the street in one. Now that technology has been relegated to security guards and walking tours for tourists that don’t want to walk during their walking tour. Let’s not forget that Betamax was the first and superior videocassette technology, but it lost out to the cheaper VHS. Plus, they started making porn on VHS. Let’s not forget that laserdisc offered high quality digital video long before DVD, but high prices and low selection kept most people from adopting the format. Plus, they never made any porn on it. DVD did. Let’s not forget QR Codes. The weird little square barcodes that were supposed to be the next big thing in advertising, except no one wanted to download a special app just to get more advertising. Plus, as far as I know, it didn’t get you any porn. We can probably declare virtual reality a success when the pornography industry jumps on board. History has really held true on that one.
Last, but not least, the Oculus Rift causes debilitating motion sickness. After about five minutes of playing around with the Rift, I felt like I had a mild flu. I actually had to take about a 45 minute break in the middle of running through all of the demos just to make sure I wouldn’t vomit on one of their computers.
To be honest, I am pretty inclined towards motion sickness already. On planes I am generally fine, but after about an hour on any kind of boat, I want to kill myself. Maybe you won’t have any motion sickness problems. I’m a nerd and maybe you are a supercool guy or gal with heaps of hot friends and all of you are good at sports. That’s great for you. However, the Oculus Rift, as a developing technology, marketed primarily to gamers, probably isn’t for cool guys who are good at sports. This thing isn’t for you. Not yet. There was no football demo. Or basketball demo. Or demo to see who can kiss all the pretty girls the fastest. There were lots of space-based demos aimed at nerdy dudes like me that get motion sick.
One of the guys running the booth, Will, explained to me that the headset can confuse the brain. Your eyes inside of the headset tell your brain that your body is moving. Your body tells your brain that it is sitting in a chair. Your brain sort of freaks out and messes up your inner ear equilibrium or something science-y sounding like that. He assures me that the bugs will progressively get worked out with each new iteration of the Rift. Maybe this sickness won’t be a factor for most people using the headset, but it seemed to affect about half the people I chatted with. While I like the idea of the Rift, there is about a 0% chance of me purchasing one if it was going to make me that sick every time.
Strangely enough, the demo where you casually walk around a European grotto is the one that made me the most motion sick. Turning my view and walking up stairs while my body stayed stationary really made some section of my brain freak out. Riding a roller coaster, mech suit, or spaceship were all relatively fine, since your body is supposed to be stationary while the world moves around you.
Honestly, I see all of the potential surrounding the Oculus Rift and I understand the hype. A lot of it is really deserved. I also see the problems surrounding a weird-looking, niche technology, just like so many we have seen before. If this thing is still around in 2020, I’m sure it will be great. I’m just not currently in a rush to purchase one for $400 in 2016 or buy up a bunch of stock options while Oculus is on the tip of everyone’s tongue.