Virtual reality, augmented fun?

Person in headset and virtual reality googles hold out hands at eye level
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Ten years ago, if you were to see a begoggled man standing in the center of his living room flailing his arms wildly in every direction, you’d have assumed, quite rightly, that he was unhinged. “One banana short of a bunch,” you’d think to yourself as you walked briskly past his window.

Today, however, one can’t be so quick to judge. Just a little while ago, that man was me, and I can say, with some degree of certainty, that I am not unhinged. Addicted to technology and abysmal at virtual reality, or VR, video games, sure, but not unhinged.

The game I was playing that day is called Beat Saber. It’s like the mobile app Fruit Ninja, except instead of slicing large melons with a sword, you slash oncoming neon cubes with a pair of lightsabers. The twist: Beat Saber is set to music, so the player must slash every cube, with the corresponding lightsaber and in the indicated direction, in time with the rhythm of a chosen song. Speed and difficulty vary, ranging from tame hits on-beat to complex guitar solos and fast-paced EDM tracks that resemble high-intensity aerobic workouts.

Admittedly, I was rather hesitant to try my hand at Beat Saber because, quite frankly, you look ridiculous playing it. During the game, players must periodically duck below walls and dodge a myriad of other fast-approaching obstacles in order to avoid imminent death. To the player, these obstacles seem undeniably real: were you to miss a side-step, an electrified wall would knock you unconscious and fry you to a crisp. 

But, of course, the objects are visible only to the player. They don’t actually exist, so to onlookers, the individual in question appears to be squirming in the middle of the living room for absolutely no reason at all, as though they’ve been tossed into a swimming pool without yet having learned how to swim. 

Wary of embarrassing myself, I decided to let my friends play first. Eventually, I gave in. 

If you’ve never tried it, VR really is quite disorienting. The unwieldy goggles, fixed to your face by a harness, block out all natural light so that the only images you can see are those displayed inside the headset. If, in reality, you were standing at the edge of a cliff or on the shoulder of a freeway, you’d never really know it. 

The goggles come with headphones too, which muffle most ambient noise. Any sounds or voices heard beneath Beat Saber’s musical soundtrack are faint and very much disembodied and ghost-like. Wearing the headset, you remain virtually unaware of any physical presence around you, human or otherwise. 

Some consider VR to be an antisocial and isolating pastime, devoid of any meaningful connection. And in many ways, I’m inclined to agree. After only a few minutes under the headset, I was desperate to return to reality, to see something beyond the three-dimensional realm projected before me. While playing Beat Saber, even my sense of touch grew disincarnate: you can almost perceive a mass and resistance in the virtual blocks you slice. It truly felt as though I’d been transported out of the living room and dropped into a peopleless dystopia filled only with colorful beams of light.

If, in reality, you were standing at the edge of a cliff or on the shoulder of a freeway, you’d never really know it. 

But as it turns out, I wasn’t entirely alone. 

There’s a feature in VR games now that lets users broadcast their experiences onto a TV or a monitor. While viewers have no effect on the game, they can hear the same music and watch the same screen as the player wearing the headset. So even though I was the only one of my friends wearing the goggles, and thus the only one fully immersed in the illusory reality, they all could accompany me as I slashed my way, floating cube by floating cube, through the virtual world. 

In spite of the dissociation facilitated by the VR headset, my friends and I still remained very much connected that day — not only digitally, but also physically. We all gathered around the TV to watch each other play, laughing and cringing at our semivacant, begoggled friends as we made complete fools of ourselves. I was a verifiable klutz, but some of my friends proved masterful, slicing and stabbing thin air with the calculated precision of trained swordspeople.

In the end, our adventures into the world of Beat Saber seemed grounded just as much in the living room as in that virtual dystopia. What I had assumed at first to be a solitary experience turned out to be a strikingly collective one, like a 21st-century version of charades. Not that charades has become obsolete in our tech-obsessed world, but why simply act out scenes when one could use a clunky goggle-harness instead?

Contact Jericho Rajninger at [email protected].