Middle-Aged Gamer: Is Virtual Reality For Me?

I’ve recently ventured into “true” VR territory and I bet my fellow middle-aged gamers would be interested in knowing what I discovered.

If someone asked you what the “endgame” of technology is, what would you say? Arguably I can sum this up in two words:

Holographic Porn

After all, porn is always on the cutting edge of every stride in technology and with that comes the ever-present desire for full immersion into your entertainment — also known as the Star Trek “holodeck”; a perfectly realistic holographic simulation.

While we won’t be discussing porn (sorry) — we will be discussing “virtual reality” in its current state and see if it is the right fit for you.

Before we talk about it in detail, let’s set up some basic backstory on “VR” — including what it is and isn’t.

Overview and History

Literally, VR is a reality simulated in a virtual fantasy world that you are not actually present in. While VR is considered to be “computer generated”, it doesn’t have to be. There are VR simulations that are merely the playback of a 360 degree recording — letting you experience a location through the lens of a camera that was present at the time.

For the purposes of our discussion, we’ll be discussing VR as it pertains to computer generated imagery — mostly interactive experiences (games).

VR isn’t new. The “two eyed split view” stereo-optic stills hail back to 1838. Moving forward, there were many versions of this — probably most famously by the ViewMaster in 1939.

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Although you might more recognize later models that looked something more like this:

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Granted these were more “3D viewers” that true VR — where motion video often coupled with mechanical simulations gave more a feeling of “alternative reality”.

Many such “simulators” were around through the 1940s and 1950s but it wasn’t until 1960 that we actually got the first look at a “head mounted display” that looks something like we expect VR to look like.

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Granted there was no head tracking or interactivity — but you have to start somewhere.

In 1991, a company called Virtuality brought what we might consider “modern VR” into er, reality. Some of you might even remember these:

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It wasn’t until 1992 (when a little Pierce Brosnan movie known as The Lawnmower Man was released) that virtual reality really became a publicly visible medium — and people went crazy.

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A year later, Sega threw in their hat with one of the more famous “flops” — a Sega Genesis powered head set. .. and who could forget Nintendo’s attempt with the Virtual Boy?

Probably the first “mass market” adopted VR device would be considered the Samsung GearVR (2015); a cheap “shell” headset that you could plug your expensive smart phone into and get a reasonable VR experience complete with head tracking. The inexpensive entry point (didn’t hurt that Samsung gave them away to early adopters) and remarkably decent experience put VR squarely on the map as other companies took a stab at low-barrier entry points (such as Google Cardboard).

Despite the reception, these were all “samplers” of the technology. In parallel development were “the true VR” experiences that were hundreds of dollars on top of the high end PCs that were needed to drive them. This includes the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and other more niche companies working on both VR and “augmented reality” (real world views with virtual world stuff overlaid intelligently).

Unfortunately, needing a $1000+ PC and a $600 headset put “true VR” outside the realm of mortals — and that was back in 2016.

Where Are We Now?

It’s late 2018 and most gaming PCs have plenty of power to drive most commercially viable VR experiences and hardware — the latter down to almost half the price of its debut cost. A decent gaming PC + a true VR headset experience is doable for about $700-$800.

This is still a lot of cash for something that doesn’t fit into the “need” or even “would love to have” category — but is still seen as a luxury item.

Early VR experience suffered from a significant lack of software and games which made the price tag a lot harder to swallow. Now there are hundreds of top notch experiences and games out there — ranging from FREE to AAA game price ($60). Finding something fun for everyone is no longer an issue.

We, the middle-aged gamers have disposable income now but we’re still remarkably frugal with our hard earned cash which makes VR an interesting proposal — but the truth is, we need to be sold. Virtual reality is something difficult to be sold on via traditional advertising means, too. It is an “experience”, not a youTube video and some stills on a Steam listing.

I’m going to tell you how I was sold on VR as a middle-aged gamer.

How I Was Sold

As a sort of tech freak, I’ve always found the concept of VR fascinating — and dabbled in the “lesser” VR experiences using my phone. But even having disposable income, I was hesitant to spend any sort of solid cash on something that offered a fun party bit that I might pull out two or three times a year at the family holidays. With apologies to Watto, I needed something more real.

I was recently invited to spend a long weekend with a friend in Denver who promised to show me the Oculus Rift in an ideal environment (that is, three motion sensors, the floating positional Touch controllers and a good amount of space to move around). Considering all the other fun stuff we were planning, it wasn’t high on my list of things to do there — but that changed once I was able to understand what VR had to offer me.

Another friend of mine has been pimping the VR experience for some time — naming a variety of games and experiences he would recommend. In fact, I even played a couple of games he recommended that were cross-play between GearVR and Oculus Rift (I’ll just say Rift from now on). It was fun, but nothing more than an interesting demo to me.

In Denver, we had a handful of these recommended games to try — and we were able to get a few more; some free and I even bought one for my host as a token of appreciation.

After a couple of days of VR play, I figured a few things out.

One, VR falls typically into three main experiences. These are “shooting galleries”, realistic low-interactive experiences (aka “tech demos”) and finally an “potpourri” category for the handful of outliers.

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There are a lot of VR experiences out there that are just like this …

Shooting galleries are amazing in VR. In fact, I’d say it is the strongest genre on the platform. The sense of spatial awareness is simply fantastic (if highly unrealistic; after all, you shouldn’t be ABLE to see bullets flying around — but it is damn cool that you can). With the higher resolution of the Rift and the floaty untethered controllers (Oculus Touch) the immersion is amazing and what’s more is that shooting galleries don’t require a ton of moving around (typically) to be engaging; meaning it is open to a more diverse group of people including those with smaller play areas and those suffering motion sickness from VR in general. Plus, there are so many types of gallery shooters that everyone has something to play — zombies to carnival midways and everything in between.

