PSVR Day… 21? When VR becomes the new normal

I guess when you have to consult a calendar to count the days since you started doing something, it’s time to stop counting days. I think VR and I are now past our honeymoon period and have settled into a routine.

I have to admit there was a point between Christmas and New Years when I was starting to feel the magic slip away. I was still jumping from demo to demo and doing the various “experiences” but it was just starting to feel a little shallow. I was ready for a ‘real game.’ My bundle had come with Skyrim but I’d been warned not to start with that for motion sickness reasons, so I hadn’t. It was time.

And I did try Skyrim but bounced off it to some extent. This really didn’t have to do with the gameplay, but just the sheer length of the game. My VR sessions at the time were often as short as 30 minutes and I knew that by playing Skyrim 30 minutes at a time I was going to be playing Skyrim for a LONG time.

And then it happened. I’d ordered the Farpoint/AIM controller bundle, but it’d been out of stock. And it finally shipped. I was honestly a little dubious about the AIM controller. It’s a ridiculous looking thing in real life and pictures made it look kind of cheap. Back in the PS3 days when Sony was pushing the Move and PS Eye for motion games, there’d been a little gizmo that you snapped a Move into to make it seem like a gun, and I feared the AIM was the same thing. Not so.

In fact, the AIM controller is pretty awesome. It has all the controls of a dual shock so you’re not really giving anything up, and it adds the trigger for shooting. When I booted up Farpoint and held this thing in my hands, and my in-game character was holding an assault rifle that I could turn and check out… it was a magical experience. When I looked at the ground and could see my shadow and the gun in my hands there, too.. it’s hard to convey how cool really simple things can be when you experience them in VR for the first time, but this was really cool.

And Farpoint is a ‘real game’ that is very enjoyable. In my opinion, this is the “system seller” app for PSVR. It’s a 1st person shooter set on an alien world. In non-VR terms it isn’t super remarkable. It’s really a corridor shooter. But everything just works so well in VR. Even the ‘cut scenes’ are amazing since you’re really in them looking around. Controls are super-intuitive. To shoot something, duh, you aim your gun at it and pull the trigger. There’s no reticle floating in your field of view. To aim ‘down the barrel’ you hold the gun up to your face and look down the sights. To change between your two weapons, you put the gun you’re carrying onto your back by kind of lifting it up over your shoulder (though you CAN use a button to do this if you prefer).

Farpoint features smooth locomotion which can (and in my case, often does) cause motion sickness problems but somehow the Farpoint devs have done it in a way I find very comfortable. I’ve never quit a session of Farpoint because I was feeling ill (though I have quit because I was kind of exhausted from the tension and excitement of playing it…even though it isn’t a physically demanding game I find I’m often sweating when I come out of the VR world). They offer a nice variety of comfort options. You can ‘click turn’ (which means your view rotates in chunks rather than smoothly, which helps with sickness), you can choose to have a ‘focus dot’ pop up when you turn (giving your eyes something static to look at) and you can choose to have the view blur a bit while turning. Chances are one or more of these options will work for you. I went with smooth turning (after a couple sessions of click turning) and the blur effect.

Anyway, enough about Farpoint. It’s awesome. My favorite VR experience.

I’ve also been dipping my toe into flight sims. Starblood Arena is free for PS+ member, and I bought EVE Valkyrie on sale. I should decide which one I want to play and stick with it. Both of these still make me feel woozy after maybe one match, Starblood is probably worse. Starblood is like playing a Descent 3D Deathmatch in VR…you are REALLY swooping around. Still, I feel like with every session my motion sickness issues diminish.

In fact things I used to dread — like the roller coaster segments of Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, or the catapult launch sequence in EVE — I now look forward to. I still feel them in my belly when they happen, but rather than make me feel uncomfortable, they’re now kind of fun in the same way that a real roller coaster makes your stomach kind of flutter in a pleasing way when you go over a peak.

So yeah, I’m a total VR convert now. I play a couple sessions most nights, though I’m sure at some point I’ll burn out on it a bit. But absolutely zero regrets. I’m really glad I picked this up, and I’m looking forward to the next gen of headsets. I’m still hoping Microsoft will put out a mixed reality headset with inside-out tracking for Xbox One X.

PSVR Day 7

Things are still going well with PSVR. I’ve yet to have any severe motion sickness, though a demo of RIGS Combat Evolved came pretty close. I’m still working my way through a ton of demos and freebies and have yet to really sink into any one game for a good length of time.

At some point I gotta do that.

