Virtual Reality

I finally tried VR.

Tech · 2450 words · 13 min read · 349 views

Twenty years ago, the video game Half-Life 2 so captured my adolescent mind for a time.

Before its release in 2004, expectations were riding high for Half-Life 2. I remember downloading a bootlegged, highly compressed video clip of in-game footage—these were the days before YouTube—that featured gameplay set to The Tea Party’s grunge cover of Paint It, Black. In it, the player battled his way through humanoid aliens (the Combine) down a war-ravaged street, with a realism beyond anything I’d ever seen in a video game.

Despite high expectations and a year-long delay—due to a leak that suggested less progress than expected—Half-Life 2 managed to almost universally surpass everyone’s expectations. (Valve co-founder Gabe Newell later commented that “Late is just for a little while. Suck is forever.”) It arguably outshone its prequel—1998’s Half-Life—in terms of superlative-laden reviews with perfect scores. Both are considered among the greatest video games of all time.

In the original Half-Life, a science experiment gone wrong opens a portal to another dimension—known as a “resonance cascade”—in the Black Mesa research facility in the New Mexico desert. Protagonist Dr. Gordon Freeman must shoot his way through aliens, as well as the marines sent in to neutralize everyone and everything at Black Mesa as a cover-up operation.

In Half-Life 2, you resume your role as Gordon Freeman twenty years later, starting in City 17, a dystopian European city controlled by the Combine (one of many alien factions that has invaded Earth). In addition to shooting, some memorable sequences include piloting a homemade airboat through the canals of City 17, and driving a barn-build car along remote coastal Highway 17. The physics engine in the game was ahead of its time: you could pick up items with a “gravity gun” and launch them through the air, a delightfully tactile means of dispatching virtual baddies.

At one point in the game, you enter a zombie-infested, former-mining town called Ravenholm. An unusually high concentration of circular saw blades and compressed gas tanks littered the area—projectiles for the aforementioned gravity gun. Zombies and headcrabs (they jump onto your head and turn you into a zombie) jump at you from all directions. Moments like this, an exquisite blend of terror, thrill, and virtual physics, permeate the game.

As a teenager with little impulse control, I spent many, many hours playing and re-playing Half-Life 2, including its related multi-player mod Counter-Strike: Source. I just could not get enough of it. To this day, I can recall nearly the entire plots of both Half-Life games.

Eventually I moved on to other things, but Half-Life 2 remained with me as the kind of technological advancement that did not happen every year—more like a one-in-five-or-more-year leap forward, which seemed a lot to a fifteen year old.

As technology marches relentlessly forward, the prices of next-generation gadgets inevitably drop. In the spirit of being both well behind the curve and frugal when it comes to PC hardware, I have avoided trying Virtual Reality (VR) headsets until they dropped significantly in price. As well, being a late adopter also means that the inevitable rough edges of first-generation products have more time to get refined (some early VR headsets required you to set up external base stations to track your motion in three-dimensional space, while newer ones do this all internally.)

There are many VR headset offerings today, ranging from a few hundred dollars to many thousands of dollars. Because of its outrageous price—$3499 USD—the Apple Vision Pro, released in February 2024, is clearly not the gadget to purchase for a cheap, low-commitment trial of VR. Instead, I waited until a used Oculus Quest 2 (since rebranded to the Meta Quest 2) appeared in my local classifieds for $175 CAD. (These go for $280 CAD + tax new.) It was finally time to try VR.

Phrases like “mind-blowing” and “game-changing” have been thrown around in tech for too long now, yet it really is a novel experience to put on a VR headset for the first time. In the Quest 2, you are placed in a virtual room with a re-positionable menu bar, analogous to what you’d find on a desktop operating system. Glasses fit on underneath the headset and are still required even if you are myopic as the headset’s lenses refract light to appear as if it is coming from a distance.

The resolution of the Quest 2 is such that everything is still fairly pixelated. While you can stream your PC desktop into the headset (and make your desktop wall sized), I wouldn’t try to do any actual work or reading in this headset. Resolution is something that will undoubtedly improve in time.

