TIME Video Games

After Trying Every VR Headset, Here’s What Worries Me and Keeps Me Hopeful

BizTech Illos Virtual Reality
Martin Gee for TIME

VR is almost a reality, but it's still far from perfect

This year’s inaugural Virtual Reality Developer’s Conference felt like ground zero for something I was and wasn’t expecting.

In the normal pell-mell of bodies and swinging lanyards, there were some new themes: heads obscured by wraparound headsets bobbled upward like startled tourists; arms sketched oblique shapes in the air, occasionally drawn back as if to toss something; booths and backrooms were strangely quiet as players sat in 360-degree swivel chairs, privately contemplating sights unseen.

People using virtual reality look weird. People who’ve tried virtual reality sound weird when they attempt to describe what the experience is really like. I should know, because I spent the week shoehorning my noggin into all of the kludgy-looking contenders, fiddling with fussy velcro straps and leash-like video cables as well as far-out handheld controllers someone else had to place in my upturned mitts.

Watching someone try virtual reality is the opposite of its promise: awkward to the point of alienating. (Hence, some of the reaction to TIME’s VR cover story last year.) But, like stepping through the looking glass, what you find on the other side is as destabilizing as it is impossible to sufficiently describe.

Words can’t express what it feels like to fake out your visual cortex this totally. The only way to grok virtual reality is to try it yourself.

You’ll hear that over and over as first wave headsets like the Oculus Rift (March 28) and HTC Vive (April 5) arrive, asking early adopters to fork over $600 to $800 for the headsets alone, plus $1,000 or more for the mandatory high-end Windows PC. Even if you bypass cost-hiding contract deals and pay full price for a smartphone, you’re still in for twice the cost with VR. In the near-term, virtual reality is basically a two-trick pony, simultaneously emptying minds of preconceptions and bank accounts of cash.

This resistance to summary is going to be difficult for marketers tasked with pushing the technology into the mainstream. But even bleeding edgers have reason for pause. VR’s been an un-kept promise for decades, from Nintendo’s ill-fated Virtual Boy and the primitive (albeit eerily Oculus-like in design) VFX1, to the TrackIR hat clip-ons enthusiasts (myself included) dabbled with to pan around the cockpits of virtual Spitfires and Zero fighter planes in flight sims. Proclamations of virtual reality’s arrival at last sound suspiciously like recycled evangelism.

There’s something to that critique, because what’s coming from VR’s proponents in 2016 is still a ways off from the promise of pristine full-immersion. For all the laudable visual and ergonomic advances these headsets have made in just a few years’ time, they still feel a bit rough around the edges. Consider the connector cables that run down your body and across the floor—trip hazards I heard others jokingly refer to as VR’s “bridal gown.” For standing demos, “helpers” had to follow the immersed around, darting in and out to lift the cabling out of the way. How all this works when you’re home alone is another matter.

Or take the seal each headset forms on your face. Too tight, and you’ll walk away with painful raccoon lines; too loose and you let in the outside world. So you have the compromise: On all three of the headsets, the nose piece seems the weakest spot, allowing varying degrees of light to seep in and compromise your sense of isolation in darker VR spaces. The rough and ready workaround seems to be “play with the blinds closed and the lights off.”

Then there’s the visual fidelity gap, which currently has no workarounds and has you observing otherwise breathtaking vistas always slightly out of focus. It’s less noticeable when moving your head around, or while initially wide-eyed and breathless from VR’s novelty distortion field. But concentrate on objects or textures, especially distant ones (say a gorgeous sunset over a mountain-scape), and you’ll easily spot the so-called “screen door” effect, as if you were looking through a mesh at the world—the result of putting eyeballs mere inches from non-retinal screens.

Fidelity’s enough of an issue with these first wave headsets that making out simple numbers or words on the virtual dashboard of a race car while behind the wheel can have you squinting.

More importantly, as Quarter to Three‘s Tom Chick argued when I chatted with him in a post-VRDC podcast last week, there’s nothing here gaming-wise that’s analogous to the shift from 2D to 3D—no game like Nintendo’s Super Mario 64 which ushered in that transition 20 years ago. Right now, most of the experiences are all “head in a box” moments, where you’re looking at or around things you could just as well scrutinize with a mouse or gamepad thumb-stick.

Games like Fantastic Contraption and Job Simulator that hinge on “pinch-to-hold” interaction with two-handed controllers fare better, letting you interface with objects in ways and spatial constructs not even the Wii did. The HTC Vive’s dual controllers especially bring 1-to-1 motion-tracking to a state of near perfection, allowing gestural nuance in wraparound 3D space unimaginable using Nintendo’s Wii Remote or Microsoft’s Kinect camera. That could, in theory, provoke fresh game ideas that depend on more exacting motion controls.

There’s also the counter-VR-as-gimmick argument. Traveling to places (or spaces) you’ve never been and believing you’re really there, seeing objects and creatures and ideas that don’t exist while your brain takes for granted that they do because the distinction’s no longer consciously made—these are concepts without easy analogues in older attempts at immersion, say 3D TV and film.

Having a View Master-like 3D experience at a theater or with a gaming handheld feels nothing like the psychologically transformative sense of occupying an alternate reality, where you can lean down close to a cartoon squirrel and study its features and witness it notice and react to your “presence.” It parses like a distinction without a difference, but feels like a paradigm shift in action.

Whether you’re hesitant or fanatical, strapping bulky cable-tethered objects to our faces seems downright crude compared to the culturally iconic spectacle of VR in a film like The Matrix, where direct neural interfaces commandeer gray matter for a full-body experience so convincing our definition of reality buckles.

And yet reality buckled more than once as I shuffled from demo to demo, sitting or standing through wheeling asteroid fields, quirky kitchens, tube-shaped race tracks, saloon shootouts and vertiginous cliff faces. Is it just the novelty of being a head in a box? Do I need another 50 or 100 hours in VR to scrub all that rosy pink away? Or is this finally the end of the beginning, the first toddling but inexorable baby steps toward a new church of the imagination?

I cannot wait to find out.

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