Immersion: The Power of Virtual Reality
Updated: Mar 7, 2020
Also known as Blogging: A Pretentious Title.
I had the pleasure of hanging out in a local VR Arcade the other week, and it was the first time that I had properly got to experience Virtual Reality gaming. My mate Adam and I both had an hour-long slot each to enjoy a series of exciting VR titles, and I can honestly say I was incredibly impressed by what I played.
If you know me, which I'm assuming you do if you're reading this, you will know that I'm pretty into video games. I've played my fair share of different games across a variety of genres, consoles and generations. One striking thing that I have always found that video games lend themselves very well to, is immersion. But, immersion isn't a trait that video games have a monopoly on; far from it. There have been countless books, TV shows or movies that I have experienced that have expertly crafted their worlds, characters and stories to the point where I was sufficiently drawn in and immersed, but with games there is this tasty extra layer - a secret ingredient - audience control.
No matter how well-crafted the novel, or how well-storyboarded the movie, the fundamental "experience" of each piece of media is going to be largely the same for every consumer. And that's not necessarily a bad thing - it's just not as immersive. Enter the video game - a digital medium that requires player input in order for events to actually happen. The amount of input required will of course vary from game to game and genre to genre, but in 2019 we're absolutely at a point where video game budgets rival Hollywood movies. Motion captured performances from actors help to create lifelike characters, the latest engines are able to render realistic graphics and the writing of many games (Red Dead Redemption 2 stands out as a recent example) is honestly breathtaking. No longer are we confined to the director's specific "on-rails" destination from point A to B - in many modern games, you decide where you're going. You decide what you want to do, and your actions shape the experience and the story around you. There are obviously a finite number of possibilities, but this can nevertheless feels a lot more free, rewarding, and absorbing to players.
Now, that was all a very long-winded way of me expressing that I like immersion in video games. And that is precisely, I think, why I had so much fun at the VR arcade. Instead of looking at a screen and using a joypad or keyboard to input commands, these two limiting factors that often remind you that you're playing a game, are removed entirely. Instead of sitting still in a chair staring at a screen, the screen is taped to your face, directly in front of your eyes. It's literally all you can see. And, there are two screens displaying two slightly different pictures, which allows for our eyes to treat the experience as if it were "real". And instead of mashing buttons from the comfort of your sofa, you are standing in a room that has been mapped out to be the walkable area that you can move around in, in the VR games. You are given two ergonomic controllers, one for each hand, that can mimic simple hand actions like pointing, grabbing an item and so on. But the cherry on top is the fact that the headset and controllers contain gryometers that are pretty much 1:1 - meaning that the real life movements of your head control where you're looking, and the movements of your hands control your hands in game.
As soon as I put the headset on, I felt transported. Developers of VR games have absolutely capitalised on this, and many in-game menus in VR games are constructed as 3D environments, meaning that you're already immersed in this new world before you're actually even playing the game. One of the highlights for me was during a short round of Superhot VR, where, in order to select the level or gamemode you want to play, you have to find the relevant floppy disk in a dingy office setup, pick it up, and insert it into the computer in front of you. It's a novelty, sure, and over time it would no doubt get annoying, but it's a simple example of how immersion can make something as mundane as level selection an exciting and memorable experience.
I had a lot of fun with the games I played (including Fruit Ninja, Beat Sabre, Elven Assassin, SkyFront, Raw Data and the aforementioned Superhot), but in all honesty, one of the most enjoyable and memorable moments for me was in the Google Earth VR experience. A series of pre-set panoramas were set up for me to explore, ranging from the streets of Tokyo to vast mountaintop vistas. And then I got my hands on the globe, and flew around 3D models of the Empire State Building and Manhatten, like some sort of giant flying monster. Again there's not a lot of depth to this experience, but as a first-time experience in VR, this was absolutely great way of demonstrating the power of immersion offered by the tools I had in my hands.
So, if you are remotely interested in anything that I mentioned here, give it a shot. It's a crazy-exciting new world of tech, and I get the feeling that we've only just scratched the surface of what Virtual Reality is capable of. Also, I promise I'm not being sponsored by Vertigo VR.