From the street, Otherworld looks like the headquarters of a futuristic cult. Nestled under a railway arch in Haggerston, East London, the unmarked entrance opens onto a neon-lit corridor flanked by circular white pods resembling vertical sensory deprivation tanks. In fact, their function is the opposite: in this virtual reality bar, these sci-fi booths are a gateway to total sensory overload, a high-quality showcase for the potential of VR gaming.
An employee wrapped in layers of quilted white fabric gathers my friends and I around a glowing table to introduce the games we can try during our hour-long slot. We can explore Google Earth in VR, paint in 3D with Tilt brush or shoot each other with laser guns while cackling maniacally. We choose the latter. After a somewhat complicated introduction to the system, with a non-gamer in our group looking at me nervously, we go into our separate pods and put on controllers, headphones and headsets. Our physical environment is firmly shut out.
The next hour is a real hoot. Each game took a few minutes to learn, but before long we were deeply immersed in competitive dance-off Synth Ridersacrobatic sci-fi shooter Hyper Dash and zombie survival game Arizona Sunshine† Although physically separated, we were united as avatars in the virtual space and could communicate through our headphones.
The experience of VR gaming benefits greatly from this kind of dedicated space. While Otherworld’s “4D effects”, which simulate wind in your hair and sunshine on your face, are a gimmick, it offers powerful hardware and a streamlined system for organizing multiplayer games. Crucially, the simple fact that you have room to swing your arms around (in-game, fighting zombies bravely; waving desperately in real life) made a vital difference to how comfortable you feel being isolated from your surroundings. . When I inevitably slammed my real body against the wall during a high-octane shooting, I found it graciously padded.
I was surprised how much my group, with mixed gaming experience, enjoyed the evening, because after a few years of testing VR games at home, I have yet to be convinced. While companies such as Meta, HTC and Snap are investing heavily in augmented and virtual reality, they argue that greater immersion in the digital space will be an important part of the metaversethese technologies always seem about to hit the mainstream, but never quite make it.
However, the launch of Meta’s Quest 2 headset in 2020 marked an important step forward. This model is easier to use and much cheaper than competitors. It incorporated the gaming software into the headset rather than a computer or console, rendering it incapable of running advanced games – most of them look like they are two decades old. Still, the tradeoff between quality for accessibility and affordability seems to work: the Quest 2 is now the headset to beat, accounting for 78 percent of all VR hardware sales in 2021. But even now, VR players still only account for 2 percent. from the PC gamers on Steam. Why is the recording slow?
It’s not that there aren’t good VR games out there; however, there aren’t many of them. You can dance to Beat Saber or get away for a few hours with the ingenious puzzle shooter super hot† Most of the other offerings are simple, either because developers are stuck building for the weak Quest 2 or because they don’t see the profit potential in ambitious development for the limited VR audience. There is only one VR masterpiece: Half-life: Alyxa continuation of Valve’s beloved shooter series with stunning visuals, a robust story and dozens of small, thoughtful details that harness the uniquely immersive potential of VR.
Even with a great game to play, I find I don’t like to pull out my headset at home. They still feel bulky, can cause motion sickness, and I find it unnerving to be isolated from the physical environment of my small room, especially since my cat has a determined desire to trip me up when I’m playing. Attempting to show the room around you using headset-mounted cameras still feels technologically primitive. While VR hardware is developing rapidly, this pace of evolution makes it difficult to reason that now is the right time to jump on board — a much better model could be just around the corner.
VR games still have a niche community of devoted supporters who believe in the future of technology, as do many big companies: Sony has announced its new PSVR2 headset alongside a new VR Horizon game, Meta is teasing a new headset called Project Cambria, and even Apple has shown a demo of new VR hardware to investors. For home games, however, VR still has some growing pains ahead of it. Spaces like Otherworld show the full potential of the technology – so, paradoxically, to experience the full flavor of the virtual world now, you may have to leave the house.