I look like an idiot and I feel like an idiot.


Emanuel Maiberg

Emanuel Maiberg

I tried the best virtual reality there is. I wanted it to work, but it doesn't.

I look like an idiot and I feel like an idiot.

Here's yet another picture of a white guy wearing a virtual reality headset.

The white guy is me and the headset in question is Vive, which is manufactured by HTC but is based on game company Valve's VR research. It is, according to everyone who's tried it, the best VR tech in town, meaning it's better than the Oculus Rift, which Mark Zuckerberg thought was worth $2 billion.

I agree that it's better, but I've also heard people call it an "industry-changer," "incredibly fucking cool," and, most commonly, an experience that's "hard to describe."

It's very easy to describe.

Here, I will describe it:

I step into a small empty room where two anxious men who have to give dozens of demos a day are already running late, so they quickly slap the device on my head. Inside, through two lenses, I look at a screen that I am sure at some point was going to be an HTC smartphone.

Turn on your TV and get close enough that your nose touches the screen and you can see the gaps between the pixels that make up the image. That's what it looks like.

The anxious men slip the phallic controllers you can see me holding in the picture above into my hands. Not pictured are the highly impractical two cameras high up in opposite corners of the room that are tracking the controllers and the headset. If you've played with a Wii remote or a PlayStation Move controller, you basically understand how this works, though these are much more accurate.

I'm able to pick up an object, toss it in the air, and catch it. This is by far the most impressive thing about the demo

Then I'm in a game called The Gallery: Six Elements, which puts me in a dungeon. In this virtual reality, I have no body, only two floating hands in fingerless gloves, which I agree is a badass look. There are skulls and helmets and medallions and other fantasy-y objects in the environment that I can walk up to and pick up by reaching out with the controller and pulling a trigger.

The simulation and the motion tracking are so accurate that I'm able to pick up an object, toss it in the air, and catch it. This is by far the most impressive thing about the demo. I do this for a while, and knock some things off the shelf in the process, as I do in real life.

I can feel the device heavy on my head, pushing into my face. Here and there, slivers of light slip in. The graphics aren't as good as any number of contemporary games, but it's hard to tell because the image quality sucks.

I move my head to the left, and I see what I expect to see, more dungeon. I move my head to the right, and now there's a huge rock monster in there with me and I watch it move around the dungeon, because what else am I going to do? The room moves up like an elevator, the rock monster says something, the demo ends, someone pulls the device off my head, and I'm hustled out of there to make room for the next white guy.

If that sounds exciting to you, good news: Vive launches as a consumer product by the end of next year. If it doesn't, too bad, because the tech and games industries are still high off the mobile and social gold rush and needed another bump. Someone said "virtual reality," so here we go.

Valve's and HTC's Vive headset. Credit: Valve

We are locked in and pot committed. Facebook spent its $2 billion, Samsung already launched a digital storefront for its Gear VR, Google has Cardboard VR because it is also a big boy company in Silicon Valley, and Sony's Morpheus VR is set to launch in the first half of 2016 as well.

With the big corporate sharks come the pilot fish startups that wait for leftover business around the edges of the Game Developers Conference (GDC) expo floor, where the booths are cheap and the pitches questionable.

  • Nod makes motion capture rings and bracelets.
  • Virtuix Omni makes an omni-directional treadmill controller that's about the size and price of a jacuzzi.
  • Sixense makes something like Valve/HTC's controllers but not as good.
  • Miraisense makes "4D space navigators," and I'm not sure what that means.
  • Tactical Haptics makes something like Valve/HTC's controllers but not as good.
  • Realm makes something between an exercise cord and Valve/HTC's controllers but not as good.

And so on.

The VR peddlers and the press hubbub insists that we're looking at a revolutionary technology for movies, social media, and particularly gaming, but revolutionary technologies in gaming are usually accompanied by great games.

The Nintendo Entertainment System launched with Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt (WOW). The Xbox launched with Halo. Even Valve's scary influential digital games storefront Steam was legitimized by its first-person shooter, Half-Life 2. Gamers absolutely loathed the idea of having to download and use special software to launch a game, but they came on board for the right game and they never left.

