by Brendan Lee, University of Victoria
What began with childlike excitement, ended in frustration laced with venomous rage. My inaugural entrance into the virtual realm, the 360-degree, VR film, “Kidnapped”, reminded me of a certain memorable Christmas morning.
It was the year 2000, I was an eight year old ball of energy, and it was finally the day! With the stocking ripped open, socks, pyjamas, and the new pair of ski mitts piled neatly on the couch, at last I opened my final gift. I peeled off the wrapping paper and immediately sprinted up the spiral staircase to my mom’s office, popped NHL 2001 into the disc drive and waited for the game to install.
With the loading bar 90% filled in, an alarm pinged, and the progress halted. A message popped up on the screen and told me the computer didn’t have the proper graphics card. My older brother translated: I wouldn’t be able to play the game. He ejected the disc, put it back in the case, and left the game to live on the shelf where it collected dust, never to be opened again. My wildest dreams were this close to reaching their potential. I held them firmly in my hands only to be forced out of my grasp by the technology; the tiny little dreams broken and shattered at my feet.
The game was brand new. Something I knew had the potential to be amazing, something I knew would be amazing, but, alas, was not for me. Maybe some day I’d be graced with something similar, but not this one. Not today.
Flash forward fifteen years and I’m that same little boy again. I hold Google’s inexpensive smartphone-to-VR viewer, the Google Cardboard, in my hands. I’d waited a week and a half for it to show up, so I quickly clip my smartphone into the viewer’s clunky ‘holder’ and load up a video. The film’s titled “Kidnapped” and is supposedly a fun, virtual experience with a narrative that weaves through. I hold the Cardboard to my face, press the play button, and look through the lenses. I prepare for full immersion.
The scene opens in a warehouse with three thugs discussing what to do with a person they’ve apparently kidnapped. The screen fades from black to white as the thugs notice me, the kidnap-ee, returning to consciousness.
I move my head to look around at my surroundings. Nothing happens. I move my head a little more. Still nothing.
This time, a mental ping pops into my head. I realize that as much as I move my head up, down, back and forth, absolutely nothing is going to happen. I ask Google for help to try to find out how to properly set up my phone but it seems I’ve done everything right. Then, finally, I find it. Apparently my phone, the Motorola G3, doesn’t have what’s called a ‘gyroscopic sensor’ so it lacks the ability to track movement, something absolutely essential in a VR headset.
Okay, okay, that’s upsetting but Christmas in October isn’t ruined just yet. I remember that my roommate has an old Samsung Galaxy so I ask him to borrow it. It has a bit of a crappy battery so I sit down on the carpet in my bedroom so that the phone can reach the charger. I open the movie, clip the phone into the Cardboard, press play, and, once again, look through the lenses. The kidnappers cliché banter starts up, the screen fades from black to the cavernous warehouse, they’re noticing me, and I’m almost fully immersed when, suddenly, I’m face planted with a not so elegant thunk right back into the phone’s home screen.
That’s weird and annoying…
I brush it off, repeat steps 1-5 over again, and this time the phone exits to the home screen before my nose even touches the viewer. Once more, a little more aggravated this time, I get the movie going and, about 10 seconds in I’m settling into the story when-
– right back to the home screen. I practically throw the piece of garbage on the floor.
With a few moments to cool off, I take a look at the phone. The Galaxy S5 has a strange home button that protrudes from the body of the phone, so that when I push the Cardboard viewer closed, it gets bumped and forces me out of the movie.
So I troubleshoot ways of potentially turning off the button’s functionalities, waste some more time, and then eventually decide to try to simply be gentle. After a few more tries and a few more non-consensual ejections, I get the movie rolling smoothly.
Or at least that’s what I think until I realize the screen is all blurry with the characters and visuals split like I’m 10 beers deep and bloated with double vision.
You cannot be serious.
The movie plays out with a slew of corny lines and gimmicky visual experiences- the kidnappers take me on a rollercoaster ride, float down a river, a sushi date etc. – as I crane my neck back and forth, all the while straining to hold one eye closed and keep the other in focus. The film ends with the three kidnappers getting in a hackneyed standoff that ends with a Tarantino-like triple homicide, leaving me feeling left out and wishing they’d spent one more bullet to shoot me in the face too.
None of this felt genuine, enjoyable, or anywhere close to the fully immersive, entirely virtual realm I’d imagined. Gone was the childlike wonder I’d shown up with. All that remained was a sad, anxious, eat-a-whole-tub-of-ice-cream-like frustration.
I realize that the quality of the film itself is not being fully discussed here. Perhaps if I’d spent a little more money on a better phone or a better viewer, the experience might have been enhanced. But when you’re told that anyone can turn their smartphone into a virtual reality machine with a cheap 20 dollar viewer like the Cardboard, you expect it to work, if only at least a little bit. And I think that just about sums it all up into a neat little nutshell.
There’s not much worse than blowing someone’s mind with the introduction of a brand new concept just to have that same technology, idea, or experience completely fail in practice. This first happened to me on a frosty Christmas morning now tinged with icy regret and, surprisingly, still happens all the time.
Virtual reality, at face value, sounds freaking amazing (and one day it will be). So when it’s anything less than freaking amazing, chalk up a point for the other guys. Maybe in a couple years or ten or twenty, the kinks will iron out and the medium will live, perhaps not on the same level, but maybein the same building as the god-like mediums of film, television and even video games. But when something like shoddily designed equipment gets in the way of stories more about exercising the VR gimmick than the stories themselves, it’s hard for the average viewer to really take the genre seriously. And until pricey gear like the $600 dollar Oculus Rift becomes more affordable, the future of VR will be just that: the future.
But damn, I wanted it to be good.