Nothing could have prepared me for my first few steps into virtual reality. I could go on and on, over the course of a few paragraphs, try and get as in depth about the experience as could possibly be done. But it wouldn’t be worth a cent. Nothing can do that kind of experience justice save for putting on the goggles and entering the brand new world yourself.
Back in April of this year, I remember hearing that 2016’s incarnation of the University of Victoria’s “unicorn class”, WRIT 420, was going to comprise of an experiment of the virtual variety. I recall feeling let down, bummed out that instead of having the chance to put together what I knew would be a solid short film, the class would be stumbling into uncharted territory and taking a chance on a medium that the industry’s experts only barely have a grasp on. When the faculty announced that the students would be able to submit their scripts to be picked for production in the fall, I was so out of sorts and out of motivation that I didn’t even attempt a draft. Most classmates held similar opinions, and by the time September rolled around very little had changed. Regular class began, most of us were given small glimpses into VR at the hands of dinky smartphone headsets like the Google Cardboard, but even those short, slightly entertaining experiences weren’t enough to sell the medium. By the time the production dates rolled around, I, along with most everyone in the class, seemed to be more excited about the flat version of the film we’d be shooting than the one in the round.
Something changed for me, however. It began with the chance to work on a documentary about the medium of VR. I went into the experience with low expectations; my mind was already practically made up. The more I researched about virtual reality – the state that it’s presently in, the hopes for the future, etc. – what became most apparent is that, when telling people about it, the reaction was unanimous. Whether it be my parents, my brother, my roommates, or my co-workers, each and everyone I told was ecstatic. Without fault, every time their eyes would light up in conversation at the thought, simply the idea, of virtual reality. That intrigued me.
Near the end of the semester, my mind seemed to slowly be making it’s way back around. Nothing had changed about the current state of VR. The Google Cardboard had done nothing besides annoy me. But it was the potential thought of what the genre might become, somewhere in the distant future. In late November, our documentary team ended up at Cloudhead Games in Qualicum Beach, Vancouver Island. Cloudhead is an independent, award winning, narrative VR game-studio currently working and excelling in the medium. The studio is based out of Qualicum’s old fire hall, and as we walked the halls, engaged in conversation with the CEO and crew, it became apparent that right here, in this small, cramped building, was the home of VR. This was where it had been hiding. The fact that a tiny production company working out of a building like this, in one of the smallest towns I’d ever been in, is leading the way for the industry made me remember that right, oh yeah, this medium isn’t even in it’s infancy. It’s not even close. As Maureen Bradley, our professor and founder of WRIT 420, put it, “maybe it’s just learning how to roll its head”.
At the very end of the trip to Cloudhead I had the chance to try out the first chapter of their game, Call of the Starseed. In the cavernous garage of the fire hall, I was given a headset, hand controllers, noise cancelling headphones, and, finally, the chance to fully understand. I stood in a new world, amidst a sort of logic-defying elevator, floating and ascending inside what looked to be a realm full of vibrant colours, blues and yellows, rough, raw and real textures, pieces and parts of shapes flying past me. At the top of the strange elevator, after a bone-chilling conversation with a man who told me something along the lines of “you have the power within you,” I pointed my hand towards the sky, pulled the trigger, and instantly flew upwards through a portal, a doorway into time and space. I quite literally soared with every inch of me. After what could easily have been an eternity in there, the journey ended, my vision faded to black, and at last I remembered the outside world still existed around me. First, they took back my hand controllers, next went the headphones, I could hear again, and lastly were the goggles.
As the familiar white fluorescents of the real world hit the sensors in my eyes and returned me to the only reality I’d ever known, all I wanted was to go back. All I wanted was another chance at the infinite possibilities of that new, virtual realm. I haven’t shaken that feeling since.
— Brendan Lee