Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Monday 10 August 2020

No Escape From Reality ? HAH !

It arrived !

It took months and months, but I've wanted one for years, so in the end I guess the wait wasn't so bad. Here are my initial impressions after being plugged into the thing for about a month. Well, not literally, but certainly enough to give a decent overview.

Short answer : I'm hugely impressed. It blows my obscure MagicSee thing out of the water. It's not quite a holodeck, but honestly it comes closer to the holodeck experience than I thought I was ever likely to get. To cut to the chase, ten out of ten from me. But, I don't believe even ten out of ten should mean Platonic levels of perfection, so let's break that down a bit.

Setting up

Very straightforward. The only oddity here is that you need a phone to do this initially, for reasons that elude me. You use it to pair the headset to the phone (and presumably the controllers) and set the WiFi password. I've no idea why you can't just do this on the headset itself, but it's not any kind of difficulty, just odd. Then you plug it in and charge, which takes about 2 hours from zero (obviously less if the unit is already partially charged). You generally get about a 1:1 ratio of charge to usage time. There are a few other occasions when you need a phone, but after initial setup it's very rare.

The box contains the headset, two hand controllers with AA batteries included, a charging cable (USB C on both ends, with a mains adaptor but no USB A adaptor), and a separator to make it easier to wear for people with glasses. I've only just started using that - being shortsighted I can easily wear it without glasses, though after a while I feel my eyes start to go funny. The supplied picture-only instructions on how to fit the lens separator don't make a lot of sense, but it's actually very easy and it does improve things wearing glasses.

Initially I made a bigger deal out of putting the headset on than I needed to, because it has a cleverer design than I thought. The straps are attached to the unit by two rotatable side-tubes, and you can pull back on the strap to increase the distance like pulling on elastic. Then you can adjust the straps by pulling on the velcro and pulling through. Very easy, very effective. I would recommend a tight fit though, otherwise the image will bounce around and that's not a lot of fun.

The first thing you see is the "passthrough", the greyscale camera view the Quest uses for tracking. This is itself quite a strange experience to see the world in 3D grainy greyscale - the perceived depth doesn't quite match up to reality, though it's close enough to walk around comfortably. Despite the manual's warnings, I'd have no problems with tackling a flight of stairs. And while it's a grainy image, I could still read the time on my watch with it. I don't know if there are any current possibilities to use the camera feed for augmented reality*, but this seems at the very least like a possibility for the future. It would seem a logical option for further iterations to use hi-res colour cameras as a way of doing AR while ensuring a clear display.

* My guess is no, at least not officially. Oculus have adopted the "high quality or nothing" approach, and the camera quality is not high.

Then you set up the Guardian system that prevents you bumping into walls. You do this very easily by clicking and dragging to define an area with a controller, like spray painting a hologram. The Quest itself determined the floor level perfectly with no input from me - it's only now that I stop to think about it that I realise just how impressive this is.

And that's pretty much it. In five minutes or less you're ready to go. Though, I did initially find that there is one other essential step - I was finding it difficult for it to maintain a direct WiFi connection. This was causing annoying issues when trying to access the Store and, in particular, the setting for the virtual home environment (the former mostly worked, the latter never did, and kept insisting the WiFi wasn't working even when it was connected). My workaround for this was to use my phone to create a WiFi bridge (a trick I've found necessary in some hotels where the WiFi takes you to a landing page, which my laptop sometimes doesn't like). From thereon, I've had no further WiFi issues. Later, for other reasons, we changed router and then I was able to connect directly without any problems.

User interface

Like most things about the Oculus, this just works. It's super-sensible and intuitive and doesn't really need any explanation. The controllers are rendered as virtual objects which respond perfectly - absolutely perfectly - to how you orient them, projecting a beam showing you what you're pointing at. Then you click, or click+drag to scroll (or hold down the twiddly thumb stick thingies).

A very nice "experimental" feature (you have to enable it from the Settings menu) that works perfectly well is to double-tap the side of the headset to show the passthrough at any time. This is extremely helpful in finding somewhere to put the controllers so you can take the headset off. You can of course just venture outside the Guardian zone, but the switch to the passthrough can be a bit slow if you do it that way (and you might bump into something on the way). Occasionally the Guardian grid gets stuck on permanent display, but this can be fixed by changing from roomscale to standing and back again, though this hasn't happened at all since a recent update.

