Picture the scene: it’s a busy and bustling games conference. Thousands of people are walking in every direction, and a giant hall is stuffed full with all the industry’s leading AAA and indie developers.
Somewhere in between all the hustle and bustle is a small, peculiar-looking booth sporting two VR headsets, and what appears to be two narrow playpens for very tall babies. Inside one of those playpens is me, wearing a VR headset clinging on for dear life as I fail to control my legs underneath me.
They weren’t playpens at all, obviously. I was stood inside a Wizdish ROVR, a ‘revolutionary’ device that makes you able to actually move around naturally within a VR game.
You see, the ROVR is something of a circular treadmill; wearing special shoes (I should have known what was in store when I was asked to put on ‘special shoes’, in hindsight) I was able to climb onto the ROVR and then slide my feet in the direction I wanted to walk. Okay then. How bad could it be? The moment I stepped onto the moving track of the ROVR I nearly fell over. With the ‘special shoes’ on, it was incredibly slippy. Luckily there’s a hand rail that runs round the entirety of the treadmill, so my fists were already turning red as I clung on for dear life, and this was before I’d even had the VR headset put over my face.
Once I’d regained some kind of balance, I was crowned with an Oculus Rift and plunged into the opening scene of Fallout 4 – the bit where you’ve got to run from your house down the road to the fallout shelter. OK. I could do this. All I had to do was slide one foot in front of the other and– Jesus.
These people are all lying.
I’m sure you can already see the first problem here. Sliding your feet along a surface is not akin to walking. Especially when you’re sliding your feet – clad in ‘special shoes’, need I remind you – along something that resembles a tiny, yet deadly, ice rink. With a bit of direction from the helpful – and likely bemused – staff member, I found a bit of a rhythm. Slide one foot forward while sliding the other one back. Back and forward; back and forward. It was a bit like being on a cross trainer. If that cross trainer was flat and made out of ice and designed purely to make you look like a complete idiot.
Being inside the VR headset and concentrating entirely on not falling over, I of course had no idea how ridiculously stupid I appeared to the outside world. (My boyfriend later informed me “very”.) But I was too absorbed into the task of staying vertical. I had places to go. I had a freaking fallout to run away from, for pete’s sake.
The first obstacle was even getting out of the house. Obviously, I had no controller in my hands as my hands were very busy doing the important job of holding on for dear life. When I reached the closed door I froze. What was I supposed to do now? The helpful assistant told me to look down at the doorknob, and as I did, it opened. Ooh, magic. (Spoiler: it wasn’t magic. The assistant was holding the controller.) So I was in the street now. It was a clear run to the fallout shelter. I can do this. Slide back and forward, back and forward. The movements of my panicked and flailing legs did not in any way tally up with the movements of my character on-screen. The speed was completely different; the camera was jerking all over the place as my special-shoe-sliding-action was anything but smooth. This was a nightmare. But I’d managed to make good progress down the street when I hit an invisible wall. This isn’t right; where’s the little passageway gone that leads me up to the army base and the vault?
Their smiles are smiles of terror.
A voice beside me said “uh, you need to go the other way”. Shit. I’d ran entirely the wrong way down the street. (Couldn’t you have told me this sooner, helpful-assistant?) So I had to turn around – a task in itself that’s easier said than done, when stood on a small circular platform with the least amount of control over your legs you’ve ever had. I awkwardly shuffled around, still gripping the rail like my life depended on it; a painstaking expression of concentration across my face that I’d later be relentlessly mocked for. Somehow I managed to point in the right direction and set off once again: sliding back and forward, back and forward.
My hands were starting to hurt by this point as I’d spent the last five minutes squeezing the metal railing so hard that I’m surprised it didn’t crumble under my hulk-like grip. Yes, five minutes is all it had been. How was that possible? It felt like an eternity. I was sure I’d never regain function in my legs again. Would it ever end?
Thankfully, yes. Somehow I managed to reach the entrance to the vault; running uphill while your feet are actually aimlessly waving around on a flat surface is a strange sensation, but it didn’t matter anymore. I’d made it. As the cutscene started to play and my character was lowered into the vault, the VR headset was taken off me, and I was back in the real world. Thank God for that. I jumped out of the ROVR as eagerly as one could with no control over their legs, and hastily took the ‘special shoes’ off.
I think it took me about two hours before I started to feel ‘normal’ again.
The moral of the story? ROVR is, unfortunately, not the revolutionary device that will make you able to move around naturally within a VR game. There was nothing natural about that.