I had a crack at virtual reality this morning.
It wasn’t my first time. That was in the nineties, in Nottingham, at a VR cafe near the bowling alley. It was £3 per fifteen minutes – a fortune back then, when you could but a terraced house in Hull for £20 and still have change left over for a slap up meal. But it was worth every penny. For it was like nothing we had ever seen.
Fast forward 24 years and, after a few missteps, VR is now here for good. Though, it still takes a lot of getting used to, such is the difficult-to-fix discrepancy between what one is experiencing and what one’s senses is telling the brain one is experiencing. My friend warned me: it would make me fart. Or burp. Or shit. Or vomit. As things worked out, it wasn’t as dramatic as he predicted. I was merely on the toilet all afternoon.
After my friend strapped me in to the headset and placed the controllers on my hands, his flat disappeared and I found myself in a tech lab, surrounded by retro computer systems and a large, flying robot, designed to be half way between Tomy and Wall-E. The robot hands me a disc. I shove it in a slot. A 3D printer makes glowing cubes. They explode, and I am unexpectedly surrounded by digital butterflies. I put my hand out. One of them lands on it.
I was ready for a proper game. The one chosen was SuperHot, a balletic matrix-style affair. Men charge at you with fists and guns, but the speed of your movements controls time. The slower you move, the slower the enemies and their projectiles come at you. “Bullet time” is a lot of fun, though like all sensible people I am terrified of bullets, so avoiding them felt like a life or death affair. The immersion enabled peril. I throw an ash tray at an approaching miscreant and it hits his wrist, sending his gun arcing up into the air. I catch it and use it to dispatch his colleague, who is attempting to sneak around a pillar, the shifty sod.
After fifteen minutes of this I’m sweating. My heart rate is increased. I take a break outside with my friend and his cat, Jack, a substantial beast. I’m pretty sure all this is real.
There’s time to try out a couple more experiences after a cup of tea. The first is a hot indie release called Google Earth. I fly up above Mount Fuji, and speed down to follow the walking route up to the summit, commenting on Japan’s German-esque love of a nature that has been tamed, ordered and prettified. This I am saying to my friend, who is out there somewhere beyond the headset, as I examine what appears to be a restaurant near the summit.
I fly up and follow the edge of Tokyo bay, then head further in, navigating via rivers and the sky tree. If you zoom too close to the surface, buildings seem garbled, broken, like reality is breaking down or Godzilla has attacked recently. Once they figure out how to render 3D street level to the same detail as the view from the air, I could imagine losing days in there. You could be a travel writer without ever having to leave your house or talk to anyone (I didn’t say you’d be a very good travel writer).
The world looks like an infinite model village.
The last experience – you’d struggle to call it a game – was my favourite. AirCar sticks you in a flying vehicle over a futuristic cyberpunk city. It is, essentially, Bladerunner: the taxi years. I thrust my hands out to grab the steering wheel in my beautifully rendered cockpit, but my friend – out there, still, in that other world – explains that I have to press the physical buttons in my hands, not the imaginary buttons in my virtual space. A shame.
But still. As I edge out of my parking bay, high up above the towers, flying cars and lights of neo-nowhere, I gabble excitedly. The steering takes a little getting used to, as at this point my brain is thoroughly confused by the disparity between what it can sense and what it can see. I twist my head around to get a better view of the city and the waters that surround. A light rain has been falling steadily throughout. And there’s music, sweet relaxing music, coming from somewhere below.
“Does the rain ever stop?”, I ask the man beyond the horizon.
“No, never,” he replies.