Back Down the VR Rabbit Hole

I had planned to do a couple more ‘first look’ posts about some Game Pass games this weekend; there’s a couple I’m curious about. But I got side-tracked in a big way: I’ve been bitten by the VR bug again.

A couple weeks back I posted about how I’d started doing VR ‘workouts’. I’m still doing those. OK it’s been 2 weeks so I’m not going to claim it’s been a lifestyle change or anything, but I have gotten into a routine. I’ve been doing the workouts Sunday, Monday, Wednesday & Thursday. Tuesday and Friday are rest days. Saturdays I do a LOT of walking with Lola so while I’m not doing a ‘workout’ I’m not resting either. Fitbit counts it as an exercise day, so all told I’m exercising 5 days/week which seems reasonable and sustainable.

And when I say workouts what I mean is “playing games that require enough movement to work up a sweat.’ The Meta Quest Move app lets you set 3 kinds of goals: sessions/week, minutes/day and number of calories burned. I set all three quite low to start. I am an old out of shape dude with a history of fatal heart attacks on my father’s side of the family tree, after all. My ‘quiver’ of games so far is Beat Saber, The Climb and Pistol Whip with Beat Saber being kind of the backbone of the routine. But generally I just play the three games until the Move app says I’ve hit my goals, then generally keep playing because I’m just having fun. For example my minutes/day is set at 20 and today I stopped at 50 minutes and then I only stopped because of real world obligations.

So far, this is working just in the sense that I feel SO much better than I have been feeling, both physically and mentally. The workouts are strenuous enough that I feel good and tired but light enough that I can get on with my day after I’m done, and rather than dreading doing them, I look forward to them. My mood has improved so much; like I didn’t realize what a cloud I’d been living under until a bit of exercise seemed to chase it away. In fact last week I had a day where the ‘old me’ returned for some reason and I was like “How did I live like this?” Happily it was just a bad day and by the next morning I was feeling good again. Maybe more importantly when I was ‘down’ I was aware that I was ‘down’ and that what I was feeling wasn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, normal.

But being in the habit of putting on the VR visor 4 times/week has had a dangerous side-effect. I’m really enjoying being ‘in’ VR worlds again and I kind of want more games to play and not just exercise games.

What’s funny is a few months ago I was telling friends about how I’m just DONE with VR. The visors are a hassle, setup is irritating and it’s just not worth it. But after a couple weeks the routine of getting into the VR world takes just a couple minutes. I shove the coffee table one way, shove an ottoman the other way and I have space in front of the couch. Putting the Quest 2 on takes just a second now. None of it feels like much of a hassle.

This weekend, I dug out the Oculus Rift 2, which I hadn’t used in ages and ages. Getting THAT set up was kind of a hassle. Meta no longer makes the Rift so I had to dig around to find the software and get it installed and all that. First I connected it to my gaming PC and had some issues with sound (this PC has given me SO many headaches around sound and I have NEVER gotten a microphone to work on it), plus there is NO space around my gaming PC. Then I decided to try it on my old gaming laptop (in the living room where I have space) and the jury is still out on whether it is really powerful enough to do the job. [Jury is no longer out. The old laptop, which is what I used to use with the Rift, just can’t put out the framerate needed for a comfortable experience. I started getting motion sick using it. Switched back to the new gaming PC and that discomfort vanished. No wonder I didn’t ‘stick’ with PC VR back in the day.]

But the brief time I used it connected to the gaming PC, I was reminded of how much better ‘connected’ VR looks compared to the Quest 2, which of course runs on a mobile processor.

All of which led me to start thinking about Playstation VR 2. I laughed when Sony announced PSVR2 because it was SO expensive, but when I compared it to PC VR headsets, it’s actually pretty affordable. For example the HTC Vive Pro 2 is $800 without controllers or the base stations you need to track it. The Valve index with the visor, controllers and base stations is $1400. Compared to that, PSVR2 $550 doesn’t seem that bad considering I already own the PS5. And the PS5 is right there where I’m doing my Quest 2 workouts so using it should be a cinch.

Next thing I know, I’m down the You Tube rabbit hole watching PSVR2 reviews, tips, and accessories videos, which is why I never got to those Game Pass titles. (Well that and a Genshin event was about to expire and it had a lot of primogems as rewards so I spent a bunch of time crunching through that.) Generally the buzz is pretty favorable with the biggest con being that the ‘sweet spot’ where the image looks best is pretty small so you may need to adjust the visor every so often to make sure is still properly aligned. I can live with that.

While I haven’t taken the plunge yet, I did order some prescription lenses for the PSVR2, which means it’s more or less a matter of “When” rather than “If” I get one. Or I guess I write off the $75 that the lenses cost me as money lost in a fit of madness. But I think I’ll be ordering PSVR2 pretty soon, and I’m excited about it.

Some ideas for the upcoming VR accessory market

If VR takes off to the extent some seem to think it will, I have to imagine we’ll see all kinds of “VR accessories” crop up from the same companies that try to sell us controller charging stands, extra console cooling fans, and the like.

Here’s a couple of ideas to get them started. I guess I’m thirsty this morning since they both are drink-related.

1) Adult Sippy Cups. I predict a lot of spilled drinks as people wearing VR headsets reach out to grab their drink in the non-VR world. These would be basically the same as kid’s sippy cups only bigger and without the cute animals or whatever they put on kid’s sippy cups. Optionally they’d have a straw. These are for casual VR users. There’d also be a deluxe model that has tracking dots on the cup and that comes with a plug-in for your VR system so that, on command, the VR system can display the cup inside the VR world, making it even easier to grab. (Disclaimer: I don’t know if any of the VR systems support plug-ins but they should.)

2) For the hardcore VR enthusiast, there’s the VR Camelback Pack. This is a pack you wear on your back, with a long straw that runs over your shoulder and ends next to your mouth. Long distance bike racers have these…maybe some runners too. But since we’re gamers the VR Camelback Pack will have an adapter so you can snap in a can or bottle of your favorite beverage and it won’t spill. So whether you game with a beer or a Dr. Pepper, you don’t have to pour it into the Camelback but instead it snaps into a holder. The only cleanup is rinsing out the straw.

The plug-in for this one will both indicate fluid levels in the container (via a temperature sensor probably) and would remind you to drink if you go an hour without taking a sip. We don’t want people getting lost in VR worlds and dying of dehydration!

An optional accessory for the Vive or any other ‘full room’ VR systems will be a cable management arm that protrudes from the back of the camelback. You’ll run the cable from the headset through the end of this arm and it’ll just hold the cables a couple feet away from your body so you’re a little less likely to get tangled up in them. Having all those cables dangling around your ankles seems like a good way to trip yourself so this accessory will at least help with that. The arm will swivel from side to side freely so that it’s always as close as possible to your computer.

This is just the tip of the iceberg and I’m sure if we put our heads together we can beat Mad Catz, Nyko, PowerA and whoever else makes crappy gaming accessories to market. We’ll all get rich together!

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.