Today I ‘discovered’ a VR genre that I’m going to call virtual tabletop games. I mentioned Tumble VR in my last post and that fits into this genre too. What I mean by virtual tabletop is games that take place on a (virtual) surface that you kind of hover over. It’s a genre that would work well for AR or mixed reality, too. Two examples.

The first was Fantastic Contraption which is a VR version of the game that most of us have played in some form or other. If you’re old, think The Incredible Machine. You have a box of ‘parts’ and you have to put together a machine to achieve some kind of goal. There’s a room-scale version of this for the Vive where you make life-sized machines, but the PSVR version has you working at a smaller scale. My workspace was virtually maybe 2.5′ x 2.5′ (though you can have it as big or small as you like) and I played sitting down. Grabbing and resizing parts and snapping them together worked great with the Move controllers. I’m putting this one on my Wishlist, for sure.

The other was Dino Frontier which is a real time strategy game along the lines of The Settlers or something. So you’re overseeing this undeveloped landscape and you order tiny people to cut down trees or gather food. As they create resources you use them to build sawmills and saloons and such to keep the people housed, fed and happy. You’ve played this kind of game before. Then add dinosaurs that you can capture and train to help you run the colony. Why? I dunno. Cuz dinosaurs I guess.

The UI for Dino Frontier is amazing. Your move controllers become hands in the world and you twist your arm to check your wristwatch and that opens an info screen with quests goals and resource counts and such. You can quickly zoom in or out and pan the map around. Your menu kind of floats overhead above the action, but the various buildings under your control have buttons and things to grab that all work really well. The UI is completely intuitive.

Why do you need this game in VR? I guess you really don’t but it just looks so cool to peer down at these people and look around. Another one for my Wishlist.

Of course (now I’m repeating everyone who has ever written about VR) the only way to really understand is to play. PSVR has the social screen, of course, and I played a video of Dino Frontier captured off the social screen and it just looked like a mess. You really need to be “in” the game to appreciate it.

The nice thing about this virtual tabletop genre is that anyone can play them. Since you don’t move, there’s really no chance of disorientation or motion sickness. The biggest ‘problem’ I had was that my arms got tired, but that’s more about what a lazy slug I am than about the games!

Anyway, everything is still real positive on the PSVR front. Still a fan!

PSVR Day 4

I didn’t get much VR time this weekend because it was holiday decorating time and the living room was cluttered with storage crates full of lights, tinsel and ornaments. Still I think I’m settling into the VR lifestyle.

I ~think~ I’m done fiddling with my set-up for now. I never did find a way to use PSVR without moving furniture. The couch is a little too far away and there’s no place closer to put the camera, so I have to push the coffee table forward and slide an ottoman over in front of the couch and sit on that. Not ideal but not the end of the world either. Of course if I’m doing standing stuff I just need to move the coffee table which I’d have to do anyway. I’m playing around with the idea of getting some kind of tripod for the camera but I can’t find an extension cable for it. Amazon lists some but they’re all “no longer available.”

There’s no getting around the fact that PSVR is kind of fiddly, mostly due to the fact that it tracks using visible light. That means you have to be aware of reflections and other light sources. The Christmas lights play hell with it, for example; I have to turn them off while I’m using it. If you have a dedicated space for your VR endeavors it’s probably less bad but in a living room that gets a lot of use I think you’re always going to be tweaking/re-positioning things. Of course as with most tasks, it gets easier with practice.

Oddly the one thing that surprised me most was how dirty the lenses get. I guess they’re close enough to your eyes that eye-juice spatters on them or something (they can also fog up from it being hot and humid inside the visor). I know nothing has touched my lenses but still they have gunk on them. I ordered a Lens Pen from Amazon that should arrive today and hopefully that’ll help.

I haven’t been wearing my glasses in VR since the apparent focal length is at a distance that I can see OK without them. At some point Angela is going to make some “bumpers” to add to the visor; this is a thing I learned about on reddit. It’s easy to scratch the PSVR lenses by pulling the visor tight enough that the lenses hit your glasses, so folks modify the visor to prevent that from happening. It’s really just a foam bumper that your glasses would hit before they hit the lenses.

That reminds me, the PSVR sub-reddit is an AMAZING resource and, contrary to the overall reddit reputation, it’s actually a friendly and welcoming community.

I bought a little stand thing that charges 2 Move controllers, 2 PS4 Dualshocks, and holds the visor and a headset. Actually it isn’t that little but it keeps things nice and neat. I’m pretty happy with it except for the fact that getting the Dualshocks to seat in the charger can be a bit of a hassle. Still, very glad I got that.