I had always found it interesting to watch YouTube videos about VR. While clips of people accidentally punching their drywall can be amusing, the two-dimensional medium of video never seemed to accurately portray a real sense of the three-dimensional VR experience. It really must be tried to be understood. Given this, I think the written word is a better medium for describing VR experiences. The telepathy of writing can be more effective at conveying this than a squashed, two-dimensional projection of three-dimensional space.

In YouTube videos where the in-headset content of someone using VR is piped out externally to a TV, such footage always appeared quite unstable to me—bobble-head motion reminiscent of pre-stabilized GoPro footage and hand positions flailing about haphazardly. I’ll report that the actual VR experience is much smoother than I expected: the hand controllers accurately translate the position of your hands into the virtual world, including when holding virtual objects.

The next question is what to actually do in VR. Meta made some starter apps to show you the basics of VR and want you to further engage in the Metaverse ecosystem of apps, though I never get very far with these. In YouTube VR, you can watch 2D videos on a virtual big screen, which is a clever way of inflating your screen size. 360° videos seemed gimmicky though—who wants to constantly rotate around instead of vegging out to watch a video? There are even attempts at promoting fitness in VR, though I’m going to keep doing my workouts outside.

To me, the big appeal of the Quest headset is its ability to be tethered to a PC. This allows the headset to piggyback off of the PCs more capable hardware and stream games into the headset. (Such a feature is notably absent on the Apple Vision Pro.) This streaming can happen over a cable, or wirelessly (more on this later).

Given the intro to this piece, the 2020 VR-exclusive title Half-Life: Alyx—a long overdue entry in the Half-Life franchise—is high on my list of things to try in VR. Also given how it is currently not on sale—it can occasionally be found for 66% off its retail price of $77.99 CAD—I have yet to try it. I suspect it will be discounted during the upcoming Steam Summer Sale. Nothing like spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on a gaming PC only to balk at sub-$100 software costs.

Two games I already own have do have VR compatibility: Star Wars: Squadrons and Microsoft Flight Simulator.

In Squadrons, you sit in the cockpit of an X-wing or TIE fighter, rendered in three-dimensional space. After some intro cutscenes, you launch a TIE fighter out of the hangar of a larger ship, able to look around freely while your ship flies in a straight line—a level of immersion I had never experienced previously. Like the leaked Half-Life 2 video of my youth, this was a bound ahead in technological advancement.

Before VR, people tried to approximate such wider fields-of-view using triple-monitor setups. I did try this back in the day but never felt that the cost and complexity of three monitors justified the marginally better experience. VR gives a more-than-marginal improvement to the peripheral-vision issue. Never before have I been able to twist my head to look out of a virtual X-wing window and see laser beams coming out of my S-foils—terrific!

The deeper immersion continues in Microsoft Flight Simulator (launched in 2020). I had purchased Flight Simulator on sale but hardly touched it before getting my VR headset. I’d been too impatient to properly learn all the controls and finish the virtual flight school. Flight Simulator was also released on Xbox and thus could be played with no more complicated an input device than an Xbox controller (more dedicated sim players purchase physical joysticks, throttles and pedals). I used an Xbox controller with my PC but found the button combinations confusing and cumbersome.

VR solves many of these control issues. As you sit in a 3D-rendered airplane cockpit, you can move your hands in 3D space and “press” buttons on the dashboard. No more needing to memorize which button or key toggles your landing gear—just hit the switch! Banked turns are terrific in VR too: you can look well ahead to where you are going.

A Dune expansion for Flight Simulator allows you to pilot an ornithopter around the deserts of Arrakis. The detail that went into modelling its behaviour is outstanding: you can fold your wings back mid-flight, dive toward the ground, then unfold your wings and goose the throttle to speed out of the drop as they do in the movies—fabulous!

The ornithopter is also available as an aircraft when playing in the virtual Earth. It’s far easier to pilot than regular helicopters—again, I skipped virtual flight school—so I set up a test flight with an ornithopter out of Revelstoke airport (YRV). I took off and flew over Mount Begbie and across the Monashees into the Okanagan, looping around Penticton then heading back toward Revy. I then followed Lower Arrow Lake all the way to West Kootenay Regional Airport (YCG) in Castlegar. (I got quite a kick out of the AI air-traffic controller deadpanning instructions as my “ornithopter” entered his airspace.) This is techno-geeking at its absolute finest.

