I have wanted to love virtual reality for a really long time.
More than two decades ago, when I was a preteen, I saved up my allowance to buy the original Virtual Boy, an early V.R. gaming console made by Nintendo. The Virtual Boy was an infamous commercial flop, with laughably primitive 3-D graphics and a janky plastic headset that gave me splitting headaches. But I was transfixed by the idea of a technology that could transport me to another world, even if it was only to play Mario Tennis.
Since then, I’ve tested maybe a dozen V.R. headsets, ranging from cheap Google Cardboard models to ultra-high-end gaming rigs. And every time, I’ve found myself excited by the promise of futuristic V.R., and disappointed by the inevitable letdown of experiencing the actual limited systems.
Last month, when it became clear that we’d all be stuck inside our homes for weeks on end, I decided to give V.R. another try. After all, what better time to escape into virtual reality than a pandemic? I hoped it would give me a break from my daily doomsurfing routine. And if I was lucky, maybe I would encounter new ways to stay entertained and connected from the safety of my home.
The good news is that, in technical terms, today’s V.R. systems are miles ahead of their predecessors. Many newer systems feature realistic graphics and motion capture, and there are some genuinely great games and entertainment apps out there. If you’re a gamer, a movie buff or just a person suffering from cabin fever in quarantine, there are worse ways to spend a few hundred bucks than on an entry-level V.R. headset.
The bad news is that V.R. is still not what sci-fi movies taught us to hope for — a fully immersive experience that transports us to another dimension and gives us all kinds of virtual superpowers. Even the leading systems still lack some basic features and, outside of gaming, there isn’t much you can do on a V.R. headset that you can’t do more easily on another device.
I’m not giving up hope yet. But after several weeks of testing, I suspect that the future of lifelike digital interactions will not be found inside V.R. headsets and computerized goggles, but instead will be built on top of the less flashy technology we’re already using.
My first task was tracking down a virtual reality headset, which turned out to be surprisingly hard. Popular V.R. systems like the Oculus Quest and PlayStation VR have been sold out for months online, and when I looked, new models were selling on eBay for hundreds of dollars above their retail price. I was lucky enough to snag one of the last remaining Oculus Go units — the brand’s cheaper, low-end model, which starts at $149 for a 32-gigabyte version — on Amazon. (Oculus, which is owned by Facebook, later sent me a Quest, the company’s higher-end model, which starts at $399 and includes two controllers, but it didn’t arrive in time for me to test.)
Unsurprisingly, the virus outbreak has been good for V.R. makers. IDC, a company that compiles data about the industry, said it expected sales of stand-alone V.R. headsets to grow 30 percent in 2020. Industry insiders told me that sales and use of V.R. apps had grown since lockdowns began, and that the growth would be higher if popular headsets were not back-ordered. Facebook said this week that it had made nearly $300 million in non-advertising revenue during the first quarter, a year-over-year increase of roughly 80 percent that the company said had been driven largely by increased Oculus sales.
“Weekend usage is up, but weekday usage is really way up,” Andrew Bosworth, Facebook’s head of virtual and augmented reality, said in an interview. “People are filling in what would have been normal parts of their weekday — working out, hanging out with friends — with V.R.”
To get the most out of my virtual reality experience, I brought in an expert guide: Mike Cussell, who makes popular videos on YouTube under the handle “Virtual Reality Oasis.”
His first piece of advice was to experiment with so-called social V.R. apps — programs that allow multiple users to congregate in a virtual space. The simulated presence these apps offer, he said, is part of what distinguishes them from other digital communication tools.
“You could sit with your best friend from the other side of the world in a V.R. cinema and watch a movie together,” Mr. Cussell said. “You can’t do that on a Zoom call.”
To show me what he meant, Mr. Cussell — or rather his bald, round-faced cartoon avatar — met my avatar in the lobby of Bigscreen, a V.R. app that allows groups of people to watch movies together. He invited me into a virtual theater outfitted with stadium-style seating. We watched a few movie trailers, and while the graphics were impressive, the overall experience felt more gimmicky than transformative. Watching “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” in 3-D for a few minutes is fun, but it’s harder to imagine enjoying a 90-minute movie with a bulky, battery-heated headset strapped to your head. (Plus, while Bigscreen does have a virtual concession stand — and even a feature that allows you to fling animated popcorn at your avatar’s face — it’s hardly as good as eating actual movie snacks.)
Oculus, which Facebook acquired in 2014, has a number of built-in chat features that connect with your existing social graph. But few of my real-life friends and family members own V.R. headsets, which limited my options. Mr. Cussell said I shouldn’t let that stop me from having a virtual social life.
“Part of the fun is making new friends,” he said. “It feels much more personal when someone actually approaches you, is in your physical space, and engages with you.”
I spent some time trying to make friends on some of the social apps Mr. Cussell recommended, like AltSpaceVR, a kind of town square where groups of people can gather to hold concerts, play games and talk to one another. But those apps didn’t do much for me, either. The AltSpace “parties” I went to mostly seemed to consist of strangers parading their avatars around in circles, making small talk about the coronavirus and joking about V.R. social etiquette. (One host advised us that the rules of his V.R. house party were simple: Don’t be a jerk, and don’t hit on underage girls.)
Despite Mr. Cussell’s advice, the best V.R. experiences I found were the solitary ones that didn’t involve any social interaction at all. Like Nature Treks VR, a game that allows you to float around serene meadows and pristine beaches while a soothing soundscape plays. Or Real VR Fishing, an app that lets you scout for prize catches in a series of simulated lakes and rivers.
I also took advantage of the many available V.R. travel apps. One night, after I did a guided V.R. meditation and spent 20 minutes walking around a 3-D rendering of Zion National Park, I realized I felt more relaxed than I had in weeks.
Escapism is virtual reality’s strong suit, and it’s why major gaming studios are developing more big-budget games for platforms like Oculus and PlayStation VR. But sci-fi and industry hype has always promised us that the technology would replace more than just our consoles. Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, has called V.R. “the next major computing and communication platform,” and other V.R. leaders have predicted that we will eventually use it for everything from workplace collaboration to sex.
Part of the problem for virtual reality enthusiasts is that much of what a V.R. headset offers can be found in other places. Fortnite, for example, has become a venue for concerts and other large virtual gatherings. (A concert by the hip-hop artist Travis Scott last week drew more than 12 million viewers.) Animal Crossing, a whimsical Nintendo Switch game, has become a surprise quarantine hit. Millions of people are using Zoom and other video-chat apps to hold virtual game nights, cocktail parties and yoga classes on their laptops and phones, without the need for special hardware.
These experiences aren’t fully immersive, in the same way that virtual reality is. But they may not need to be. After all, the breakout moment for augmented reality — V.R.’s chiller, more pragmatic cousin, which involves projecting digital objects onto physical spaces — wasn’t fancy Magic Leap goggles or Hololens gadgets but a Snapchat filter that let you turn yourself into a dancing hot dog. We are creatures of habit, and it may be that people simply prefer virtual experiences that don’t require them to strap an expensive computer to their forehead.
I told Mr. Cussell, my V.R. tour guide, that I was still unsure whether my preteen dream of a mass-market virtual reality experience, filled with lifelike experiences and plenty of my actual friends, would ever come to fruition. He conceded that stand-alone V.R. headsets might remain a niche product for nerds like us. But he said that if anything could push the technology into the mainstream for good, it would be a global pandemic that shut people out of the physical world, starved them of social interaction and made them long for a return to normalcy.
“Now, more than ever, people could really do with an escape from reality,” he said.