Anyway, so I think I’m done buying accessories and moving stuff around. Last night I had my longest session. I lost track of time but it was somewhere between an hour and a half and two hours of wearing the visor. I was honestly surprised that it never really got uncomfortable or felt heavy or anything. The worst I can say is a few times my nose kind of itched and I couldn’t scratch it. 🙂

As for VR sickness, I’m doing much better than I thought I would. I’m still sticking to mostly static experiences though. I did try the EVE Valkyrie demo and while I was ok flying the ship, when we started really dogfighting with hard turns and stuff, I started feeling a little odd. But the demo was so short (time based, I guess?) that it ended before things got too bad.

Another thing that has surprised me was how quickly VR starts feeling normal. On day 1 I was ogling menus and stuff and just staring around in wonder. I’m already kind of past that; we get jaded so quickly! I also feel like I’m already moving past the “Doing ordinary things in VR is amazing” phase. I’m talking about games like Job Simulator that have you pushing virtual buttons and pulling virtual levers; on Day 1 just the act of grabbing something with my virtual hands was wow-ing me, but now I just assume I can grab things. Now I need an interesting reason to do so.

Basically I think I’m ready to move past experiences and start playing some games. Oddly the game that hooked me most last night was a demo of Thumper, which is a kind of rhythm game that is available in a non-VR form.

It’s visually fairly simple, you’re just flying down this little track. Honestly not something I would play in 2D, but VR makes it feel really special because you and this track are the entire world, if that makes sense. This is one I’ll definitely buy. The VR version of Rez was kind of the same way.

Another game I spent an odd amount of time with (I’ve been working through the two “Demo Disks” Sony has released) is Tumble VR, which is just a block-stacking game. Simple game, but the VR aspect makes it fun (which kind of goes against what I said about being over doing mundane things already, I guess).

There’s a product called, I think, Harmonix VR that mostly feels like a stoner app. Listen to music and watch trippy visuals, man! But it has a mode called Easel that lets you “paint” in the air and that is pretty darned cool since your creation can exist all around you.

I picked the right time to get into PSVR because there are all kinds of VR games on sale right now. I still have a ton of stuff to work through but I have to admit I’m looking forward to getting comfortable enough that I can start playing Skyrim.

TLDR version of this post I guess is… no regrets over picking up PSVR. I’m having a lot of fun with it, and I’m learning a lot about VR. It’s clear this is still a young technology with lots of room to improve and we’re already seeing that in other headsets, but for the price I’m really pleased with PSVR.

I guess I’ve become a VR believer.

PSVR Day 1 results

I didn’t have time before work to write up a blog post and now I’d kind of rather be playing than writing but wanted to jot down some thoughts quick, mostly for my own sake of recording where my VR journey started.

So setting up the PSVR wasn’t too bad, except camera placement is a bit of a challenge. When I put the camera on top of the TV, the couch was right on the cusp of the “play area.” If I perched on the front of the seat is was OK but as soon as I leaned back I’d get an alert that the camera couldn’t see the visor. So I have to noodle with that. I don’t really want to have to move furniture every time I want to do something in VR.

I had a few tracking issues. Sometimes it was like the camera thought the visor was moving forwards and backwards about a foot. Another problem was that one of the Move controllers wouldn’t track well. The other worked fine, so I’m not sure what the difference was. I even switched them around in case one side of my body wasn’t tracking as well. No difference, but wonkiness followed the one controller no matter where I put it. One was fully charged, the other (the problem one) less so. I wonder if that factored in?

Overall though, stuff worked pretty well but I can really see the appeal of the ‘inside out’ tracking systems where there’re cameras on the visor rather than an external camera. I popped in and out of a lot of the stuff that folks say are easy in terms of motion sickness, and overall I did pretty well. One game (VR Luge) made me pretty queasy but the only other times I felt really bad were when a demo glitched out and put up a 2D static image that didn’t move, which made me sick almost instantly (but was a bug) and when I watched a 360 degree video on YouTube where the person was carrying the camera around.

I had two moments that really floored me. One was doing the tutorial of London Heist where the Move controllers are your hands in VR and you have to pick up a gun in one hand, a clip in the other, and load the clip into the gun. Sounds simple but that was amazing. But this was also where one of the Move controllers was being pissy so I set it aside until I figure that out.

The other was a demo of a game called Moss. Moss has you looking down on a level/landscape, and you have to guide a little mouse through it. You control the mouse (I guess that’s Moss?) using a dualshock like you would in any non-VR game. But you can also ‘reach into’ the world to help him out. Like you know in adventure games where maybe your character has to pull a block over to a switch or something? Moss the mouse is too little to do that so you have to reach in and move things for him. It sounds simple again, but it was really neat.