I have not been so stunned by a software title in quite a few years. The detail that went into Flight Simulator—it even pipes in Bing satellite imagery of the Earth for enhanced realism—is mind-boggling. As I now work in software development, I have a slightly more nuanced appreciation for the amount of work that would have gone into Flight Simulator. It is orders of magnitude more complex than anything I have worked on. Well done, Microsoft.

The largest complaint about Flight Simulator is that there is not enough to do. After the initial excitement wears off, flying non-combat aircraft can become somewhat repetitive. An upcoming Flight Simulator 2024 should address this grievance, with tasks like search-and-rescue missions.

Next up is a game I had not known was available in VR until a few days after purchasing my headset: Half-Life 2. Or rather, a VR-compatible Half-Life 2 conversion mod. Some clever developers somehow updated the game to work in VR—and they nailed it. To pick up Gordon’s famous crowbar and see it swing in your virtual hand, to reload each of the weapons in ways uniquely suited to their physical nature (for the pistol, you drop the empty magazine, slot another one in, then release the slide), to manually line up gun iron sights, to dodge headcrabs flying into your face—is next-level immersion. The nostalgic throwback of replaying a twenty-year-old masterpiece, coupled with the fairly seamless integration of modern VR hardware (unimaginable in 2004) made this the most unanticipatedly delightful tech experience I have had in years.

Motion sickness during the vehicular sections in Half-Life 2 VR can get pretty real, though. As opposed to seated simulators (Squadrons and Flight Simulator), HL2: VR is best played in “room scale,” a virtual cubic or rectangular space marked out inside your home. Half-Life 2’s airboat moves nauseatingly quickly, but, after some getting used to, the queasiness becomes more manageable.

There is still some jankiness when it comes to PC tethering. Tethering can be done either over a USB-C cable, or wirelessly. Depending on which protocol you use, the means of pairing the headset is different: Quest Link for wired or wireless connections, or Steam link (download it from the meta store) as an alternative wireless connection.

In years past, you needed to buy an overpriced official Oculus USB-C cable to connect to your PC. Now, you can use any USB-C cable—suggested length of 15 feet—with USB 3 speeds (2.5 Gbps). I found the cable to work best for Flight Simulator, while connecting wirelessly resulted in much higher CPU usage and unusably low frame rates. Contrastingly, Squadrons over the cable consistently gave me a black screen of death, while wireless worked far more reliably. Half-Life 2: VR is best played wirelessly, so you don’t have to worry about a cable twisting around yourself.

Wireless connection works best with WiFi 6-capable hardware, either the D-Link VR Air Bridge, a WiFi 6 router, or hot spotting directly to your PC (if it has a wireless card). Steam link also requires that your desktop computer have a hardwired ethernet cable. I don’t yet have any WiFi 6 hardware, but connecting my headset directly to my PC’s WiFi 5 hotspot resulted in usable performance, if occasionally laggy and prone to disconnection.

Wireless battery life for the Quest 2 is about two hours. I don’t see why I’d want more than that. If your headset runs out of power, take a break and go outside.

The first generation of a new gadget usually goes through a phase of determining its raison d’être. The Apple Watch, launched with uncertainty about what it was actually useful for, has largely become a fitness tracker. I think VR is still trying to figure this out. The metaverse has tanked, and The Verge couldn’t get past the loneliness of Apple Vision Pro. I have found little use for VR beyond a gaming and simulation enhancer, marvelous as it may be for that.

In this age of digital distraction, I must include my usual exhortation about building healthy boundaries around technology. When an innovative new technology like VR comes along, it can be tempting to over-engage with it, as I did with Half-Life 2 in my youth. (And I’ve said nothing thus far about all the time spent playing violent video games, which are perhaps not the best thing to celebrate.)

As such, I have found my current strategy of second-wave adoption and being “as arbitrarily and absurdly stingy as possible” on tech toys to be far more life-giving than overspending on hardware that drops in value as quickly as an ornithopter in free fall. Furthermore, my ongoing social experiment in playing used-market roulette has become an unexpectedly delightful source of hilarity. Instead of thinking of it as an exercise in frustration, think of it as a contest to see just how flaky people can be (this Quest 2 purchase was fine, though).

$175 and a few rainy afternoons well spent.

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