The only thing that does get somewhat irritating is nothing much to do with Oculus but certain apps, in particular Vader Immortal. Normally tapping the Oculus button brings you straight to the menu, but sometimes it just doesn't. Nothing happens, and you're stood there clicking a button over and over again pondering how the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. It's a minor annoyance, but one I wish developers would pay a bit more attention to. Eventually it works, and this too has at least improved with a recent update.

None of these cause any real problems. Compared to the cheap Chinese knock-off that was my first headset, the ability to use apps that work reliably is a huge bonus.


Excellent. I've heard that some people don't enjoy wearing it for long periods since it has a tight fit and is, they say, quite heavy, but for me I could wear it quite happily for at least an hour if not more - the only reason I tend to stop is because my feet need a break ! Watching full documentaries on the Quest is a genuinely immersive and engaging experience, though this needs a looser fit otherwise things do tend to become distracting. In a game, I barely notice that I'm wearing a headset at all - in a passive documentary, it's much more apparent. I also tend to end up with a bright red band across my forehead that fades after a few minutes, but I can't imagine this really bothering anyone.

I've heard that the battery pack accessory not only makes it last much longer but also much more comfortable for those who do notice the giant goggles strapped to their face. I haven't tried this, but maybe in the future I will.


A headset is only as good as what it has to show. I've been using this pretty extensively and intensively, so I'll give a brief summary of my favourites so far below. There are two kinds of VR experiences : 3DOF (degrees of freedom), which means you can only rotate your view, and 6DOF, which means you can move anywhere inside a scene.

3DOF is really only necessary for pre-rendered content, i.e. videos. It's also used on older systems like the Oculus Go and Google Cardboard, but there's really no excuse for any interactive app to still be using this. Not that there isn't some great 3DOF content - especially videos ! - but 6DOF is incomparably better. The difference is a bit like being in a planetarium compared to actually flying a spaceship. In 6DOF scenes you can typically pick up objects, bring them close to you for inspection, and then chuck 'em away. You can crouch down to look underneath tables and peer over the edges of walls, or worriedly back off from dangerously high ledges. In 3DOF you can look in any direction from a strictly fixed viewpoint, so move up and down and the scene doesn't change. This is a bit weird and might be one reason for motion sickness (more later); with 6DOF that sensation is completely absent. It really is like teleporting to a new world. As the tagline to Pratchett & Baxter's The Long Earth puts it :
There are worlds waiting. All it takes is one small step.
It must be said, though, that unless you're willing to fork out some serious cash, it can seem at first glance that there's not that much 6DOF content natively available for the Quest at the moment. This is not really true, for several reasons. There are in fact five or six different ways to access content.

1) From the Quest Store
While there are a few totally free or very low cost apps, it's worth being aware that the official refund policy is pretty sensible. Personally I'd rather have an ask-permission system rather than ask-forgiveness model, i.e. if there isn't a free demo available, then a very short free trial period (say, 15 minutes) would be nice. The Store does feature some rather good "Daily" deals though, typically meaning a healthy 25-50% off. Such deals don't actually happen every single day, but most of them - and when there isn't a daily deal, there's usually something else that's very similar.

My biggest gripe is that many of the experiences available - and some of them do deserve to be called experiences rather than games - are awfully short for the price. If I'm going to fork out $30, I'll want to be sure it has replayability, which many apparently don't. For $5-$10, sure, I'll do an occasional impulse buy, but $30 ? That's the level where I start wanting either substantial content length (10-20 hours plus) or high replay value. And there's not too much of this available from the official sources as yet, though it is growing.

2) From the Oculus Go
There's a fair bit more content available for the older Oculus Go. Fortunately, some - not enough, but some - has been made Quest-compatible, and you can run these (official full list here) on your Quest no trouble. Oddly, you have to install these using your phone, as the Oculus Go library isn't available from the Quest. Why they couldn't just make the supported apps (unsupported apps will not work !) available directly in the Quest I don't know, but the procedure is very simple and miles better than letting them all go to waste. Once installed, you can then select them in the Quest like so. Most, but not all, have 6DOF support. I hope they'll add more in time, because some of these are really very good. Many of these are free or low cost. I don't know if it's the developers or Oculus who make whatever modifications are needed, but it'd be nice to see more regular updates on this.

