A few weeks ago, I got an email offering me a download code to review a virtual reality game called “Gunship Battle2 VR” for a the Samsung Gear VR.
Last year, I had purchased a Gear VR, a headset that costs about $50-$99 and works with Samsung phones, but it’s mostly remained in the box, out of use. In the first month or two I owned it, I browsed short 360-degree films and played around with some clever tech demos, but I didn’t really dive deep into any games that weren’t free at the time. It had been months since I’d really played around with the device.
So I accepted the “Gunship Battle2 VR” code and then went on Amazon to purchase a Bluetooth joystick, a requirement for playing the game. While the headset allows you to view and hear the helicopter combat game, the Gear VR doesn’t have an easy way to control things with your hands, so a separate game controller is needed.
A few days later, controller in hands, code redeemed and headset on my head, I excitedly started the game.
I was soon blasting away at guard towers and tilting my head to avoid missile blasts.
I lasted about five minutes.
My stomach suddenly tightened and my body was covered in sweat. I knew this feeling from playing early first-person shooters and reading in the backseat of my parents car while it was in motion: I was about to get violently motion-sick and I needed to stop immediately.
I pulled the headphones, which were still blasting a militaristic action theme, off my head and ripped the Gear VR from my fact. After lying down for nearly an hour, I started to feel a little better.
What was surprising was that so far, I’ve had almost universally positive experiences donning different VR headgear. I’ve tried Facebook-owned Oculus Rift several times and have done several demos of the HTC Vive that involved moving around a room with a tethered headset. No nausea in any of those experiences. If I’ve had quibbles with VR entertainment in the past, it’s mostly been about the content.
Apart from making me suddenly ill and regretful, “Gunship Battle2 VR” has some other problems. It opens on a scene of a soldier waking up as a hostage as his murdered wife and son lie on the floor nearby. The villain who did the deed barks orders with an accent that sounds Mexican by way of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Later, when you’re being briefed on your missions, it’s done by an attractive female soldier who bends over a table, exposing virtual cleavage, as if that were a necessary component of military intelligence. I didn’t get far enough into the game to learn whether weaponized breasts are a major plot point in “Gunship Battle2 VR.”
It’s not a game without problems. Its controls also require you to turn your head to aim weapons and tilt your head sideways to move the attack helicopter sideways.
That might be what made me feel so sick. Most VR experiences try to keep your head from swinging around any more than necessary in order to prevent a bad physical reaction.
The experience got me thinking. What if this had been my first time putting on a Gear VR headset? What if this was the sum of all my experience with VR? Would I want to try it again? Or would that be enough to convince me, on the spot, that VR is simply not for me?
Despite a wave of hype that rose last year and expectations that it will grow into a major entertainment medium (with a market value of $162 billion by 2020, predicts IDC), I have a few concerns.
For one thing, that figure lumps together VR, the experience with the goggles, with augmented reality (AR), a much-more accessible kind of experience that can be as simple as a game that overlays animated characters over your cell phone’s built-in camera. Last year’s hit mobile game “Pokemon Go” is an example of AR. The future might be a mix of both technologies, with devices that can offer augmented and virtual reality, seamlessly blending the real world with the virtual.
So far, VR feels like a bit of an uphill climb for consumers. The GearVR is an inexpensive option if you already own a high-end Samsung smartphone, but the content is only as good as what can be powered by the processor and graphics of that mobile device.
Oculus Rift and the Vive both require a fast Windows machine with a powerful graphics processor (Macs need not apply) and they each cost about $800 when you factor in a set of controllers sold separately for the Oculus. That’s not counting the price of the computer to run them. Each still requires a wired connection; they currently can’t operate wirelessly, though future versions probably will.
In a worrying sign, Best Buy has removed about 200 of its 500 Oculus Rift demo stations from stores in Canada and the U.S., reportedly due to lack of interest.
VR has yet to have a breakout, must-own hit that has penetrated the mainstream, though Austin-made “Job Simulator” may have come the closest. It was a bundled launch title with the HTC Vive and is available on Oculus and PS VR and was just cited by the Wall Street Journal as a bright spot in an otherwise slow-to-grow VR industry that is downgrading estimates of hardware sales.
A recent VR version of “Resident Evil 7” is getting a lot of attention, but one reviewer at a major gadget site had a stomach-turning experience similar to mine while playing it.
VR has incredible potential to create moving, compelling entertainment experiences. Even if VR stays a niche experience for only a small segment of the market, it still could be wildly profitable for some companies. But will it have a large enough audience for enough companies to stay in the game and make those experiences?
In terms of mainstream viability, could VR go the way of 3-D televisions, which were all the rage as movie theater ticket sales took off but which failed to catch fire in the home, where it proved to be a more complicated, cumbersome proposition. VR is an even harder technology to get right.
A few days later, I tried “Gunship Battle2 VR” again to make sure the initial experience wasn’t a fluke. I got much farther, mowing down enemies for three levels. But on the fourth stage, my stomach lurched again and my whole body was ready to shut down again. No more helicopter action for me.
First impressions can be everything with technology. It’s going to take some great, problem-free virtual-reality entertainment to make up for the ones that are going to turn off people who have a bad first experience. For now, I’d suggest taking a Dramamine or avoiding virtual helicopter battles if you’re anything like me.