It wasn't that the zombies were too realistic. I wasn't afraid for my life or anything silly like that. No, when I tried The Walking Dead in VR, what I chiefly saw was this: the disturbing possibility that virtual reality might get written off as a fad.
Virtual reality was huge at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo. Microsoft's HoloLens, Sony's Project Morpheus and the Oculus Rift were the talk of the show. (I overheard nearly as many conversations about VR as I did about Sony's epic Final Fantasy VII remake reveal.)
I'd wager that one of the reasons VR was such a popular topic, though, was because of how hard it was to try. Attendees waited in long lines just to get a quick peek, while other demos were only shown behind closed doors. (For example: HoloLens Minecraft.)
But you know what? You didn't need to wait in those long lines to see the cutting edge of VR technology. Right in the Los Angeles Convention Center lobby, a well-respected game developer called Starbreeze Studios was showing off a headset called StarVR — a headset with out-of-this-world specs.
We're talking gigantic, panoramic 5K images, with a field of view that truly blows other headsets away:
Plus a game with a name you've definitely heard of: The Walking Dead. They'd sit you down in a wheelchair, put a shotgun in your hands, and let you experience the zombie apocalypse first-hand. Who the hell would wait in line for Oculus when confronted with a pitch like that?
But here's the thing: good virtual reality is about a hell of a lot more than specs and brands. Though virtual reality experiences typically leave me enthralled, my reaction at the end of the Walking Dead demo was a mild headache and a general sense of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
It's not that the headset wasn't impressive in its own way. It really does have a huge field of view. Panoramic fresnel lenses not only let you see 210 degrees side to side, but also 130 degrees up and down. There's no tunnel vision, no blinders on the sides of your head. That's true. It's pretty cool how you can flip up the front of the headset when you want to pause, too.
But the things you see inside the current prototype headset — namely, a zombie apocalypse — you can't see them very well. Everything looked weirdly distorted or slightly out of focus. Unless the zombies were in just the right spots in my field of vision, they looked oddly blurry. I never felt like I was there, like I have, repeatedly, in other VR headsets.
Worse, it was clear that this particular Walking Dead video game hadn't been carefully designed for virtual reality. There are a lot of things that can make you sick in VR, and Starbreeze broke one of those cardinal rules: having my character's wheelchair-bound body turn around a corner without having my real body turn as well. That made me mildly carsick. The shotgun was a nice touch, grounding me in the world with an object that worked the same way in the game as in real life — pump-action and all — but I also could see my character's body contort weirdly as I tried to turn and shoot at some of the zombies around me.
What really grated on me, though, were the amusement park-like additions Starbreeze decided to tack onto the experience. At one point they decided to "push" my real-life wheelchair a bit to mimic being pushed in the game, and at another they had an employee grab my leg at roughly the same moment a zombie does in the experience. Since those aren't things I'd expect to have at home if I bought a headset, it felt pretty gimmicky.
After my demo, two of the headset's creators — Lionel Anton and Stephane Portes — assure me that the company won't release the headset in anything like the current state it's in right now. They're working on all kinds of different improvements to the technology, including adopting low-persistence OLED displays like Oculus and Sony use in their VR headsets, and chatting up Valve about possibly adopting their Lighthouse tracking technology. "We'll take our time to make the VR headset as good as possible, resisting any outside influences," said Anton.
Starbreeze CTO Emmanuel Marquez echoes the pair, assuring me just how committed the company is to the idea. He told me that the reason Starbreeze — a game publisher! — wanted to create a headset was to build a benchmark for virtual reality. To create the experiences that they themselves want to enjoy. "Why should we look inside of a box if we can make it a wide field of view like in real life?"
That's a pretty admirable goal, but Starbreeze isn't waiting until they're done to show it off. They're trumpeting to the world that they have already solved it. They're generating headlines like "Star VR Headset Combats Motion Sickness By Giving Users Peripheral Vision" and "StarVR: The rising virtual reality star that caught E3 by surprise." They plan to take StarVR on tour and show it to many, many more people.
Remember when 3D movies were going to be a big thing — only a lot of people ended up experiencing shitty 3D when they went to try it for the first time? Terrible experiences like Clash of the Titans instead of VFX masterpieces like Gravity and Coraline? They wrote it off as a fad. They decided 3D wasn't for them.
I wish Starbreeze and its VR team all the best. But I sure would hate for people to think that The Walking Dead and the current version of StarVR is anywhere near representative of what VR can offer. It can already be so much better.