Oculus Shift: Experience and Accessibility

I still remember the first time I had a ‘wow‘ moment with VR: I was playing with a student’s project at NYU ITP a few years ago. I found myself in an abandoned hilly town. It had simple graphics, like an early 90s first-person game, but it was fun to explore the streets as one would in any new city. There was something wrong with the town though: it was flooding, and the water level was quickly rising. This wasn’t a game; there was no help or prompt or alarm blaring in my headset, just the occasional reflections off the choppy surface showing it was coming for me. The program didn’t tell me to do so, but as soon as I realized what was going on with the water, I kept navigating to higher ground.

When the water level finally caught up with me and I was just about to submerge, I gasped! I took a sharp breath in and my heart skipped a beat and I swear there was some balance adjustment from my ears signaling my feet there would be no more ground. It was very subtle, but it had fooled my mind – even if for just a second.

Even though I’d tried a few different headsets and played with immersive games before, that was the first time that I truly felt like something had shifted – with the platform, for the developers programming experiences, for me.

The next time an experience changed things for me was when I was exploring one of the VR spaces in New York City, including the Hubneo VR space in the Lower East Side.

They’ve built their own motion rigs upon which you can sit and use the headsets: a car rig with two dimensions and a plane rig with three dimensions. (All were connected to Oculus Rifts). The experience really elevated my expectations of the virtual: I tried flying an old WW2-era plane over England and a spaceship in 360-degree space. After a few minutes, it really felt like I was a part of each craft, with the freedom to look up, roll up and back in many directions – the dogfights came alive like never before.

To top it off, a flight sim that would’ve cost tens of thousands in the past was put together with some shocks and discount pieces of wood from Long Island City. (Note: I don’t know where he got the wood.)

This is the second such place I’ve been to in New York: the first was a small shop on the Bowery where kids rented time on an hourly basis to check out various VR rigs and games. Sure, maybe you won’t have these at home anytime soon (and definitely not in our small NYC apartments) but these spaces bring these toys and experiences to kids who wouldn’t otherwise be able to have it.

I highly recommend you try one of the in-person spaces, because their equipment and setup is already perfectly tweaked for you to get the best immersion in a small amount of time.

Both of those past transformative experiences though, require a few thousand dollars worth of headsets and computers and rigs. So it wasn’t until a few weeks ago when I tried the Oculus Go for the first time where I had the next evolution of that ‘wow‘ – this time because of the access it affords to many more people.

At $199, it is one of the cheapest pieces of equipment you can buy for your living room – right in line with an Apple TV. It syncs quite easily enough with your phone and is wireless – set yourself up anywhere you wish. Go feels like the beginning of the first mainstream virtual reality device that many people could have in their homes and offices. You can sense a small shift in computing.

To get it hooked up and running, I had to get back on Facebook. Ugh; I could feel my anxiety level rising. I haven’t been on Facebook all year (see: Reconnection), and I was a little bit bummed to have had to log back into the service to set up the device. But for all its missteps, you have to hand it to Facebook: they’ve gotten all their acquisitions right (photos, texting, virtual reality).

The setup and first-time flow is just very smooth. As soon as you put it on, you get immersed into the user interface and you get going. All the apps you might expect are already on the platform. There are a few games, including a few from worlds like Marvel’s Suicide Squad and Stranger Things, the latter of which is a very scary immersion. Oddly, Netflix is also included: you can sit on your real couch in front of your real TV but with Go on your face within which you’re sitting on a couch watching Netflix on a virtual TV hanging on the same wall in front of you. I…am not so sure about this. You’ve also got chat which leads me to think it would be cool to do some new sort of video conferencing through this. Imagine one where you can project multiple parallel screens of information to one another, which isn’t easily possible in normal video conferencing, because your primary viewport is taken up by the person projecting.

Maybe we won’t be all sitting at home with these things (think of our spouses) – but I can see it becoming a side experience. It won’t become a primary interface for anything anytime soon, but it feels like it is is strong enough to be a second screen for when you need it, like an iPad. Take it with you and use it for moments you don’t want to sit with your phone and where you want a different screen. I can already see people sporting these on the NYC-SF geek flights. (*shudder*) It’s like a coach version of those Emirates first class pods – shut off your neighbors and be by yourself and in your own world. Flying on the plane, you’re no longer on the ground; flying in virtual reality, you’re no longer on this plane.