2020 is Here and So is a Whole VR World, Sorta?

Welcome to the 2020s. A new decade. Just like with the 2000s and also with the 2010s, these years look and sound futuristic. Popular culture has always made it seem like all those years were destined for advancements in science and technology that in reality will take perhaps decades more, if not hundreds of years to fully realize. Stuff like flying cars, space colonization, a cure for all diseases, and so forth. No way are we getting any of those any time soon. Sorry to break it to you.

Nonetheless, while all of these things will one day happen, one of the more popular facets of the future is virtual reality (or VR); it at least in some form is already here. Not yet fully perfected, not yet very ubiquitous, but present for anyone with the enthusiasm or curiosity to try out.

VR has been on an upward trend for the last few years of the 2010s decade. VR Video gaming in particular. With products and startups coming up with devices that a user can wear on their head with controllers allowing arms and hands to be used in-game via motion controls, it now is seemingly possible to enter the world of a new reality. A reality that is programmed, much like a traditional video game where for the first time, anyone can now interact with their space, such picking up objects and walking into an outdoor environment from within the confines of someone’s own home.

I myself first tried VR gaming at a convention called PAX East, held annually in Boston, Massachusetts. There, I got to experience first hand the VR offerings of HTC and Oculus, two companies that developed similar and competing devices: a VR headset with wired controllers hooked up to a powerful computer running a game. The (square-shaped) spaces themselves were sectioned off with curtains and poles, the latter which held sensors to allow detection of an active player engaging in VR play.

The wait times (45 to 90 minutes) in getting a chance to play something in VR, no matter what the brand was took a lot of time. This was in 2018 and it’s no stretch to say that VR gaming was an experience that many couldn’t pass up. Only 2 years earlier did VR gaming and VR itself roughly started to take shape as companies began to release devices capable of such; before then and even to this day, augmented reality (or AR) via someone’s smartphone or a handheld like the Nintendo 3DS was the closest relatable experience to VR.

Anyway, when I got the chance 2 years ago at this time of writing to play in VR, I was immediately impressed. Being a longtime gamer I, for the first time since the Wii came out in 2006, felt like I was not just staring at a screen to immerse myself within a game’s in-universe setting while playing but more so, felt physically engaged to such setting, what ever it may be. Upon using the controllers and wearing the headset, I felt like I got transported to another world, which yeah, is a very generic way of explaining how anyone would feel about VR if they tried it themselves.

Also to note was that it felt weird to control myself in VR at first. I had played a game (a shooter, which I quickly found out happened to be a common genre in VR gaming) that had me focus on holding a gun with one or even two hands to kill enemies (typically faceless humanoids) who also had guns. If this was a typical video game, the premise would be very basic and very boring. But considering that I was looking into a headset that displayed a battlefield of sorts with obstacles that I could interact with, like say I can pick up a grenade and toss it with my hand at an enemy or AI, this typical video game felt like anything but. I was in it!

I would walk to a limited extent (considering the sensors’ range). I could crouch down and avoid hits. I could punch (but not kick unfortunately) in a game like that in VR. It was an amazing opportunity to experience such kind of gameplay, and forget gameplay even – it was an amazing opportunity to experience what virtual reality was. And it was awesome to get a sense of legitimacy to this VR craze: that it’s finally here and it’s finally going to become something… something big.

Months down the road, I would later experience VR (gaming) again. This time at a facility, probably among the first of its kind. The facility was essentially what I would call an arena, but without the audience. The space was very big and very wide, with a control center present. Respectively, these would function as the range of playability for gamers in an active session of VR gameplay and the means for facility staff to run the games and even communicate with players through voice via a player’s headset.

Beyond just these details, was something more impressive: the gear. Unlike the simple controllers and headset that I worn at PAX, the treatment that I was going to get here was more akin to a gunner preparing to engage in battle. I mean, kinda…

Considering that the games offered at that facility were (again) shooters, what I was given to wear was a gun in place of typical controllers (having to be used in game to hold a “virtual gun”) alongside a wired backpack and a headset with headphones and microphone piece. The equipment felt reminiscent of what you would wear playing laser tag except in this case, you are not shooting lasers at opponents “physically” on a tangible course, you are shooting lasers “virtually” in game on a field populated by a program’s graphics. The very large space was ideal and appealing considering the amount of walking, running and ducking I did while playing the game – a game that involved shooting killer robots and drones from within an enemy base complete with “elevators” and “moving platforms” to replicate the action of traversing different sections of a level (through motion sensors to evoke that feeling in a player despite remaining stationary in real time on some part of the “arena”).

