Tech reviews can be pretty crazy sometimes. I was looking at one for a phone the other day, and it was complaining that the specs showed you could get it wet but that it wasn’t certified for 50 metres immersion in water or something. Not just saying "it doesn’t do this", but flat-out complaining that it couldn’t do it.
Just let that sink in a moment (no pun intended). A guy was genuinely upset that a device as thin as a pencil, no bigger than a passport, that can communicate with anyone on Earth and deliver the sum of all human knowledge to them in an instant, and that costs less than most people blow on a weekend night out, may (not even definitely, just may) stop working if you inexplicably:
(A) Decided to take it scuba diving, and
(B) Were the sort of dingus who could remember to safely put on all manner of gear to let you breathe beneath the waves, yet simultaneously lacked the foresight to put your phone in some form of spume-proof bag.
Then, rather than pointing out how absurd this manufactured calamity was, the comments below the article almost all agreed with the unreasonable grumping of the author. Yes I know, this sort of hyper-extreme nonsense is the internet all round, but it’s absolutely bonkers how quickly we lose perspective of the fact that the stuff we’re surrounded with is flat-out amazeballs, and instead nitpick it for the most flimsy of issues.
Which is why, sometimes, it’s nice to be reminded of this, and to be able to appreciate what we have with a whole new insight.
If you’ve not had a go with a new-gen VR headset such as the HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift or (my particular poison) the PSVR, I’d urge you to try and find somewhere to have a shuffty, because until you have, it’s difficult to really grasp quite how good things have got.
Of course you can look at screenshots and videos, but that’s as wonky as trying to judge how good 4K TVs are from seeing an ad for them on a regular TV. The only way to really get a handle on it is to scrape your eyes over it first-hand.
However, this isn’t a guff piece on how good VR is now. Though just just to reiterate that it’s really good – and I was as sceptical as they come, having been expecting something barely less silly than home versions of crappy 1990s VR stuff such as Cyber Zone for example.
For the unfamiliar, this was an old VR-based adventure TV show hosted by Craig ‘Red Dwarf’ Charles and, bizarrely, the guy who also played Inspector Morse’s boss as an utterly unthreatening VR baddie dressed exactly like Boss Hogg. Think Knightmare done with Amigas via 2000AD, and you’re on the right track.
While the Cyber Zone set was pure 1990s cyberpunk, all urban decay, leather jackets and stomping crowds in the audience, all the tracksuited contestants ever did was stumble about in a blocky VR world that resembled the video for Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing, doing boring tasks like moving a box from point A to point B against the clock. For its time it was probably outrageously technically impressive, but ultimately was still this: terrible.
No, what this actually is, is a piece about my mother-in-law. Y’see, she’s not well and isn’t likely to get better.
Without going into too much detail, because this isn’t some sort of sympathy-up, the nature of this not-wellness means her mobility is very limited.
She’s incredibly unlikely to ever be able to do a lot of things many of us take for granted again, such as going on holiday, going out for a walk or even visiting friends who don’t live close by. Her situation of course is far from unique – many people young and old lead lives restricted in some way or another.
Which is where VR barges in. The other week she had a go on Sony’s VR Playroom mini-games collection on my PSVR headset, and loved it (if you have a PSVR and haven’t downloaded this, do: it’s a great little freebie). Not just because it was fun being a Godzilla-style monster headbutting skyscrapers, but because it was a chance to feel as if in some small way the limits she puts up with had, however temporarily and artificially, been lifted.
She still can’t go for a stroll in the local park, but thanks to 360 video she could go for a ‘walk’ round Yellowstone, or an Antarctic penguin colony, or a drive round Edinburgh in a sports car.
This is where the cynicism about our modern world we often belch up without even realising melted away for me – because I’m as guilty of it as the next guy, snarking at low-res graphics or clunky controls or jadedly assuming that stuff will feel more or less as naff as it was 20-odd years ago even if it looks better.
We forget sometimes that even a simplistic gaming experience can be a huge escape, and the more you have to ‘escape’ from, as it were, the more you can appreciate that experience for what it is rather than what it isn’t.
Even with the jump up in processing power, graphics and (crucially) affordability, right now VR is still a lot of money to make yourself look like a heavily sedated Daft Punk cosplayer. Plus of course many of the games aren’t a lot more advanced than Cyber Zone’s mundane shuffling tasks. But we’re getting there, and fast. I was impressed enough with modern VR to be a convert anyway.
Now, having seen first-hand what it can mean to someone because of their personal circumstances, I’m even more convinced it has a huge role to play in the future.
Today’s bulky headsets will be replaced by stuff barely bigger than a pair of sunglasses, and our ways to interact will inevitably improve, and that’ll all probably happen frighteningly quickly. For a lot of us that’s really exciting purely because of the gaming opportunities it opens up.
For many more people this could be their opportunity to experience some of the simplest of things once again, such as the freedom to just be able to ‘be’ somewhere else for a bit. Maybe even the sea bed – no lamination of electronic gubbins required.