3) Web-based VR content
This is harder to find and generally a lot more experimental - some of it simply doesn't work at all*, for reasons unknown. This is especially odd since it's supposed to be cross-platform by definition. A few things work in the Oculus native browser but not in Firefox's VR browser and vice-versa, so it's a bit strange. And some of it does work but just barely, like Sketchfab (which is a great shame given how many models there are, hopefully there'll be a dedicated Quest app in the future**) while some is just not very good. One that I do really like is Access Mars, which lets you walk around the Martian surface using real data from Curiosity, as well as examine the rover itself.

* Typically you press the headset button and it either doesn't do anything or gives you a hugely distorted display. I've yet to find a case where playing with the VR settings makes any difference - it either works straight away or not at all.
** It works but a at a distractingly low frame rate for all but the simplest of models.When it does work, it's great - I was able to walk around one of my own data sets as though an HI cloud were right in front of me. You can even scale things up interactively... but it's damned hard to scale them back down again. And it's just not well-optimised, so even simple models display at worse resolution/speed than they really should.

My impression is that WebVR has a bright future ahead of it, but it still needs a lot of work. It's difficult to find proper 6DOF content; often experiences labelled as "VR" are really just 360 degree images that aren't even stereo. Matterport is particularly disappointing as they have tonnes of 3D models but only let you explore the 360 images, and there are plenty of other cases where the models are ready to go but the VR setup just hasn't been done.

4) Quill Theatre
It's all too easy to overlook this. I assumed this was just some kind of built-in video player until I decided to check it - just in case - a few days ago. How wrong I was ! This is a whole library of creations from the Quill animation app. It's all 6DOF but not interactive, so this is the place to go if you just want something cool to look at. Some pieces are static models, others are full-on short story animations. Although it's all very cartoony, there's some really good stuff here and it's well worth checking out. Sadly, it isn't possible to create your own Quill content on the Quest, at least not yet.

5) SideQuest
This PC program is an absolute essential. It allows you to load content not officially supported by Oculus, which is a lot more extensive than the standard Quest library, especially free stuff (educational apps developed by amateur enthusiasts, but also demos and pre-releases for commercial games and the like). New content is added daily. It's super easy to use. You install it on PC, connect your Quest with a USB cable (which probably means finding an USB C-A cable or adaptor unless your PC has a USB C port*), then you browse the app to find stuff and install it directly onto the Quest. You can also use it to wirelessly stream content from your headset to your PC (not the other way around) so that everyone can see why you're flailing wildly around the living room... a feature which works far more easily than the Quest's native Casting facility, which I've never been able to get working at all. Oh, and many of these games are in active development, so if you post a review, you often get a quick response from the developers, something I really appreciate. I think I've had a response from every single review I've posted.

* Not to be confused with USB 3.0. USB C has a different physical connection.

6) Oculus Link
Finally, as Shakespeare said : "Oh God, I could be bounded by a nutshell, and count myself king of infinite space... if I could only get this bloody Oculus Link to work". The Link system allows you to use your Quest as a display for content being rendered by your more powerful PC, a la the earlier Oculus Rift. The advantage, of course, is that this gives you access to graphically demanding programs, and good graphics are the heart and soul of immersive VR. I opted for the Quest over the cheaper Rift only because my laptop is apparently not powerful enough, though I was still hoping I might be able to get a few basic things to run on it. 

This is my biggest but only disappointment. Despite prolonged effort, I've been unable to get the Link to work at all - I just a momentary black screen which returns me to the main menu. I'm not sure if my cable is just incompatible (it's USB 2.0, not 3.0) or if there's some more technical reason my hardware doesn't support it (e.g. the USB port not going to the GPU ?). I haven't given up quite yet, but numerous experiments with free wireless streaming apps haven't accomplished anything except bugger my microphone setup for some reason. This is extremely frustrating : I can run Skyrim and Rome 2 Total War on maximum - actually more than maximum - at perfectly good frame rates, which are far more graphically demanding than anything on the Quest. Logically I ought to be able to do at least something with the Link system. But I shall leave that for another time. My next big investment may or may not be a high-end gaming PC to get this to work... we'll see.

Right, that's the various sources covered. What about the actual content itself ? Since the most graphically heavy stuff is out, I really only have access to stuff that runs directly on the Quest. This is basically hi-end smartphone quality but in VR. And, my goodness me, that makes the world of difference ! It's very dangerous to judge the content of an app by the screenshot - things that look naff in a 2D view actually look more than decent in 3D. Would better graphics help ? Sure, but there's plenty of fun to be had even running things directly on the Quest. For a good game, you're looking at World of Warcraft-level graphics only a bit more realistic (though a few games have managed to go a cut above that by various means).

