The Deep sold me on VR in under two minutes

By Brenna Hillier, Monday, 6 October 2014 07:54 GMT

Brenna went deep-diving with Project Morpheus and came away converted.

VR is stupid. It’s never going to work very well. The tech is way too expensive for mainstream adoption. Nobody wants to wear a thing on their head to play games or browse Facebook or whatever it’s for. Also, I sometimes wear glasses, and it’s just uncomfortable. Plus there’s the whole motion sickness thing.

Shut up, Brenna of August 2014. You are an idiot. You know less than Jon Snow. What do you know from VR? Some shitty theme park experiences of the early 90’s? It’s been two decades. Why don’t you just have a look at the bloody thing? Okay, I’ll meet you back here when our timestreams converge.

VR is amazing.

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Oculus Rift was on show at the Tokyo Game Show. I’ve never tried it, but the queues were enormous, and I know people here in Australia who have the kit, so I didn’t bother lining up.

I probably wouldn’t have bothered lining up for Project Morpheus, but it happened to be free when I swung by the press-only PlayStation Lounge area, and there was a queue for Bloodborne – so I figured I might as well.

The demo I played was called The Deep. It had a plot, I think; certainly someone was shouting at me in Japanese on the regular. It’s a short experience developed by SCE London Studio, a team I swear henceforth to stop thinking off as Sony’s SingStar whipping boy.

I want to tell you about it. I’ve been told that I can’t. I’ve heard it said that writing about VR is like dancing about architecture, but I’ve seen some terrific dancing about architecture in my life so what the hell, let’s give it a crack. “Words cannot describe” is a terrible cliche; that’s precisely what words are for.

There’s no point pretending VR is some sort of mind-altering experience where you twooly bewieve you’ve stepped into another world or whatever.

There’s no point pretending VR is some sort of mind-altering experience where you twooly bewieve you’ve stepped into another world or whatever. Of course you don’t; despite the enthusiasm of the games press (*raises hand in admission of guilt*) moving graphics are not yet and maybe never will be genuinely photo-realistic, and the kind of graphics you can build to be displayed once for each eye are not exactly Gran Turismo 6 level, or whatever the hell our byword for next-gen graphics is going to be.

One top of that both Oculus Rift and Morpheus use standard controllers and only track your head movements; you’re not in a full body suit or man-machine interface, so there’s a weird feeling of disconnect; you can look around freely, even rotating on the spot by shuffling about, but moving the rest of your body doesn’t achieve anything. In The Deep, your controller stands in for a flare gun, and thanks to motion controls and the light bar it does track your movement – so you can move one hand around, but the rest of you is a stiff puppet.

What struck me is how unpleasant I found being unable to move. At first I put this down to frustrated gaming instincts; I’ve spent years of my life navigating virtual spaces, and my first instinct is to move, not stand about. But it was more than that; the moment I got into the Morpheus headset and realised that moving my head moved my view, I tried to walk – and was carefully and politely restrained by the booth minder, because that’s dangerous.

I tried to walk because it all felt so natural. It felt perfectly normal to me that when I turned my head my viewpoint moved. Of course it did! It is perfectly natural! It is a thing we do all day every day! And now it happens inside a machine.

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In a few years time when VR is commonplace, every day people won’t even realise how astounding this is. Kids will grow up never knowing a life without VR, the way you and I take always-on smartphones with Internet access for granted. It even took me quite a lot of reflection to remember that what modern VR can do is ridiculously complicated and special and amazing, and I stepped into the booth expecting it not to work at all.

It is magical. It’s not perfect, but it’s magical. This very simple experience – turning your head and having your viewpoint turn – is a revelation. Taking the control pad, the interface, out of that equation is genuinely revolutionary. It meets the hype.

What I played at TGS wasn’t a game. I had a gun and I could fire it, but as it did nothing at all to dissuade the nearby giant shark from attempting to swallow me whole I can only conclude that it was included to give me some illusion of control, or perhaps to show off just how good Sony’s motion tracking has become. It certainly demonstrated that the tech could support games, though.

It is magical. It’s not perfect, but it’s magical. This very simple experience is a revelation. Taking the control pad out of the equation is genuinely revolutionary. It meets the hype.

If you read all the things I write (you should!) you may recall that I used to be a big fan of Kinect and its ilk, because I believed it would open the frontiers of gaming to the broader populace. I was very disappointed when Microsoft abandoned its peripheral. Later I decided that it didn’t matter anyway, because anybody can learn to use a control pad if they want to; what we need are games that make them want to.

Now that I’ve experienced The Deep, I don’t know what to think. This is a thing anybody – anybody! – can do. You know how to move your head. You know how to move your arm. As long as you only need to push one button, even your most technophobic elderly relatives could play a shooter in this – and they would probably want to, if the setting appealed to them.

Hell, I want to do stuff in there that isn’t games at all. The Deep was a very well-constructed demo; it’s well-paced, with ratcheting tension, and moments that encourage you to experience its impressive capacity to follow your movements by spinning around in fright. Even without a control pad in my hands, I would stay inside a headset for an experience like that – a sort of immersive movie.

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If you put someone in there, and said “hey, this is a virtual world – not a game, ho ho – so go explore it. You’re standing on a segue and here are the segue controls – yes, they feel like a control pad, don’t they? But they’re not. This moves you forwards, this makes you go faster, now there are some monsters so this is how you shoot them – ah ah ha ha ha! We tricked you! It is a game! And you’re playing it!”

They’d probably just be like, “Can you shut up and go away because I am trying to experience a child-like sense of wonder and fucking delight, alright? There are dinosaurs in here and you’re trying to have a smug conversation with me about what is and isn’t a game and who gaming is for. Dinosaurs! Go away.”

The world is full of art and media and thought and beauty and expression and fancy and delight and joy and darkness and shiny objects, and all of them clamour for your attention every second of the day. I feel no doubt at all in saying that VR is going to be one of the most special and most important of the many things vying for your interest. This is the platform by which gaming can go mainstream; this is the platform by which gaming will transcend cultural barriers and be acknowledged far and wide as a Real Thing.

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