Although wearing that equipment felt a bit heavy, that experience in getting to enter a world so far removed from real life in a game and through more “realistic” means (I mean come on, a gun is way more convincing than a controller!), was more impressive and appealing than my first go-around in VR gaming months earlier. This game lasted much longer (and it had to because one, it ain’t cheap to play and I won a free ticket there so whatever, and two, the scope of the facility’s space and equipment’s features necessitated a more immersive experience). More so, having used VR equipment that normally isn’t accessed by homeowners considering that offerings shown at PAX could be purchased and owned by consumers, my eyes opened more toward the future, toward VR with respect to the future. VR is here. The future is here. But is the VR thing only just getting started?

The following year, in 2019, I would become a product tester for a VR device called Oculus Quest. Sounds fancy, right? In reality, I worked remotely as a tester from home (Oculus very nicely sent me a Quest device, from what I understood, a month or more before public launch), where I got to try the VR device while having to answer survey and discussion questions via an online forum pertaining to well, my experience with the hardware and software bringing VR to my own living space.

Having gotten the chance to be a tester by what could have been suspicious means, the experience ultimately was legit as I didn’t spend a dime on a VR device that could have costed me hundreds, all in exchange for my genuine opinions on trying out the most recent offerings in virtual reality engagement. Now I say engagement because unlike my previous two times encountering VR as just an extension of gaming, this time around, I was going to also experience VR through the premise of getting to watch YouTube with a headset, where watching videos online feels like watching something out of a cinema, considering the video player’s design and size one would be looking at with the headset on. There would also be the premise of experiencing VR to browse online, effectively taking the computer screen to a whole new level, where not only can one merely interact with a browser larger than a computer screen in virtual space but also potentially down the road, view online elements in virtual 3D (such as when shopping for items); this was a proposed feature that I personally got to voice an opinion on for immediate inclusion as a tester during a live web chat with other testers from around the country.

I ultimately spent 6 months as a Oculus Quest product tester, with questions typically sent to me every week or two in that period pertaining to its use and features. While the device in my opinion has the potential to grow and add on many features essential to users needing VR at home to improve certain activities (such as the aforementioned browsing for a “product in virtual view” while shopping), I have been all the more restless in wanting to experience virtual reality in new and creative ways. Even beyond the Quest and the facility I had visited, it’s safe to say that VR is here, with variances in how current technology has made it possible. But is it fully here yet in terms of total advancement and diverseness beyond one or two genres of gaming and some nifty applications? I think we’d have to sit tight as this decade progresses to really say with full confidence that VR in all its glory is here. That the future of VR now is the present, much like how smartphones are now very essential in everyday life considering their multipurpose and ubiquitous use.

This is a story for another time but ever since I took part in a group collaboration for a contest on a new gaming concept (inspired by success stories such as Pokemon Go) sponsored by alma mater, Northeastern University in 2018, I myself have wondered and envisioned a VR concept (in gaming, playing to my greatest interest in VR) that I hope to get developed one day. Something that’s not a shooter at least. Obviously. And through my exposure to various VR devices and experiences in the last few years, my interest and vision for my concept has only increased and been further defined by inspiration respectively. I can only hope at this time that I can continue to design and develop my idea (which exists in sufficient form on paper as research and visuals but is not fully finished yet) in the near future and obtain funding during the early part of this decade before someone else pushes a similar idea before me…

I truly believe that the 2020s, as we have entered it only weeks ago will be a decade of new advancements, and advancements of products that have yet to see full potential and widespread use, including virtual reality, to come full circle with my overall thoughts. Furthermore, I’m definitely excited to see what the decade has in store for us, virtual reality and beyond. Even for myself, I am eager to see what kind of success I could achieve by developing ideas, technologically and creatively in the years to come as a sidenote. Yes, I do have more than just one idea that I want to world to see. But more on that later.

The one last thing I will leave off with is an excerpt of questions that I had answered while I was a product tester for Oculus in the previous year. It’s funny because, legitimate product testing opportunities are hard to come by online but this one really took me by surprise when I not only received a boxed Oculus Quest free of charge but also free wired earphones, both of which I still have and will forever keep. I guess it helps that I had to go through a verification process before I was selected as a tester. I even made a video in talking about VR (like what excites me about it) as part of that process, which you can view below alongside the excerpt.

Just like with how I was an integral part toward the development of future Oculus products through my feedback on the Quest (to my knowledge, the Quest has gotten mostly positive reviews, so what do I know about what needs to radically change in future models? Still, being a part of a company’s product testing process has made me really aware of what to look for and what to pay more attention to concerning product design in UI, UX, ergonomics, aesthetics, etc. than I normally would as a regular consumer of any product), I hope to use the Quest as a partial model alongside the VR facility I had visited as another model in helping shape the core of a promising and exciting product for virtual reality gaming. This kind of development all starts with some research and / or experiential learning, the latter in which I was involved in and got to document below for the Quest as follows (click or tap below to read in full):

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