But, don't forget the sound ! Surprisingly, the sound delivered by the Quest without headphones is excellent - so much so that I rarely bother using headphones except when there's too much exterior noise. Good sound in VR is even more important than in regular games, since it gives essential clues to what's going on in other directions, and it adds a lot to the sense of "being there". That you can just put on the Quest and not have to worry about messing around with headphones - since built-in speakers in mobile devices are usually utter crap - is a real plus.

Without further ado, here are apps and games I've tried so far.

Tutorials : First Steps, First Contact, Bogo (free, native Quest)
First Steps and First Contact are both Oculus tutorials on how to navigate in 3D VR and use the controllers. They're both excellent. You get to interact with a Short Circuit-style robot, launch model rockets, fly a model airship, dance with a creepy alien, shoot guns, all in a well-rendered environment. Essential for beginners. Bogo is not technically a tutorial but a virtual pet game, but it's so short I count it more of a tutorial than anything else. You get to take care of a strange-looking lizard thing with a fetish for belly rubs, but it's pretty nice for what it is.

Vader Immortal Episodes I & II ($9.99 each, native Quest)
Come for the story, stay for the dojo. From the minute you step on board a ship that's about to make the  jump to hyperspace, you really feel like you're inside the Star Wars universe. The story is short (about 2 hours apiece, I guestimate) but is superbly well-done and absolutely feels like genuine Star Wars canon, but the training dojo is where it really shines. The thing is that hitting things with a lightsabre is innately fun and never gets old. I play every day and I've just reached the final level (40) on the first dojo, and it's good exercise too* : duck and dodge the myriad of droid-based opponents, listen to hear the direction of the next attack, deflect blaster shots with your upgradable lightsabre... if you don't enjoy this, I don't think we can be friends. Worth every penny, and I'll be buying episode 3 as soon as I finish the second dojo or it's on sale. 10/10, easily.

* At least if you're bad at it, like I am. I rely on ducking quite a lot, and after about 30 minutes I'm sweating profusely and often too tired to play for much longer.

Bow Master & Arrows (free, SideQuest)
I've just bought  Elven Assassin, but I first tried these two free archery games. Both are well worth a go, but both have different strengths and weakness. Both follow the same format of defending a village from attacking hordes : you yourself are not in danger, instead you have to shoot the baddies before they enter the village. Both are very cartoonish in style.

Bow Master has a single nice-looking environment and features endless waves of a very wide variety of enemies which have different abilities. You can shoot ordinary arrows, flaming arrows, and even hurl a small number of bombs at your opponents or ignite well-placed explosive barrels. It has three difficulty settings and in most ways it's very well-done, but it has one serious flaw and one fatal. The serious one is that you have to continuously hold the grip button to avoid dropping your bow, which gets uncomfortable rather quickly - the natural inclination is to grip very tightly, which probably isn't good for the controller button. Worse, it doesn't appear to be possible to lose... once the orcs reach the main hall, it never gets destroyed. I stood around for a good ten minutes but nothing happened. It does, however, have a nice feature of displaying your current score and accuracy level very unobtrusively on a panel low down on the surrounding wall.

Arrows has three levels which you can unlock in different lighting levels at different difficulties. The environment isn't as nice as Bow Master, but you can teleport yourself to different vantage points, including one with a cannon. The variety of enemies isn't quite as great as Bow Master, but it doesn't have as many serious flaws. The collision detection could be better though, as many people have noticed that direct hits don't always do anything. The arrows are also slightly more difficult to load and fire than in Bow Master. But the enemy vikings have collision between each other, which slows them down, and shooting higher-level enemies also causes them to slow down (rather than speed up as in Bow Master).

Both of these games are tremendous fun but have various annoyances. 7/10 from me.

Elven Assassin ($14.99, native Quest)
Having so much fun with the free archery games, I was very curious about this graphically superior paid version. I got this on sale for $10 and it's definitely worth that. The graphics are indeed far better than either of the free archery games - being thumped by a giant orc or flamed by an enormous dragon is a fantastic experience. Contrary to this earlier review, by Quest standards the graphics are competent, though slightly higher resolution textures would be nice. And you get to be outside (in three different environments), which is quite unusual since large-scale environments are challenging to render.

