Virtual reality is going to lead to real carnage, and maybe some cheap laughs

Coming soon to YouTube: videos of people injuring themselves and destroying property while deep in the throes of virtual reality.

I almost learnt this the hard way the other day while playing with the HTC Vive VR headset. I was trying an early, as-yet-unreleased version of a game called Budget Cuts, a puzzle-solving spy adventure being developed by Stockholm-based Neat Corp.

The demo has you sneaking around an office tower looking for your hidden résumé. Killer robot guards patrol the building – you need to keep away from them. Staying hidden means you have to routinely poke your head around walls and other obstacles to see if the coast is clear.

I was doing just that – peering through a vent in a wall to see if the hallway on the other side was clear – when I nearly took my tumble.

If you were to stick your head through a vent in real life, you would ordinarily hold on to the wall around it so you could see further to the other side. Those physics just don’t exist in VR – at least not until swarms of micro­scopic nanobots are able to create full-on Holodecks that we can actually touch and feel, like in Star Trek.

Luckily, the subconscious part of my brain was still aware that I was in virtual reality – and not real reality – so I caught myself before taking a spill.

I told one of the HTC representatives present about the near slip and he admitted that he had had a similar experience, also while playing Budget Cuts.

He had been prowling around in the space above the ceiling, trying to look down into the offices below. Already crouched because of the tight space, he was straining to get a better look through the ceiling tile he had removed when – plunk – he knocked his face into the floor. Ouch.

The coming wave of people misjudging their physical space thanks to being lost in a virtual one will surely produce some uproarious instances of YouTube entertainment. As America’s Funniest Home Videos and the Jackass TV and movie franchise have proved, there’s nothing more hilarious than watching people fall down and injure themselves. Unless you’re the one getting hurt, of course.

It’ll be an evolution of sorts from the rash of photos of smashed television screens that circulated online about a decade ago, the result of people losing their grips on Nintendo Wii controllers while frantically waving them around.

Sure, those things had ­safety wrist straps, but did anyone actually use them? Some inevitably flew across the room and into screens. The photos were funny. Unless, again, you’re the one whose TV screen is getting wrecked.

With VR, the carnage potential ramps up significantly. Full-on falls and injuries, smashed furniture, thrown controllers – the Vive’s handhelds also have wrist straps, which many users will also ignore – all are sure to be documented and shared by bemused onlookers.

There’s also the issue of the leash. With heavy-duty processing power required to render virtual environments, VR users will be tethered to the com­puters or game consoles that make it all work. Fully immersive VR over a wireless connection is a long way away, and no, the basic kind being delivered by smartphones and cardboard headsets doesn’t count.

That cable is going to cause a lot of falls. The faster the required movement in the vir­tual experience, the more likely they’ll be. I almost tripped myself several times in Budget Cuts while whirling to avoid patrol­ling robots.

On the plus side, virtual reality is going to let us bend physics in ways we can’t in the real world.

In another Vive demo, I found myself hiking near the top of one of the Cascade Mountains in Washington state. I’d just been on a real mountain a few days earlier, so I had an innate fear of going anywhere near a precipice.

My conscious brain overrode that subconscious fear, how­ever, and I stepped out into noth­ingness. I expected to fall, like a cartoon character with an anvil tied to his ankle, but instead I floated there.

I turned around to look back at the mountain cliff and couldn’t help but marvel at the completely novel view and experience. It was jaw-dropping.

Virtual reality is a double-­edged sword. We’re somehow going to have to learn where it begins and ends or we’re going to end up hurting ourselves – or at least providing the internet with some cheap laughs.

Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species


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