So, the other day I tried out the latest Virtual Reality technology at the new VR entertainment centre in Lincoln, opened by Tension Exit Games – the very first VR centre in the UK.
It opened it’s doors on 1 July and because I am really excited about the prospect of VR I booked to have a go on the first day.
You have to book in advance on their website and you get an hour to play whatever VR games you want.
The building is in an old renovated church and it had three large steps leading up to the front door. So I was a bit concerned whether I would actually be able to get in.
No matter however, for a high-tech solution was soon found from somewhere around the back, in the shape of a piece of plasterboard, which served well enough as a makeshift ramp. Although a proper metal ramp would be much better and safer. The staff were very friendly and helpful though and assured me that they would do anything they could to help.
So finally after I managed to enter the building without injuring myself or anyone else it was on to the virtual reality.
The centre used the HTC Vive VR equipment which won a host of awards at CES 2016 including “Best Gaming Product” amongst others. The equipment, as you can see in the picture below, comprises a headset and two wireless handheld controllers, as well as motion tracking base stations which allow 360° movement tracking. There were also headphones which play music and sound from the games.
The equipment is undoubtedly very impressive and for an able-bodied person it would be fantastic. But for someone like me who can hardly move their arms, the hand controllers are unusable.
You have to be able to hold the controllers in your hand and wave them around to do things in the game, like shining a torch around. Because of the motion tracking technology wherever you move the controller in real life is mirrored in the VR game. So I had to get my carer to move the controllers for me which takes away some of the fun from the experience.
Wearing the headset was fine but you need to get it in just the right position for the picture to be clear, and it had a habit of sliding down on my head. You can look around 360° in the VR world but I had to do this by spinning my powerchair around. Being in a narrow room I had to be careful not to crash into the real world walls while spinning around, so this had to be done painfully slowly.
“But what about the games?!” I hear you cry.
Well the games and the graphics are fantastic, and very realistic. I went to the floor of a deep ocean abyss and looked at a whale carcass, I explored a tomb in ancient Egypt, and had a close encounter with a blue whale.
There were also two Star Wars games, part of the Disney films app, which were my favourites. In one of them you ride a speed racer across the Jakku desert, and in another you are a Jakku spy. It has a mini storyline and takes you through a number of different missions involving tie fighters, light sabres and droids. It was really cool.
There was also a VR of the world premiere of Captain America where you stand on the side of the red carpet and can watch the stars go by.
One of the most visually striking was a tribute to Van Gogh where you can walk through van Gogh’s painting “The Night Cafe” which was made into a 3-D world. All the 3-D interior and the people had van Gogh’s painting style appearance and were animated, which looked amazing.
There were hundreds of other games that I didn’t have time to try ranging from a horror zombie game to one where you can draw three-dimensional pictures. But I’m not sure how many of them I would actually be able to enjoy completely independently.
So my verdict of the whole experience was that the VR technology and the games were visually amazing, and can be a lot of fun. IF you can hold and wave the controllers. IF you can turn around 360° independently. I couldn’t, so I didn’t truly feel immersed in the virtual world. This is disappointing because the point of VR is to totally immerse you in the virtual environment, to make you feel like you are actually there, and it just didn’t do that for me. So for people with severe disabilities the experience might be a bit of a let down. But this was just my experience, you should definitely try it out for yourself.
To be honest, without using the hand controllers, I can get a similar experience at home using VR apps on my smart phone and a £15 headset that I bought online.
Saying all that, VR has huge potential. I don’t see any reason why VR games can’t be developed with disabled people in mind. For example games that don’t require you to use handheld controllers, and ones where you can navigate your environment simply by moving your head. This would be a much more enjoyable and immersive experience for disabled people like me.*
I truly hope that games developers do make these games more inclusive for everyone, because for disabled people in particular VR can offer an unparalleled form of escapism. Virtual reality allows people to experience things that they would never be able to experience for real. For people with severe disabilities, who are often unable to do things that most people take for granted, VR has the potential to be life changing by freeing us from the shackles of reality. It would be a travesty for disabled people to be denied the same VR experiences as able-bodied people. For us it’s not just a form of entertainment, it’s a gateway to freedom. An escape from a world of barriers and restrictions to a world of infinite possibilities.
* I have since been informed that there are games available that you don’t have to use the hand controllers. Sometime I will try these out and let you know what they are like.