I did not think it was possible to get bored of TV, but four months of lockdown has cured my undiagnosed addiction to television.
My days of passively and endlessly absorbing obscure American sitcoms as a child - and later ploughing hours into high drama programming of varying quality - are, for now, in the past. The dopamine hit I get from a good show is harder to chase because I’ve spent a quarter of the year over-indulging in TV.
But another content service has filled the gap left behind by my new indifference to TV, VR.
The HTC Vive Cosmos I’ve been sporadically using for the last couple of weeks has offered a brief, pixelated, escape from the humdrum of lockdown life.
I should say that I’m on record as being a VR sceptic. Years of doing this job means I’ve been invited to “VR experiences” that would’ve been far more interesting as a scribbled description of an experience on a post-it note.
But, but, I’m coming around to VR. Perhaps it was a dramatic improvement in the hardware and quality of games/apps, or maybe it was the unprecedented crackdown on our everyday movements for four months in the face of a murderous global pandemic. Or maybe a bit of both. But something has clearly changed.
My first stop was setting up and navigating the headset. The Cosmos is good for the casual VR user with a passing interest in the technology (and a bit of cash) because it doesn’t require base stations fixed to walls to track your movements - it’s all done in the headset.
It’s reasonably accurate too. My movements didn’t feel out of sync with what was being beamed into my eyes, although you need to make sure your room is decently lit for it to work properly.
Installation is more about connecting your PC to the headset and hoping the Viveport software registers that you’ve connected everything properly. Yes, this took a couple of restarts but I got there. With several new cables spilling out of my PC that add to the already tagliatelle-like mess that is my work area, I was good to go.
The Viveport app, which is where you find and buy content to play and watch, is frankly painful to use. It's slow and discovery isn’t great. You aren’t offered a basic description of an app, just an image and the app’s title, which means you have to click on it to see what the content is about and if it's compatible, which takes an age. Do your research of what you want to download before you fire up Viveport.
The HTC Vive Cosmos and Viveport.
In VR, though, it’s glorious. Four years ago I described the VR experience as “like watching a VHS through greaseproof paper”. I’m happy to report that I’m upgrading the greaseproof paper analogy to high-end clingfilm (does clingfilm come in high-end?).
This of course depends on what tech you’re using. The Cosmos sports a 2880 x 1700-pixel screen - or 1440 x 1700 pixels for each eye - which is a higher resolution than what’s on offer from the more expensive Valve Index or cheaper Oculus Rift S.
I’ve been dipping in and out of games and apps since I started using the Cosmos, so I can’t quite remember where exactly I started. But Half Life Aylx has undoubtedly had the biggest impact on me. As countless other reviews have mentioned, this is uncharted territory for VR.
Blighted by demoware or shooting galleries, Alyx is something that stands completely alone as a VR game. The very first few seconds in the game when stood on a balcony, overlooking City 17, is like nothing I have ever experienced in gaming before.
Yes it’s a bit blurry, yes the headset is a bit awkward and the tageatieli of cables - now twisted to a point where they will never be untwisted - are distracting. But they’re not a distraction when a Strider climbs over a building meters from my face.
I see now why Valve went for VR. Half Life is as much about the world and environment as it is about the story and shooting. Literally stepping into the Half Life universe takes the experience to another level and I loved every second of it, apart from when I was terrified. Which was all of the time.
There is, of course, a fair amount of getting used to movements in the Half Life world. You do everything manually. Want to reload your gun? You need to get rid of the empty magazine, fire the last shot, pull out a new magazine from your bag - by reaching behind you - put the new magazine in by jamming it into the bottom of your gun and then cock the handle (apologies to all the people who have held real guns if I’ve butchered the description of this process, us Brits only know the power of water pistols).
The rigmarole of manually reloading a gun was surprisingly fun, if a bit frustrating - and terrifying - in the middle of a gun fight. But that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s an entirely new experience. Or, at least, uncommon enough to cloak itself in all of the glory that comes with being "new".
As I took a break from shooting aliens, I found some edutainment in another extraterrestrial experience: driving a buggy on the Moon in the Apollo 17 Moonbuggy VR experience.
I wouldn’t say it’s a polished VR experience, mostly because it appears to have been built for another HTC device, so the controls don’t quite match up. But, again, that was overshadowed by the spectacle of being in Mission Control as nervous science folks prepare for a mission.
There’s something genuinely grand about standing in the middle of one of humanity’s greatest achievements. The never-ending, monotonous, background talk of Mission Control only deepens the immersion and I was, for a brief time, happy to just listen and look around that big office in Houston - and later on the Moon.
But being stood in the vast darkness of the Moon, looking down on the Earth, with a motionless astronaut eventually turned the experience into an accidental horror.
Speaking of dread, there’s a disproportionately high amount of horror experiences in the Viveport store. VRZ Torment offers players the opportunity to “run, kill, die repeat”. I’m alright mate, thanks.
If you ever want to know what it’s like to be locked up in a haunted psychiatric hospital, be endlessly chased by things or, you know, dip your toe into the world of the paranormal you’re not short on options. I am, however, short on courage so I kept those experiences to a minimum.
Less terrifying was the American Natural History’s T.Rex: Skeleton Crew experience, where you put together a scientifically accurate skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex bone-by-bone. Once complete, the ancient predator gains some skin and romps around a marshland in 66 million-year-old Montana. I lost myself briefly in this as I found and added bones whilst being given a mini history lesson.
On films, which appears to be an underrepresented genre in VR, I found Gloomy Eyes entertaining and emotional. It's a Gothic, Tim Butron-inspired animated love story that's narrated by Collin Farrell and features a zombie protagonist that falls in love with a human girl. It's well told, makes use of the VR medium well and won some awards for precisely those reasons.
There isn’t the polished content - or polished software experience - you’ll get with Netflix or Amazon Prime Video (not universally, at least). Am I going to spend four hours watching back-to-back episodes of an engrossing cop drama in VR? Unlikely. The headset isn't comfortable enough for that type of prolonged use and I’m not even sure that content exists in VR.
This is my main criticism: apart from some stand-out titles, much of what’s on offer still feels a bit version one. There isn’t a critical mass of must-see VR content or the assurance of a minimum level of quality, yet. TV has a never ending list of big draws like Snowpiercer, The Last Dance or Homecoming - VR has a much shallower bench.
There are only a handful of reasons to buy an expensive VR headset and then pay $12.99 a month for the Viveport Infinity subscription service (you don’t have to subscribe to use the Cosmos, you can pay for each individual VR game or app). Whereas there are a lot of reasons to pay Netflix $12.99 a month with no additional hardware costs, which is one reason why VR hasn’t really taken off in the same way.
But what I did play and watch offered something different. TV streaming services have traditional TV content wrapped up whilst VR is offering an alternative type of interactive entertainment. It costs more, but you get something unique that engages and entertains in new ways.
I spent hours in Half Life Aylx, Gloomy Eyes and building the T.Rex - losing myself in their respective stories and experiences. There are strong narrative documentary and film experiences too, like Memoria: Stories of Lake Garma, which tells a story about a well-preserved cave that a group of humans once occupied 16500 years ago.
I don’t know if VR is quite there yet, but it’s far enough along to have stolen my attention in the last few weeks. The perfect storm of lockdown cabin fever and an overindulgence in traditional TV probably helped, too. But there’s no denying the fun I’ve had in virtual worlds.