Demonstrating VR can still be a nightmare
To understand virtual reality, you have to experience it. But introducing people to the technology is still fraught with stumbling blocks.
I recently had a family over for the sole purpose of showing them virtual reality. In this case, the mother, the father, and the daughter had no previous experience with VR headsets or video games at all.
I had taken the time the night before to select suitable VR apps and make sure everything would work properly. Of course, despite all the preparation, there were a couple of glitches and hiccups.
I started with a Meta Quest 2 and an immersive video. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, the mother just saw a blank screen. I re-centered the image. Darkness again. I turned the headset on and off. Now the image is there, but the video is paused. I ask her what she sees and cannot tell from the description if she is still in the video. I reach for my smartphone and stream a jerky, highly compressed video from the VR headset to the display with a lot of latency. From there, I navigate to the video and launch it. I breathe a sigh of relief, it finally runs.
My intention was to show Google Earth VR afterwards, but given the rocky start and all the problems that can occur with a wireless PC VR connection, I decided against it and started Playstation VR 2 instead. With this VR headset, the VR content is displayed directly on the TV, so that everyone in the room can see it.
But even here there were problems: The PS5 interface and the VR image just wouldn't appear on the TV. I don't even remember what the problem was or how I fixed it. Suddenly it worked. Before that, five minutes of painful silence.
The daughter loves Star Wars, so I started the VR game Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy's Edge. As it turned out, the controls were too complicated for the girl, who was completely inexperienced with video games. You can blame me for that mistake.
After five minutes of "press this, press that," I turned off the VR game and started Beat Saber instead. A VR game that everyone would understand at first try, I assured the parents.
As anecdotal as this experience is: I'm sure you, dear VR enthusiasts, have had similar experiences.
The worst part is when the guest can't see or doesn't know what to do or click, and you can't help because you're both literally left in the dark: the person wearing the headset and the person guiding them through the process.
"What do you see? Do you see the gray window? No. Now what? Okay, now look for the gray window. No, more to the right. More to the right. Yes, that's it. And now select the game. No, not with this button. Wait, I'm still "re-centering" the image." And so on.
This helplessness of not seeing what the other person sees, or not knowing why they don't see anything, can really drive you crazy. If nothing helps, the last resort is to ask for the headset back and see for yourself what the hell is going on. And pray that the problem is solved, when the headset is back on the person's head.
VR is personal technology
How would I solve the problem? I don't know. Intuitive and natural interaction through eye and hand tracking alone, which is what Apple is aiming for with Vision Pro, could make VR headsets easier to use. The company is on the right track by trying to rethink the user experience from the ground up.
But this is far from eliminating all the pitfalls. VR headsets are a personal technology. They need to be customized for each user. I mean the head mount, the lens distance, the ideal position on the face. It took me a month to get fully used to my Playstation VR 2. Not everyone has that much patience.
The good news is that the evening had a happy ending: The mother, who had been the most skeptical and felt confirmed in her doubts by all the difficulties we encountered that evening, fell in love with Beat Saber right away, danced and cheered while playing and didn't want to put the headset down. A powerful testament to the simplicity and power of the most successful VR game.