For gameplay this one generally has the best of both worlds of the free games : the collision detection works, you get to teleport to different locations (cleverly designed so that no location is perfect), and you don't have to hold the damn button down to hold the bow. The feedback from the controllers is perfect : Bow Master doesn't have any, Arrows has simple vibration, but Elven Assassin cleverly varies the feedback so it feels like the bow is sticking slightly as you draw it back. It's really quite viscerally satisfying. The variety of enemies is good, though not as creative as Bow Master, while the different spells offer a nice way to keep things fresh. And you do need to use these to progress to the higher levels. It also has multiplayer, which I've only tried the once but found very enjoyable. In co-op you get to be part of a team defending the town, which is a lot more believable than being one lone dude taking out the oncoming hordes.

It's not without weaknesses however. You can upgrade your equipment but it's purely for show (a shame - the different helmets could at least affect visibility). The enemies can attack you (they can only attack the village in the other games), which gives extra tension, but the red-out effect is too strong : I want to get a good look at that giant dragon, dammit ! The main problem is the sound. It's... good enough, mostly, but only just. Somehow the directionality doesn't feel very 3D or immersive, and the music is neither loud nor epic enough. When the orcs reach the gates, some dude with an annoying voice keeps shouting, "they're breaking in !" with no variation at all. And when you lose, the game just ends. There's no sorrowful horn or music, you just get the "game over" screen. There's a token bit of dust and a crashing sound from the village, but it's nowhere near enough.

All in all, hugely addictive, and I'd pay for extra levels. Somewhere more atmospheric, preferably with a thunderstorm, would be well worth it. I'll give this one 8/10, pushing 9.

Matter VR (free, SideQuest)
This astronomy god game probably wins the "most potential" award. You create planets and stars of different masses by holding down a button, then you can launch them on different trajectories. It appears to be a true n-body simulator, so you can end up with some bewildering orbits. Planets can collide and explode, stars eventually supernova and leave behind a remnant (including black holes for the most massive), and sometimes collisions produce rings. The challenge is to create the most complex system possible. Like lightsabres and archery, the developers have here found that crucial aspect of something that's innately fun and doesn't get old. All it needs to bring this one to its full flowering is a more structured approach and some guidance on where to aim. 8/10 from me, looking forward to updates.

Masterworks Journey Through History (free, Oculus Go converted to full 6DOF on the Quest)
This is the right way to do a history app. Photogrammetry gives much more realistic results than modelling. Even if the textures could be a little sharper (especially the background images), and some more background audio noise would be welcome, you still get a very good sense of "being there". You get four different sites to explore, all of which are well-prepared. As well as the 3D models, there's also a selection of nicely done 360 3D photographs to show the sites from other perspectives. And there's plenty of narration, so it takes quite a bit of time to go through the whole thing. It would be nice, though, if the narrators were a bit more enthusiastic and talked more about history than the site-specific details - considering how impressive it is to feel like you're standing in these ancient monuments, the narration is a bit dry. Still, 9/10 from me - there desperately needs to be more stuff like this !

Omnigallery (free, SideQuest)
Another really good "history" app though this one is art-focused. The idea of an art gallery in VR sounds a bit daft at first, but it really isn't. Slipping on a headset is way more convenient than actually going to a gallery (especially since it's free), and you get to examine paintings - and more importantly sculptures - at their actual size. The scan resolution of both paintings and sculptures is really impressive. What this particular app does really well is provide narration about many of the exhibits, and this alone makes it better than most physical galleries, which in my experience tell you sod all. Actually being told something about the painting, its subject, and why it's important makes high art so much more friggin' accessible. Even though I'd like more narration and history, I'm giving this one 10/10 just for that.

Anne Frank's house (free, native Quest)
Another history exhibit, this time using conventional 3D modelling. You get a narrated or free-form interactive tour, which is excellently done. You can view this in a web browser here, but needless to say, being able to walk around it is far better. I can't really fault this, so 10/10.

Apollo 11 ($9.99, native Quest)
I bought this on sale for $5 for the Moon landing anniversary. It's nice, but $10 is really a bit much. Considerable effort has gone into accurately modelling the interior of the spacecraft, and it's fun to sit alongside the astronauts as venture into space. There's a couple of interactive sections where you get to dock the modules and land the ship, but I couldn't help feeling that these could have been a lot more interesting with only a little extra work. Most of the experience is passive. The graphics are generally good, especially the space scenes, though the astronauts facial expressions are frankly hilariously bad. A life-size vibrating astronaut sat next to you with his mouth half-open and his eyes half-closed ? It's a bit disconcerting to say the least ! Overall it's worth $5, so I give it 7/10. If they added, say, a chance to driver the lunar rover and more interactive functions through the journey it would easily be worth $10.

