I recently had the privilege to try out Project Morpheus, Sony's bold attempt at bringing virtual reality gaming to the PS4. Waiting in line, I watched others play through the two demos available. They all seemed to be having fun, smiling, looking all around and comfortably managing their existence in two worlds at once.
When it was my turn, a Sony representative slipped the equipment over my eyes. He kept me lassoed with a large bundle of wires – the unit's most apparent sign that it's still a work in progress – while he adjusted the tightness of the strap to create a cozy seal around my eyes. The visor component centered its weight against my upper forehead. When it's on just right, it feels almost like nothing's there.
I thought I knew a lot about VR. Like many tech lovers, I've read the impressions and stayed current with the news. I could go on about the innards of modern VR headsets without the need for a computer science degree. I've debated the controversial business deals. The future had finally arrived – strapped around my head – and I felt ready. But as soon as my vision of a demo event was replaced with darkness, all I knew about VR quickly shattered.
The black inside the goggles felt like a limbo between my world and the new virtual world that awaited me. Project Morpheus wasn't even powered on yet and I was bugging out. This was my first time experiencing virtual reality, and it was exactly how it was supposed to be: an emotional ride with equal time spent being scared as hell and incredibly awe-inspired.
The Sony representative talked me through what was happening in the real world, that the demo would boot up shortly. Two PlayStation Move controllers were placed into my clammy hands, giving me some much needed relief.
When the first demo, titled "Morpheus Castle" booted up, I was instantly transported to a castle courtyard on a sun-filled day. Looking down, I had hands, there was grass. My weariness faded more with every familiar detail I noticed. A large smile cracked across my face and I laughed giddily.
Simply leaning to reach things and striking them is the goal in this miniature virtual world. You can only walk around so much in this demo, which is great as an introduction into this intense, immersive way to play. This demo is elementary VR at its finest. It presents the basic tools and rules to become acquainted with this new way to play, which lets the player relax a bit in reality.
The sense of space felt spot-on in this new world – so much so, that I felt it was me, not an avatar, existing in this different world and experimenting with medieval weaponry. I slashed upward to lop off an arm, sending it flying. I grabbed the dummy's leg with one hand and sliced it off with the other and threw it across the courtyard. To the credit of the engineers, I felt really good at this game.
And now for something completely different
Next, I played "Street Luge," a sit-down demo that starts you at the top of a mountain. From my new perspective, my body now, I was laid out on a luge sled. This demo takes you down the mountain reaching speeds of up to 90 miles per hour, avoiding obstacles along the way.
Compared to "Morpheus Castle," I'd call this an intermediate VR experience. There's very little handholding. To me, it's every reason why I don't like roller coasters. My mind likes to take things slow, and if I'm not in direct control, it buckles momentarily when it can't process increases in speed or height fast enough.
I briefly stopped breathing and felt the urge to seize, clinging onto whatever I could to ground me for a few seconds until I digested what's happening. It's an automatic, almost instinctual reaction. It usually happens if someone is driving erratically or while a plane is taking off. You might know it as the "stomach in your throat" feeling.
Thankfully, I was able to apply some real-life knowledge to combat the stress of going faster than I wanted in the demo. Like a skateboarder tilts side-to-side to maintain a slower speed down a steep street, I, too, was able to tilt my head side-to-side to slow my speed. What an amazing feeling.
Allowing the user to enrich a virtual world with their own knowledge, or in my case, coping methods, will prove invaluable to tailor to the extremely wide range of people who will try VR for the first time. Stepping into a new world shouldn't be scary, it should feel inviting.
After 10 minutes, my Project Morpheus demos were finished and it left me exhausted. VR is powerful stuff. I can still say that no technology has immersed me so much that it brought out some of my greatest fears. At least now I can experience them from the safety of a bean bag chair.