Where is this great game that's supposed to get everyone onboard the VR train that has apparently already left the station? No one knows. Neither Valve, Oculus, Google, Sony or any of the developers involved have shown off their killer app, and it's been long enough so you can start to question if they can even find one.

At Sony's GDC session, "Beyond Immersion - Project Morpheus and PlayStation," developers from the company's Japan and London studios said that they've been trying a lot of interesting things, but that they basically have no idea how to make a VR game yet.

Japan's studio showed a bunch of ways they could integrate the PlayStation 4 controller into virtual reality, quite literally, as in you're in the virtual reality and the controller is in there with you and is the main point of interest. You move the controller around to make it fly like a spaceship, or push a button to make a cuddly little character pop out of it that you can than play with.

Revolutionary technologies in gaming are usually accompanied by great games

London's studio had so little to show for the device Sony claims will launch next year, they—no joke—put on an impromptu stage play to act out what a section of a virtual reality game might look like, maybe.

At the "VR for Indies" GDC session, the audience laughed when Holden Link, who made a few "silly VR games" like A Night at the Roculus and founded a VR studio in January, noted that he and his fellow panelists, "the experts," have only been working in VR for two years at most.

A Night at the Roculus.

The moderator E McNeill was funded by Oculus after he made Darknet, a cyberpunk virtual reality hacking game, at a game jam sponsored by the company. This year, Oculus is holding a mobile VR jam with $1 million in prizes to whomever can come up with something worth playing on the Gear VR. Why? Because they have the money and no clue on how to make it themselves.

Max Geiger, another one of the indie panelists, said he sees VR as a Cambrian explosion, though he also thinks a lot of the new VR life we see now will die off in a couple of years as the dust begins to settle. He also knows that it'd be far more expensive and risky for Oculus to learn how to evolve and survive by itself.

"I think the major platform holders, there's a little bit of a freedom but also the tyranny of low expectations where they're kind of looking to small indie teams to try stuff out and to figure out the cool stuff, and it's no skin off their nose if a team of four guys in a garage fails, unlike if they place a 20 million dollar bet with a big team."

The VR boom is exciting but also plenty pathetic

The indies were honest about how clueless they and everyone else are, which frees them up to try everything: Passive experiences, asymmetrical games where one person is in VR and others are not, web VR, and more.

Anything could work, nothing could work, so try everything. Sadly, like every gold rush dating back to the one that spawned San Francisco in the first place, the VR boom is exciting but also plenty pathetic. People lose money, jobs, and dignity in the process. Dignity is the first thing to go in a gold rush.

"I'm perpetually ashamed that we're going to enter an age in which we have the VR version of the iFart apps," Geiger said. "Hopefully history will filter out a lot of that chaff."

I'm sorry if I'm harshing your VR gaming mellow. It sucks and I know it because I went through the same thing this GDC.

It's embarrassing how badly I want VR to work. I want to be your aunt who's going crazy on the virtual roller coaster, but it didn't work for me. I've wanted it to work since the last time they promised me it will, back in the '90s, when my mom had to drive me to a cybercafe at the mall so I could try virtual reality.

The way it worked is you stepped into a machine that looked a lot like the Virtuix Omni, and you put on a headset that looked a lot like the Oculus Rift, and when you moved your head or the plastic gun in your arm the game reacted accordingly.

Many amazing things have happened in games and computing in the last 20 years but broadly speaking, the Oculus Rift and Vive are not all that different than what I saw at the mall.

Maybe real reality just got worse. Maybe our smartphones have conditioned us to be more inside of our virtual worlds. You're looking down at your phone all day anyway, why not just attach it directly to your face?

"I'm perpetually ashamed that we're going to enter an age in which we have the VR version of the iFart apps."

Whatever changed over the last 20 years to make virtual reality viable again, I believe it's more about us and our willingness to accept a life within computers and simulations than it is about whatever doodads or lines of code Palmer Lucky put together.

With enough will, money, and marketing, virtual reality could become a successful consumer product. You'll see it at Best Buy. Maybe you'll even have one in your home. Mark Zuckerberg is convinced that it will be just as big as Facebook. So what? Do you like Facebook?

They still screen 3D movies, and somewhere in your house (or your grandma's house) there is a very sad Wii somewhere. Just because these things exist as consumer products and make a profit doesn't mean they're all they're cracked up to be.