Mission ISS (free, native Quest)
A much more complete space experience, albeit one that feels more like a demo than a full product. You get to explore a very nice model of the ISS, including a really excellent mock-up of the cupola where I felt this would be genuinely useful in astronaut training. In fact manipulating the robot arm felt so difficult as to be too realistic, and I gave up in frustration. It's a bit of a shame - the environment is so good, the attention to detail is clear (with plenty of video clips to explain each section), but in other ways it falls flat. The narrator keeps telling me I'm going the wrong way even though I'm not, the robot arm needs either much better instructions or be made simpler to operate, and moving around is unnecessarily difficult and can induce strong motion sickness. A teleport option and/or greater air resistance to slow you down would be a huge improvement, even if it's not realistic. I had the most fun when somehow, due to a glitch, I found myself freely floating outside the station, calmly and serenely exploring the place without the bloody narrator getting on my nerves. 6/10 from me, but could so easily be bumped up to 10.

Multiverse (free, native Quest)
An odd but nice attempt to make an astronomy museum a place for socialising. Features a gigantic museum full of different rooms exploring the Solar System and space technology. The models are decent but a bit low resolution. Very informative, and it's always fun to hurl stuff at planets. There's even a history section with a model of Stonehenge you can wander around in. The man downside is that it's too reliant on the traditional gallery format and doesn't use models anywhere near as effectively as it could. Yes, you do need some big old-fashioned wall-panel displays, but VR can do so much more than that. Let me sit inside a Mercury capsule, or play golf on the lunar surface ! Don't tell me about Titan, show me the surface from the Huygens probe ! And why there's a social aspect to this I'm not really sure... a museum is hardly the most natural place to meet people. Still, a worthy effort - 7/10.

Notes On Blindness (free, native Quest)
You'd think that an experience of being blind would be easy enough on the Quest - just turn everything off except the audio. But this narrated, slightly interactive experience is so very much better than that. The narration, taken from diaries, describes how nothing exists except when heard. Simple but compelling graphics show us a variety of places as revealed through sound. The narration is top notch and the visuals are beautiful (the sound of course is perfect). It was so interesting an experience that I'd certainly do it again. 10/10.

The Key (free, native Quest)
Another slightly interactive emotion-driven experience. A more conventionally abstract (stylistic) approach than Notes on Blindness, it's a well-told and engaging tale. There's a photogrammetric environment at the end which further illustrates how this needs to be more widely-utilised : it lets the Quest leapfrog its limited rendering power into highly realistic settings. This experience is good, but at bit too stylised for me, and one of the main interactive features just didn't work. 8/10.

Puzzling Places (free, SideQuest)
More photogrammetry, but this time for a 3D jigsaw puzzle. Simple concept, perfectly executed, with nice little audio emanating from certain regions. Moving pieces around and dropping them in 3D space feels quite futuristic. Only one puzzle so far but it's rightly getting rave reviews - an almost therapeutic experience. 10/10.

Project Terminus (free, SideQuest)
Free prototype/demo of a Half-Life style FPS. Absolutely terrifying and I've yet to complete it. Realistic and highly immersive environments, with some impressive outdoor scenes at the start. This is what I'm longing for VR to do more of - really make me feel like I'm in a whole other place to explore, even if that exploration is limited to a tiny region. 

As a game, this plays well, with the minor difficulty that using your phone is a bit awkward at first. Lighting effects are excellent, sound is great, and did I mention it was terrifying ? It is. I also got a bit motion sick the first time I tried it - I've yet to get used to smooth scrolling. The second time I reduced the speed and this helped enormously, but a teleport option would be nice*. I'm leaving this one unrated because I couldn't complete it, but a must-try for horror fans.  

* Someone should develop a specialist get-over-motion-sickness app, where you could move around increasingly complex environments in increasingly nauseating ways. By all accounts overcoming motion sickness is entirely possible, but it takes effort.

High Seas (free, SideQuest)
From the makers of Project Terminus, experience life on a tiny boat stuck in the Arctic ocean. Navigate icebergs and fix problems. Great environments, but the gameplay is too limited - not bad, just limited. Each time you collide with an iceberg your boat develops a problem and you have to go and fix it (including the extremely strange approach of hitting a fire with a fire extinguisher, which is... worrying). If at least the iceberg density were to be lower, you'd have navigation as part of the gameplay, but it's so dense that collisions are rapidly inevitable, making trying to avoid them an exercise in futility. Good concept with brilliantly tense sound, but needs a lot more fleshing out (and removal of the CGI arms, which just look bizarre and get distracting). 6/10 from me - good so far, but needs development.