Moss seemed kind of tiny on the screen…then I realized I COULD MOVE! So I leaned down to peer at him and I swear he peered back at me. Maybe it was programmed, maybe it was a coincidence, but OMG it was ADORABLE.

One other thing I did was watch some of an ‘experience’ called Allumette. This isn’t interactive, you just watch it. It’s an animated story with a kind of claymation feel to it. It’s about a little girl who is selling these things that look like giant matches. The city she lives in is a series of elevated platforms and at one point a gust of wind blows her matches over the edge of the platform she was on, and sure enough I reached out (in real space) to try to catch them for her. 🙂 But again, what it took me a moment to realize is I could move around while I watched this story unfold. I’d be frustrated that something was happening too far away, then I’d remember “Oh yeah, I can go over to it.” I even walked around a bit for this one.

Probably the game I played the most was Danger Ball which is a kind of 3D Breakout game. Your paddle is a square that you control by just moving your head, and you’re standing at the end of a tunnel that you send the ‘ball’ down. It wasn’t fancy but I was stunned at how precise the controls were, and it was all done just by moving your head. It felt like a great game to play to just get used to wearing the visor.

Speaking of wearing the visor, it was pretty comfortable and oddly when I put it on and was in this dark space with just the PS4 dashboard floating in front of my face…it felt kind of cozy. I had anticipated it being an experience that put me on edge a little, but quite the contrary. I didn’t really want to take it off. I liked being in the virtual world!

Today I join the VR revolution!

If all goes according to plan, my Playstation VR bundle will be delivered today. Yup, I finally went for it.

My first experience in VR was Dactyl Nightmare, which came out in 1991 I believe. It was an arcade machine and if I’m remembering right it cost $10 to play it. We look back and laugh at the graphics now but I remember being BLOWN AWAY by the experience and I couldn’t wait to see where VR went. Of course it went pretty much nowhere for the next few decades.

At one point I cobbled together a home-brew VR setup using a Nintendo Powerglove and Sega 3D Glasses. This was my one and only brush with “maker”-dom. I had to solder together a little circuit box to get all this to work (I didn’t design it, just downloaded the plans from GEnie or Compuserve). And it did work, but it was pretty low fidelity. I do remember playing ‘VR handball’ in my bedroom though.

When Sony announced PSVR I was pretty excited about it, but when it launched I balked and backed away. I had a few issues that concerned me:

1) Isolation: My PS4 is in the living room. Usually when I’m playing a game, Angela (and Lola Thunderpaws, for that matter) are in the room with me and I tend to talk to them as I play. Or rub their bellies. Mostly Lola’s belly but hey we’re all adults here. I wasn’t sure I wanted to immerse myself in a world and leave them behind. I’m still not… this is still one of my concerns.

2) Motion sickness: I sometimes get sick playing shooters. I’m worried I’ll get sick in PSVR too. After reading up on using the contraption, and talking to my friend Scopique, I think I can overcome it. I hope I can anyway. People talk a lot about getting “VR Legs” from using VR, plus I think the game devs are getting better about offering ‘comfort’ settings.

3) HDR: When PSVR shipped I’d just invested in a new TV with HDR for playing PS4 games. The version 1 PSVR didn’t pass through HDR signals so I would have had to disconnect it when I wasn’t using it. Knowing me, I knew I’d never bother to set it up if that was the case. There’s now a newer SKU out that DOES pass HDR through the little breakout box, so this is no longer a problem.

4) Cost: Sony is running a deal right now. The Skyrim bundle is $100 off plus I did some other creative financing to bring the effective cost down another $70 for me.

Anyway, I’ve been interrupted 3 times trying to write this post and I have to get to work. I kind of have forgotten the point of it. Suffice to say, I’m both excited and a little nervous about this project. Worst case, I get horribly ill and can’t use it and have to sell it, I guess. Best case, I get transported back to that day in 1991 when my mind was blown by my first VR experience.

This is the video that sold me on Playstation VR

I’ve been on the fence about Playstation VR, as mentioned in an earlier post. Last night I pretty much made the decision to go through with my pre-order, based on this video from E3. The game is Robinson: The Journey and it’s honestly not even clear how much of a game it is. It might be kind of a VR walking simulator. And that’s actually fine for me…honestly that’s the kind of experience I’m most excited about. I don’t know that I need to shoot people in the face in VR; that feels like it might be a little too real, plus the fast movement will probably make me sick.

