Oculus Go — First Thoughts

The first sign of trouble was when the new headset asked me to log in to Facebook. My good ol’ cardboard box never did that. Just strap it on and go. And now slick here needs my real name and email address and credit card info? Hey, what is this? We haven’t even been properly introduced yet.

Ten minutes later the headset was all set up. Pretty sure I ended up on an oculus mailing list or two, but we can worry about that later because a new reality awaits! Just Look at that wall of apps. Which one to try first?

The world of mobile VR was mostly new to me. I’ve been using an iPhone with Google Cardboard (of the actual Cardboard box variety) for a few years, but it sort of sucks for actual VR. It’s just a box after all. Great for modded reality though. Just a box after all.

With the Go, I was thrilled that I could make out objects closer than a foot in front of me in virtual space. Plus, most of what the Oculus store had on offer was new to me. So I went in fresh, booting up a rollercoaster app for the first time and half expecting to rip off the headset when the ride became too intense. Wowee! Here we go!!!!!

And then I sat there. And sat there. And the world was zipping by around me. And I felt nothing.

There must be something wrong, thought I after the so-called ride was over, Perhaps this app was just developed by the same incompetents who created Universal Studios Theme Parks Adventure. Never mind that it had been on the front page…

So I tried another. This one had like 4+ stars too so it must be good. Same deal. And another (there are surprising number of rollercoaster apps). More of the same.

How did they make rollercoasters so dull! I lamented, Watching people ride the rollercoasters in Rollercoaster tycoon 1 was far more fun than this.

I double checked the review page. Still 4.3 stars. WTF? I must have missed something.

Back in. Just need to try another one. That ride to my left looks pretty good: tron like theme, light cycles, neon, and maybe even some electronica. I poked at it to start when BOOM! A popup. Seems they are charging $2.99 for this thing. Ah, so that’s the real game, I sighed. And so it went with just about every app I tried. A few minutes of dull content then the sales pitch.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t overpromise with their bold names and lofty proclamations of excitement and thrills and immersion. Many seem to almost demand excitement: Rollercoasters! Are you not entertained? Dinosaurs!! Are you not entertained? POV blowjobs!!! ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED!?!

And why looky here, this app promises to combine all three! So you spend a minute installing it and get all hyped up for the amazing adventure awaiting you inside, only to discover it’s shit. Worse, it’s shit that’s trying to upsell you on more shit. When this happens on your phone it is bad enough, but here it felt like a personal violation. Like having a friend invite you over for a board-game party and you get all hyped up and spend like an hour getting over there, only to discover when you show up that all they have is eight different flavors of Monopoly and that a bottle of Corona from the fridge will cost you $5.99.

That’s the problem with the Go. As impressive as the hardware is—crisp display, responsive tracking, self contained and comfortable to wear—after a few days playing around with it, I can’t help but feel: is this really all there is? I mean, I can sort of forgive a fishing game from having the gameplay depth of a kiddiepool, but why do games about shooting zombies in the old west or crafting magical creatures or exploring a mysterious island feel like such chores?

Worse yet, consider the 360 films. These take amazing real life experiences—car racing, bobsledding, skydiving—and make them into slogs. A minute in, I just wanted to be done with them. Moderately immersive sure, but I just couldn’t have not cared less.

If anything, the semi-immersion made it all the worse. A 2D film of a car race for example is a representation of that race. The film usually doesn’t promise to let you experience what it is like to be in the race, to drive the car. A lot of 360 content is perfectly fine to claim otherwise, and this empty promise leaves you feeling that driving a race car is exactly as thrilling as sitting on your sofa at home while wearing ski goggles.

A lot of content misconstrues immersion with being placed in a scene. Just being there is not immersive. Immersion needs to convey experience: the sights, sounds, sensations. Not literally of course. Books can create breathtakingly beautiful worlds without visuals, just as movies can convey all the pleasures of life through the eyes. (And, personally, I’ve experienced some truly amazing alternate realities just by closing my eyes and letting go to some Mannheim Steamroller.)

Nor is this problem limited to the Go. It is not a technical problem. I’ve tried 6 DOF and room scale VR, and still there’s very little content that uses VR effectively. That will change of course. But how long will it take? And what will these brave new realities look like? Well, if the Go is indication, the future of VR is: consumption, consumption, consumption.

These days, I often find myself wishing that social media had ended up being more like Second Life than like Facebook. Because Second Life was, for all its failings, a beautiful mess. It was a world built by its users and it showed, from the handcrafted oases to the sudden storms of dicks. A strange and wonderful and chaotic and sometimes disturbing place sure, but it was ours. The tools to build it were right there.

And so now it’s round two and we are in danger of loosing VR the same way. The Oculus Go is the Facebook of VR: clean and sterile. You can contribute content into this world but you cannot create the world, just as you don’t build Disneyland, you just visit it. Everything neatly framed, made safe so that even when you do stumble across some offensive content or a particularly trolly user, the most offensive part is how banal it has become in this setting.

Maybe I just didn’t try the right apps. Maybe we just need to give the ecosystem time to develop. After all, when the iOS app store first launched it was probably 10% fart apps. Took a few years before we started to see content creation start to emerge and now many people don’t need a regular computer anymore.

But for all the progress, it’s hard to even remember how much was lost in moving to the App Store world, or— perhaps better said—what we gave up. We lost something when apps became magical binary blobs and when we stopped writing our own webpages, just as we will lose something if we forget that it could have been possible to craft our own digital goods and spaces and experiences instead of buying high quality pre-made ones from some company store.

The more I think about it the more the Go depresses me. Because, it’s like, look: we have a chance to build a new thing here and this is the best that we can come up with? This is what billions of dollars, thousands of smart developers, and some of the best creative minds have produced? This is what many people’s first experience with VR will be? I’ve had more fun seeing reality through a one pixel webcam strapped to my butt than anything the Go has on offer. Literally. And then I see the four star reviews and hear people talk about amazing VR experiences they had with the Go and I just can’t see it. It’s like Deadpool. Why did people think that movie was amazing? It wasn’t even good trash.

I don’t know. Maybe I’ve lost touch. Maybe modded reality and hallucinated Mannheim Steamroller virtual realities ruined me on the actual VR that we have today. Plus, I got the Go mainly for development. The hardware could be great for that.

I half feel like I should return it though since, in a way, doesn’t my purchase endorse what the company is doing? Facebook could very well determine the future of virtual reality. They want to do this. They are trying very hard to do this. And I’m not ok with that. Because, more so than any ethical and privacy concerns, if my initial days with the go are any indication, that future is a failure of imagination. It’s a future that, beneath the flashy veneer, is dull and shallow and commercial. A future that will not even remember what could have been.