Operation Serpens (free, SideQuest)
Like shooters but hate motion sickness ? This is the game for you ! You play a member of a generic, very polite army unit (your commander greets with with a friendly "hello !") charged with taking out assorted generic terrorists. You're in a fixed location, e.g. firing from a building into a street, or behind a door into a room, so you can move around if you want but you don't need to move much at all - no need for scrolling, and indeed that feature is not enabled. You get a variety of guns and accessories, including a bulletproof shield. Decent graphics (cartoony but not overly-so in style), good sound, lots of fun. Potentially quite addictive, though holding my arms straight out for long periods gets very tiring. Challenging but not absurdly so. I'm giving this 8/10.

Dino Encounters (free, SideQuest)
This one definitely falls in the category "better than it should be". The concept is solid : in each environment, you walk (and/or teleport) through a short narrated tour to reach a dinosaur doing its thing. The environment is huge, the narration is quite good (apart from the same annoying welcome message each and every time), and the atmosphere looks nice. A big positive is the background sound, which I found very immersive. The downsides are that it's overly-ambitious. The graphics are crude (not awful, but crude), the dinosaur animations simplistic. If they'd made smaller, more detailed environments with just one or two dinosaurs, rather than whole packs of them roaming across silly-looking prehistoric landscapes, the experience would have been much better. On the other hand, you get to hand-feed life-size dinosaurs, and that counts for a lot in my book. 6/10.

Wonders of the World (free, Oculus Go converted to full 6DOF on the Quest)
In contrast, this one is very much worse than it should be. It's a history app about various notable historical sites, but the execution is poor. Even in the menu section the background image is far too low resolution. Throughout, the graphics are not merely cartoony - which would be understandable - but also highly stylistic, which utterly ruins the immersion (as does the poor, mostly very American narration). Like this dinosaur app, this one is also overly-ambitious. Instead of just letting you explore the sites, you play the role of some totally unknown character with terrible voice acting. Look, I'm here to visit the Colossus of Rhodes, why in the world would I care about some unknown girl's dead father ? I couldn't even see the Colossus from the front ! Bloody daft if you ask me. 2/10

Sports Scramble (free demo, native Quest)
At $30 the full version is way too expensive, but the free demo (bowling, tennis, and baseball) is fun. Happy little cartoon characters with a zany twist on each sport : for example, the baseball bat can turn into a fish, which I found hilarious. It's a really stupid game, too difficult, but quite enjoyable. If it was $5 I'd consider buying it, but $30 is hell no I'm not an idiot5/10, mainly because they've got the price catastrophically wrong.

Black Holes Light and Matter (free, SideQuest)
Fun, very small educational proof-of-concept app exploring how black holes affect light and matter. You get to examine lensing or orbits. With lensing you see a black hole in front of you that distorts the background image. With orbits you get to see how the black hole affects the trajectories of orbiting material. In each case you can set the size of the black hole and a few other parameters. It's nicely done, but it would a lot better if you could set parameters using the controllers, e.g. grabbing the black hole to scale it, launching particles with the controller. I'll leave this unrated since it's proof-of-concept.

Elixir (free, native Quest)
Proof-of-concept spellcasting thingy. Annoying narration, quite nice cartoony graphics, worth a go but nothing special. Needs a more fully-formed environment and stuff to do to be engaging. 6/10.

Epic Roller Coaster (free demo, native Quest)
If you want to experience extreme vertigo, then this is the game for you. You ride around on a bunch of ENORMOUS roller coasters, optionally trying to shoot targets as you go. The sensation of motion and height is, well, epic, and I'd recommend sitting down for this one in case you fall over. Surprisingly, I didn't get any feeling of nausea from this one, just an unprecedented feeling of ohholycrapImgonnacrashImgonnacrash ! Powerful, pointless stuff. It would be nice if I could see how much the paid coasters actually cost before having to sign up though. 7/10.

