Video games can create new and seemingly impossible experiences for their players. We travel to imaginary lands, try on new identities or perform feats of strength and grace that surpass the limits of our bodies. As virtual reality becomes a new aspect of the medium this year, it is delivering on its promise for new kinds of experiences and interactions in ways that are tantalizing yet frustrating.
After two years of hype, including Facebook’s $2 billion purchase of Oculus VR in 2014, consumer virtual reality is finally here — for people with the patience, not to mention the wallets, of early adopters. The Oculus Rift headset and the HTC Vive, which uses infrared sensors and motion controllers to create room-scale virtual environments, started shipping this spring, but the selection of games and other entertainment remains relatively thin.
Even so, for a novelty-seeker there is nothing as rewarding as virtual reality right now. First-person shooters are the classic rock of video games (as the culture site The Ringer recently put it), while VR is closer to a buzz-band concert. You might catch the Next Big Thing, but you’re equally likely to endure an ambitious misfire.
When VR works, the sensation that you have been physically transported into another world is uncanny. I’ve found myself crawling on the floor of my home office to evade laser beams and robot sentries in games like Budget Cuts and Unseen Diplomacy. The sense of scale and the vertiginous heights and depths felt when exploring outer space, or the ocean floor, or an icy mountain range, are not comparable to anything on a two-dimensional screen.