Best examples of shooting galleries I experienced over the weekend: Robo Recall, Space Pirates Trainer, Dead & Buried and Drop Dead.

Tech demos are abound on VR — after all, it is much easier to throw together a demo of tech than to fully flush it out into a game. Games are far more demanding than controlled experiences, too. Sometimes you just want to be entertained and NOT interacting with everything. There are usually enough interactions to keep the experience going, but let’s be honest — they are just there to show off either the video card, the HairWorks API or some new physics engine designed to sell you another game. I would wrap experiences of “non-VR stuff wedged into VR” (like Google Earth) into this category as well.

It also includes things like video players, initial training simulations where you learn how to grab and move stuff, driving and flight simulations where there really isn’t a game wrapped around it … that sort of thing. There also seem to be a plethora of “horror” experiences that fall into this category; you sit in a room, stuff tries to scare you … big jump scare at the end .. done.

Some examples of tech demos I played over the weekend: Batman: Arkham VR, NVidia VR Funhouse.

Potpourri is what sold me on the Rift. These are experiences that don’t fall into the other two categories and make up probably <5% of the overall catalog of VR games. They are also unique experiences that may not get the same front and center visibility of the traditional shooting gallery or “trying to be a AAA game genre”.

For this category, I’ll discuss one game — and one game only.

Beat Saber is probably the VR killer app you are looking for.

If there is a single, definable means to tip a reluctant potential VR adopter over the edge into a purchase? It is this stylized, insane rhythm game.

There is a trifecta surrounding this game — and without any ONE of the elements, it wouldn’t be the perfect storm.

Beat Saber is a rhythm game where you slice cubes flying at you in time to great music — and you use a light saber to do it. Sounds amazing on paper, right? So do a lot of other things — but it is incredible to play it; even more so to music you have a real passionate connection with.

For starters, any game where you get to wield a light saber (make it two!) realistically is an almost instant win. We middle-aged gamers love our laser swords, Star Wars and Jedi Knights. Give us a chance to be a bad ass with one? We’re in.

The concept of slicing stuff just plain works. Fruit Ninja is an immediate example of “slicing done right” — and it has been endlessly ripped off ever since. The addictive slicing mechanic exists in Beat Saber — but instead of gorgeous looking fruit it is rather generic looking cubes (you won’t care).

Music is a powerful force for most of us. There are endless studies as to why music is so important to us and how it works with us on an organic level. I won’t go into a bunch of detail here (check out this Quora article instead) but music and the resulting rhythm is what has made tons of games like Rock Band, Karaoke Revolution Let’s Dance and so many other games speak to gamers all over the world. But more importantly, humans feel music belongs to us — helps define us and gives us a means to share with our fellow humans.

As long as it is music we like, of course.

Most rhythm games do their best to offer a plethora of music choices — from standards to the latest pop along with hip-hop, country favorites and more. The problem is, once you leave the desired demographics of 18–35 years old the industry writes you off. Oh sure, you’ll get a Bon Jovi anthem or Aqua’s Barbie Girl tune (since it appears to cost next to nothing to get that song on every collection) but let’s be honest … do you really want to chop up cubes with a light saber to Taylor Swift? Katy Perry? Unknown music you’ve never heard before? Probably not.

For the middle-aged gamer — rhythm games are not a slam dunk; even if the games are great — if the music doesn’t move you, you’re not going to play it.

Beat Saber’s track list isn’t going to impress you. The music isn’t bad. It just isn’t what you want to juke, duck or slice to.

What will impress you, though — the community generated content that you can easily add directly within the interface with a mod called Beat Saver.

Not only can you get access to hundreds of songs that there is no way in hell you can officially license — but you can do it right from within the game itself. No weird nonsense required. Once you’re modded, you’re set.

So we have a killer app — music rhythm game with slicing light sabers to Michael Jackson’s Beat It

Is one $20 game worth spending hundreds of dollars on? Of course not — no matter how good it is (and it is). But I found another angle that helped sell me.

As you may know from my other article Losing 70 Pounds in 8 Months, I’m on a lifestyle changing route. I’m in the gym twice a day. I walk at lunch every day. I have completely changed my diet.

Exercise doesn’t have to suck. You know what Beat Saber is? Exercise in disguise. Try 30 minutes of this:

This isn’t an especially crazy song either. Try Separate Ways from Journey.

Listen, I bought a Rift for Christmas. I will be playing Robo Recall. I will be playing four player multi on Dead & Buried. I will be enjoying great shoot gallery games and cowering on the floor for scary experiences.

But to sell myself into VR — it had to work into my lifestyle change. This $230 add on for my existing PC (got a deal on CraigsList; deals are abound right now around the holidays) is going to let me stay home at night instead of going to the gym. This game is going to allow me and my son to have awesome light saber chopping competitions and get him to lose some weight too.

There are those who wouldn’t blink an eye to purchase a $500 elliptical or treadmill for the house. No difference here. But a Bowflex isn’t going to let you tear the arm off robots, beat them about the head & neck with it then use their torsos as shields (after you’re done working out).

Of course, none of the videos linked above or even the words on this page can complete the sale. You have to experience it for yourself. Find someone who will let you come over and try it out. Play Beat Saber with your favorite song. Recall some robots. Shoot some zombies. Figure out if you can make the return on investment into VR worthwhile for you.

I’m sure I’ll have more VR stories after the holidays. Stay tuned!

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I write, blog, record and review anything that interests me — including humanity, parenting, gizmos & gadgets, video games and media.

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