Back to the Future: Last Gen Virtual Reality - shootist2600 Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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Back to the Future: Last Gen Virtual Reality

When you get to be my age, most things provoke a sense of deju vu. Take the current news about virtual reality. I've been excited for the technology since I first tried it out -- 15 years ago! I have a child in middle school now who wasn't even born then. I don't have to tell you that is a heck of a long time to wait!

Now, I only used the VR machine for all of five minutes at most. But it made a lasting impression. Of course it didn't hurt that when I was done and removed my visor I saw I was surrounded by a crowd of admirers. Okay, maybe they weren't admiring me, but one cowboy in a stetson did say "Nice shootin,' son" (truly).

In my late 20s, it had been a long time since anyone called me son, so I might be a little biased. But I wanted to share with you my experience in order to put the current discussions in perspective, especially as it tickles me that people are touting the new car smell when the technology has been around the block.

Granted, its history is somewhat maligned to judge by the careful, cursory research I performed. Apparently it never caught on due to issues like lag and unresponsive controls, however, that was not my experience. And if 300 seconds don't make me an expert in VR, well I don't know what will.

So, picture Las Vegas in the late 1990s. Specifically, the MGM Grand Hotel, but before they had to rebuild it due to a completely lame architectural design that, among other things, resulted in a driveway turnabout too narrow for limousines and a casino accessible only by walking down a very, very long corridor of shops and restaurants.

This is important because it was in that never-ending corridor that the VR machine was placed. It had the distinction, therefore, of high visibility among passersby and low interest among non-exhibitionist gamers such as myself. Don't get me wrong, I was desperate to try it, but not at the expense of making a fool of myself.


The longer our stay, the greater my desperation and lower my inhibitions. This is Las Vegas at its most basic, a crude formula for turning lambs into lions, or at least regular folks into shameless fortune hunters. The cold calculus was helped by a seeming dearth of passersby on the final day of our visit.

I swallowed what pride I had left and scaled the bulky platform, which would not be out of place in a late '90s video arcade but stuck out like a sore thumb in the middle of a tourist trap. On any other day, my ascension onto the pedestal and crowning with a half-helmet would only add to the bizarre spectacle.

At this point I should point out that the details of the VR machine escape me, not because I suffer from the Visitors' Bureau back-handed compliment of a slogan "What Happens In Vegas, Stays in Vegas." But because it just wasn't important to me at the time. That said, a little internet sleuthing suggests a possible contraption.

Virtuality was a line of VR "pods" since the early '90s and found in video arcades at the time. Its design matches the machine I used, which had a raised circular platform a few feet in diameter, with a waist-high rail that opened and closed to ring the gamer. A "Visette" head-mounted display and joystick rounded out the components.

The joystick was an interesting design that reminded me of a Space 1999 stun gun, for you ancient fellow fans of the sci-fi TV series that sent Martin Landau and Barbara Bain hurtling through space on a runaway moon. In fact, using the visor and joystick no doubt engendered a similar fish out of water sensation.

The game I played was a first person shooter that was probably most reminiscent of Area 51. I don't recall much of the setting except that it was a mixture of indoor and outdoor areas during daytime, beset by alien invaders who took every opportunity to pop out from behind cover like ET in a beer factory.


What was most memorable for me was not only how foes would attack from all directions, but how I could turn in the direction of enemy fire to confront them whether they were appearing to the side, from behind me or even from overhead. Whichever direction I turned my head, the in-game camera followed seemingly without any lag.

At least, I don't remember any technical issues with my playthrough. As mentioned, I didn't notice any lag that impeded gameplay; quite the contrary, I was thrilled with how responsive the VR was. For a gamer who values immersion, I'd had no experience before or since that rivaled that sense of being in the game.

One could argue, I suppose, that my poor KDR was indicative of unresponsive controls or poor hit detection, and I would thank you! That would be exceedingly kind, and I would appreciate the gesture. Truth be told, KDR is not my strong suit and I didn't notice that my gameplay in this department was considerably worse.

The fact is, I thoroughly enjoyed the mercifully short playthrough. It functioned like an on-rails shooter, which moved forward when depressing a particular button. The only other element I recall is holding the trigger to shoot extraterrestrial bad guys, of which there were plenty that poured from all around.

I was moving constantly not only to pick off what enemies I could see but to cover all possible approaches. It was nerve-wracking, but terrifically fun. I had no complaints in the gameplay department, though I suppose I'd like to see options for free roam exploration, for crouching or going prone, and for more item interaction.

The challenge also would be to address any issues of lag and unresponsive controls, while designing an affordable retail model that has all the functionality -- and then some -- of the reportedly $65,000 commercial units. I, for one, am hopeful that the intervening 15 years have allowed for such an evolution.

In the meantime, I'll bask in my moment in the virtual sun, when I breathlessly removed my visor to notice that a crowd had gathered around the unabashed spectacle that I had put on in the MGM Grand. Besides the admiring cowboy, a young boy who also had been watching the monitors asked me whether it was any fun. Oh yeah, I replied.

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