Dead Body FallsAngest (free, Oculus Go converted to full 6DOF on Quest)
Two similar-in-style-and-format games from the same developers. Both are extremely well-made with engaging storytelling and immersive environments, good sound, and a pleasing graphical style. Dead Body Falls feels like a murder mystery in an old hotel whereas Angest is about a cosmonaut on a deep space mission. Both are surrealist, especially Dead Body Falls, and it's here where both come unstuck. I still have no idea what's even supposed to have happened inside the DBF hotel (literally I haven't got a soddin' clue), much less whodunnit. It's got some good scares along the way, but from start to finish it doesn't make a lick of sense. Angest is a bit better, but both would benefit enormously from exposition. I do plan to replay both though, so maybe it'll be second time lucky. I'll give both 7/10.

A few pre-rendered 360 VR videos worth mentioning. The Jurassic World video is totally amazeballs - if you want to know what it would feel like to have a T-Rex roar in your face, try this without delay. The Felix & Paul Studios app has a selection of videos of which I've only tried the one where Barack and Michelle Obama give a tour of the White House , which I enjoyed. Dear Angelica is a nicely made but overly-schmultzy short story about death (but with interesting animations); Henry is a silly story about a hedgehog narrated by Frodo Baggins; Tested has Mythbuster's Adam Savage explaining some really quite dull stuff about his workshop, and Ecosphere has some good uplifting things about humans interacting with nature. There are tonnes and tonnes more, but the Jurassic World one is my clear favourite.

Conclusion : yes, we're living in the future

We may not have actual sci-fi holograms free-floating in space, but we do have virtual holograms. VR is now firmly in the realm of being accessible and usable by the masses. Is it useful ?

In my opinion no, not yet - at least not for everyday office work. I tried a few "productivity" apps which are supposed to allow you to use your PC in VR in some more productive way, but I couldn't see the point of any of them. Compared to a big hi-res monitor with a keyboard and mouse, the effort of using VR controllers on the comparatively low-resolution headset display is not even remotely worth it. For that we'll need a substantial leap forward in resolution and true AR, not VR, because the plain fact is you need to be able to see your keyboard clearly. This is certainly possible, but we're not there yet.

But is VR fun ? Hell yes, with bells on. Is it just going to be a flash in the pan like 3D TV ? Oh gods, I hope not... the experience is too awesome for it to fade away. It's truly an introvert's dream : hide away in a virtual environment where you can do as you please, see things you couldn't otherwise see... why would anyone in their right mind not want this ?

Not only gaming : it makes exercising about two hundred billion times more fun. Lift weights ? Hell no, fight robots with lasers for eyes instead ! And the potential for education is huge. Imagine teaching history by showing kids what the world looked like in different eras, or how physics works on scales untestable in a classroom, or explore non-Euclidean geometry, or teaching painting with a whole new array of brushes impossible in the real world, or anatomy, or seeing the world with the eyes and perspective of an animal... the technology for all of this already exists, only the price remains a barrier. But the potential is there, no doubt about it.

It should be said that there differing opinions some of which are truly strange. Some describe Vader Immortal, for instance, as meaning that an "experience" is just a euphemism for "underdeveloped game". Others describe things like Anne Frank's House as "not suitable for VR" or, even weirder, complain about the small number of objects you can interact with. Because being able to mess up Anne Frank's house would make the experience... better... how ? I guess some people just don't get it. I'm biased in the other direction, mind you, but there is currently a lack of truly "you can't do this except in VR" apps (as opposed to, "this is better because it's in VR" apps, of which there are legion) and the price is a barrier.

VR deserves to go at least as fully mainstream as gaming consoles or even PCs. It should be normal to say, "I'll enjoy that more in VR" or "that'll make more sense in VR", just as people opt for blu-rays over regular DVDs. For that to happen will probably take one more iteration of the technology (e.g. combined VR/AR, substantially lower price, lighter equipment, greater compatibility with existing hardware) and/or a suite of "only fundamentally possible in VR" apps. If and when that happens, it's hard to see what would stop it from taking the world by storm. Should you buy one already ? Yes, if your main purpose is gaming, but no not quite yet if you want other experiences. Of course, it's easy to what what should happen, but much harder to predict what market forces will actually do...

Thus ends my gushing review. I'm itching to learn how to convert various Blender projects into VR (including my Arecibo model, which thanks to lockdown is ready to go), it's just a matter of tearing myself away from the existing stuff long enough to sit down and get on with it. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some orcs to kill.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Due to a small but consistent influx of spam, comments will now be checked before publishing. Only egregious spam/illegal/racist crap will be disapproved, everything else will be published.