But stuff like this seems cool, and it isn’t even the gameplay that has sold me, it’s the reaction of the guy trying it. This is one of the regulars on the channel so this is a jaded gaming journalist and I loved how his colleague had to keep prompting him to talk because he was so swept up in the experience.

My second taste of crappy VR

I’ve been pretty skeptical about VR up to this point. Actually scratch that. At one time I was super-stoked for VR but that was back in the days of yore, when my first taste of crappy VR was the arcade game Dactyl Nightmare. It blew my mind. I know that sounds ridiculous now, but in its day is was amazing that you could enter this world and walk around. Here’s what it looked and played like:

I was so hyped on VR that I cobbled together my own VR rig using Sega’s 3D glasses and a Mattel Power Glove. I learned how to do this on CompuServe but here’s a post on putting such a system together. I still remember playing a VR handball game with that system and being dumbfounded that it actually worked. Back then we were all reading Neuromancer and listening to Jaron Lanier talk about our virtual reality future. I fully expected to have a VR port installed in the back of my head by the time I got old.

And then, of course, it all fizzled and I let go of my dreams of “jacking in to cyberspace.”

Fast forward 25 years or so and here we are, ready for VR again. This time it all seems a lot more viable, but now I’m old and curmudgeonly and I think I have a “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” kind of attitude towards VR. I also have physical concerns. I struggle with motion-sickness in non-VR games and I can’t imagine how much worse it would be in VR. Also I wear progressive bifocals and had a lot of concerns about how VR would work with them.

When Sony put the Playstation VR visor up for pre-order I jumped on it, just to kind of hold my place in line. I wasn’t, and am still not, sure I’d go through with the purchase. I realize Vive and Oculus both offer better experiences but neither is within my budget.

Anyway the biggest question was my glasses, so at the suggestion of someone on Twitter I ordered a Google Cardboard visor. It was on sale so cost me less than $11 delivered and it arrived a few days ago. The good news is, my glasses seem to work fine, or at least as fine as they work in the real world. Stuff low in my viewport is blurry but I only notice that if I deliberately look down. The more natural inclination is to move my head to look down and the everything is fine.

So one obstacle down. Motion sickness is harder to measure using Cardboard because it really is a crappy VR experience for me. Keep in mind my phone is 2 years old at this point; if I had a newer more powerful one the experience might be much better. With the default cardboard you have to hold the whole thing up to your face (Angela is already shopping for a plastic model with a head strap). It’s something I play with for minutes, rather than hours, at a time and basically I look around and have one button and that’s the extent of my interactivity. (The button on the Cardboard visor links to a bit inside that taps the screen via a conductive strip of some kind of foil or film.)

But hey, it was less than $11 so I’m not complaining.

My guess is that motion sickness will be an issue for me because even after a few minutes with cardboard I feel kind of a pressure in my head. What isn’t clear yet is whether I can adapt. When I spend a lot of time playing fast-moving FPSs (in 2D) I build up a tolerance and my motion sickness issues become much less severe. I’m hoping the same will happen with VR.

Cardboard has nudged me towards keeping my Playstation VR order for a few reasons. First I know that it should work fine with my glasses. Second, Angela tried it and was excited, so it wouldn’t just be me using the visor. And third and most importantly, cardboard rekindled a little of that excitement I had back in the early 90’s.

The strangest bit is, I don’t think I’d enjoy playing a FPS or any kind of fast-paced game in VR. I’m more leaning towards wanting “experiences” that are about exploring weird virtual worlds at a leisurely pace. That’s good news because I find it hard to believe the PS4 has the power to deliver a fast-paced VR game at frame rates high enough to prevent nausea. I also find it oddly pleasant to just sit back and watch 2D videos on a giant virtual screen.

I still have some concerns about the social aspects. As I said, you hold cardboard up to your face and I haven’t been bothering with headphones so it’s really easy to stay ‘connected’ with the outside world. I worry a little that using the PS VR will be kind of off-putting to whomever isn’t using it, but now that I’ve tried cardboard I find it hard to imagine we’d wear the PS VR visor for hours at a time. I think it’s going to be something you just dip into for 15 minutes now and then, and that doesn’t feel problematic.

So I think I’m tentatively on-board the VR bandwagon again. I think we’re still a long way away from it taking over our entertainment (if it ever does) and I’ve given up on my cyberspace neural implant, but as a kind of adjunct to gaming and a way to experience new worlds now and then, I think it’ll be cool. I’m still on the fence about whether it’ll be $400 worth of cool though. So now it’s all about the dollars and whether I think we’ll get enough use out of it.