You might not think that strapping two LCD screens to your face would make much of a difference, but it really does. It’s the difference between looking at three dimensional images translated into two dimensions and looking at something in three dimensions.
Let’s look at Lucky’s Tale for a moment. Lucky’s Tale is a Mario 64 type of platform game. It could be done in 2D and be an OK kind of game. With VR, though, it is better. It’s like someone took a gymnasium and filled it with sets and you get to control a robotic fox while floating around the action. More than that, though, it allows the player to do things that playing on a 2D screen may not allow.
For instance, there were times when I saw a place I thought I could get to, but it wasn’t on the path. Generally, that means a secret might be hidden there. This particular location could have resulted in falling and losing a life so I wasn’t sure it was worth the effort. To find out, all I had to do was stand up and peek over the edge. It turned out there was nothing there, so there wasn’t any reason to go. Another time I had a look behind me to see where I’d been and found a secret present in a spot that I wouldn’t have seen had I not looked back. In fact, I think the biggest problem I had was playing it as a two-dimensional game most of the time and not really taking the time to look around me.
Sometimes it nifty just to be able to look at things. When I play a game on a monitor there are times when I want to see something and try and crane my head around to view it. This is useless as I’m looking at a 2D representation of a 3D world. No matter how hard I smoosh my face up against the monitor, I won’t be able to look out the canopy of a spaceship and see what the back end looks like. But I could do that in Eve: Valkyrie. It’s like being on a stage where the back wall has a window and a picture of New York City placed behind it and being in a building with a real window where you can see the city.
It’s also helpful, sometimes. Docking with a space station in Elite: Dangerous can be, well, dangerous. The stations are huge with a relatively narrow slot that has to be flown through. Stations also rotate. There can also be other ships coming and going from that slot. On a 2D screen you are, for the most part, limited to looking out straight ahead. Judging distance can be difficult. Looking to see if another ship is coming up underneath you could be impossible. But being in a 3D space, where you have a better judgement of scale and the ability to look down (in some cockpits there are windows below you) changes everything.
Even the worst games tend to be a little better for the VR experience. One that I found is a slot machine game. You hit a button to spin the wheel. And that’s about it. But the wheel is suspended in the air above a city and you’re on a rooftop in a hot tub. It sounds ridiculous because it is, but it’s also kind of relaxing in a way. If you were brave enough to sit in a bathtub with expensive VR goggles on your head the illusion would be complete.
What brings everything closer to a “holodeck” experience is motion tracked controllers. You can see your “hands” in front of you. You can pick things up, throw them, or drop them.
There’s a fishing game where you pick up your reel, move your arm back and flick forwards to cast your line. You have to use your other hand to reel in a fish. Then you reach out and grab the fish. At that point you can toss it back in the water, or open your box (by dropping your pole, grabbing the lid and pulling up), drop in the fish, and then close up the box. Pick up the pole again and you’re ready for another fish. It’s pretty amazing when you’re doing it.
That’s not to say there aren’t problems, though. For one, staying in front of the sensors can be an issue if you have a lot of things around. Not being able to grab that fish you dropped on the floor because the sensor isn’t pointed that far down can be frustrating. As can be getting tangled in the headset cable when you’re turning around trying to shoot undead cowboys before they eat your brains. Or accidently punching your monitor because you didn’t know you were that close to your desk. The most painful experience I’ve had so far, though, was while playing The Climb, a mountain climbing game, was trying to reach up for a grip and having the ceiling fan whack my knuckles. It was, coincidently, the same moment a bird of some kind was startled out if its nest by my groping on-screen hand which caused a moment of pure confusion. It was a level of realism I was quite ready for.
It’s not all games, though. There are educational programs out there that let you explore places like the Grand Canyon. And human anatomy. And probably other things. IKEA also has a room decorating program. The applications for VR, if done right, are near limitless.
The biggest problem that I see (besides having my hands hit by ceiling fans) is that most things are extremely short. A lot of games don’t seem to be worth the asking price because they don’t last long and don’t have a lot of replay ability. But it’s a new(ish) technology and people are still getting their feet wet. With time, there should be some truly remarkable programs out there that really take advantage of what the platform has to offer.