Science fiction predicted virtual reality headsets in the early 1950s, but it’s taken over half a century for the concept to to materialise in any convincing form. The dawn of VR is finally here but, as with a lot of new technology, most simply can’t afford it. Currently there are two major players competing in the VR headset industry: the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive. The former is a cheaper option (at £499), but lacks some of the features of the Vive. Unlike the Rift – which offers head-tracking only – the Vive (priced £689) actually places the player in an environment, allowing them to explore it by physically walking through a space – while this is a feature advantage, it also means you have to dedicate a room to the tech.
The technology has come a long way since 1995 when Nintendo’s early VR misfire, the Virtual Boy, launched, but many of the criticisms leveled at that ill-fated device still stand today: it’s too expensive, it’s tethered and it’s kind of antisocial. While technology has advanced sufficiently enough to transport us to a believable virtual environment, these barriers mean it will be a while before it becomes mainstream. There is a chance Sony’s cheaper headset, PlayStation VR, will have better luck cracking the mass market, but it is unlikely to have the same technical oomph as Rift or Vive.
It is these barriers that prompted Simon Adderley to create the recently opened Tension VR, the UK’s first virtual reality centre. Located in a disused church in Lincoln, Lincolnshire, Tension VR aims to bring VR experiences to anyone who wants to try. Adderley says he chose Lincoln because he likes how the city – with its famous cathedral, cobbled streets and cutting-edge university – is a perfect blend of the old and the new, just like the building Tension VR is housed inside.
For Adderley, it all began five years ago when he went to Gamescom with his son and saw the Oculus Rift prototype launch in a tiny booth at the Cologne-based videogames conference. “I knew even at that stage that VR was going to be a complete game changer,” Adderley tells me. “I took that experience, watched the progression, saw where it was going – and I fully intended to have Oculus, but the Vive with its spatial awareness is just a different league altogether.
“I could see that it was something the world didn’t know it wanted until it arrived. I truly believe that there’s never been a period where something has been developed that is wanted by so many, yet afforded by so few. It’s not even just about the expense – for virtual reality you need space and so many people are living in spaces that are too small, whereas we’ve created perfect-sized rooms to do it.
Upstairs, Tension VR is decked out with graphic walls teasing some of the VR experiences available, as well as some from non-VR games such as Overwatch. From the reception, a small corridor stretches out, lit up in blue neon, with each perfectly-sized room branching off. Each of these is manned by a member of staff who will load any games you want on, deal with any technical issues, talk you through the games and stop you from tripping over the headset’s trailing wire – another downside to room-scale VR at home.
The sampling of games I tried was impressive, with both more traditional titles and immersive experiences on offer. At one point I was at the bottom of the ocean on a downed ship, face-to-face with a giant blue whale. Another experience transported me inside a living Vincent Van Gogh painting that I could freely wander around, poking my head through a window and seeing a starry night in motion. I even ended up inside Van Gogh at one point, and how many people can claim that? The more traditional games saw me blocking coloured projectiles to the beat with Audioshield, downing sci-fi drones with dual pistols in Space Pirate Trainer and tackling minigames in Valve’s The Lab.
“One of the other reasons we’ve gone with the HTC Vive was because the hand controllers are such a natural extension of you,” Adderley explains. “You don’t need any technical knowledge at all – we are the technical knowledge. VR isn’t just about young gamers, VR is an experience for everyone. We had a gentleman who was a 65-year-old church-goer who didn’t even own a computer, didn’t know what it was all about. He put it on and within four minutes he got it and was whooping and hollering with excitement. It’s so rewarding.”
The team is looking at bringing these experiences to even more people in the future, with packages planned for school visits, as well as therapies for autistic children and stroke victims. The aim is to provide stimulation to the latter two groups and use VR as an educational tool in schools, taking 15 or so headsets along to lessons around the region. Tension VR is also planning to put something together to compliment universities, with the possibility of outsourcing facilities to those without the budget to set one up.
In the immediate future, there are plans to add in a green room so they can record players within the virtual environments, letting their friends watch them play in the 3D space and allowing the player to take home a DVD of their experience. Additionally, people will soon be able to 3D print their art creations made with Google’s Tilt Brush, a VR application for painting gorgeous 3D art with neon strokes.
By the time I left I was convinced that the Vive is an amazing experience, albeit one more suited to this kind of environment than in your own home. There were a couple of times when the controller stuck a wall, and the room host was always there to make sure I didn’t trip over the wire as I dodged around the room. I have a feeling the Vive could end up being far more expensive than the initial cost if used in your living room. With facilities like Tension VR, at least you can try it for yourself before putting down the hefty cost.
Tension VR is located at 53 Croft Street, Lincoln. Prices start at £40 per hour and this can be shared between up to four people.