My weekend in the virtual world

Francis Cook spent a weekend trying out Samsung Gear VR headset, here are his thoughts.
Documentary editor Miriama Toms tries out the Samsung VR set-up during the virtual reality conference held at MOTAT in Auckland. Photo / Dean Purcell
Documentary editor Miriama Toms tries out the Samsung VR set-up during the virtual reality conference held at MOTAT in Auckland. Photo / Dean Purcell

It's almost cliché now - comparing the first time you try virtual reality as being like the infamous Lumiere Brothers screening of the train coming into the station when viewers fled the cinema. It's intense, overwhelming, and quite frightening. The first time I tried virtual reality at a shop, I immediately tried to step forward in the real world to move my character. I yelped and removed the headset.

This week I tried again. I loaded up a video called evolution of the verse.

A sunset rose over a stunning lake and birds chirped around my head. A train steamed along in the distance, before turning and driving into the water straight at me. Nice reference, I thought, until the train came directly at my face and a sudden surge of adrenaline and fear pulsed through my body. We're that generation of viewers - the ones that will make great anecdotes in the future.

As the film progressed, I found myself floating above the lake enveloped in light, and taken into a womb where an enormous fetus took me in the palm of the hands.

I'm ashamed to say I may have shed a single tear.

It's hard to describe the experience to someone who hasn't tried it, but I'll give it a go. Using a virtual reality headset immediately takes away the outside world and puts you into a virtual space, where you can look all around you.

It's both immersive and isolating, especially with headphones on. You're effectively blacked out from the world while a ton of action happens all around you. VR is transporting, as in it really feels like you're present in whatever content you're viewing or playing.

The Samsung Gear VR, which I used, has a touchpad and back button on the side of the headset which are easy to find and let you give you control.

During the Magnify AR/VR conference last week I was lucky enough to try the Oculus Rift too, which is a big step up from the Gear VR, but prohibitively expensive.

Horror in VR is scarier than any horror you've ever seen, hands down.

There's much to do with Gear VR. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of 360 degree videos to try which will take you parasailing over cliffs and surfing barrels - and even to on-the-ground news reports in Syria.

Best yet is the content developed specifically for VR, some of which is shot on VR cameras, and others made entirely in CGI.

I tried out one short film called Catatonic in which I was a patient in a mental institution being wheeled through my terrifying new digs. I was alone at the time and didn't know I had just loaded up a very scary experience, but I was transfixed. Horror in VR is scarier than any horror you've ever seen, hands down.

It was serene, and I liked it. After being in wombs, asylums, superhero movies, and surfing, I just wanted something relaxing.

Being confined to my wheelchair, I was at one point pushed rather violently down a set of stairs. Toward the end, a group of maniacs danced around me and yelled in my face as a Doctor injected my hand with yellow fluid. I asked out-loud "what the f*** is happening?"

VR is truly overwhelming and it often came as a relief to take the headset off. Spend too long in there, and it feels like waking up when you come out.

In the end, my favorite VR experience wasn't the flashy Avengers demo where I was Iron Man, or the terrifying mental asylum. It was a fishing simulation.

Once I developed a method to pick-up my beer without knocking it over, I spent more time fishing than anything else. Gone was my messy office; instead I had a little boat on a gentle lake where I caught fish for my hillbilly friends.

It was serene, and I liked it. After being in wombs, asylums, superhero movies, and surfing, I just wanted something relaxing.

Virtual reality feels like an assault on the senses, but developers promise we'll become adjusted to it.

For now, give me a lake and a fishing rod.

- NZ Herald

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