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The guys in the studio with me talked me through the opening screens of the new Star Wars Battlefront game. I had to direct my gaze at objects and then push the X button on the game controller to select the thing I was looking at. But since I was wearing a VR headset, I couldn't look down at the controller, so I didn't know which button was marked with an X. Presumably most people who would buy Sony's virtual reality kit and kaboodle have enough experience with the game controller that they don't need someone to tell them that the X button is bottom center button on the right-hand side of the controller. Fortunately, I had three knowledgeable guides in the room with me.

After the screen with the AT-AT but before the beginning of actual gameplay came my favorite part of the experience. Again, I was in an empty white void, but there was an X-Wing fighter on the ground surrounded by crates and equipment and a red astromech droid doing busy loops under the ship making preparations for flight.

There were a number of stations around the X-Wing to which I could teleport by looking at a target and pressing the X button. Some of those positions were farther from the ship and some closer. One viewing position was on a lift, so I could see the top of the fighter. Eventually, I was at the base of the ladder and then I was seated in the cockpit.

Then I was on my first mission. Like most games, the first level was dead easy and basically just gave me the opportunity to get some practice piloting my fighter without anyone shooting at me. Then I formed up behind my squadron leader and we jumped into hyperspace and emerged into a scene that slotted neatly into the Rogue One movie. We were to provide a fighter escort for Cassian Andor and his reprogrammed imperial droid, K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk in both movie and game.

From that moment on I was in combat with imperial tie fighters. I've played such games before, but never in VR, and after several minutes I realized that I was playing as if I were looking at a monitor. I kept my gaze out over the nose of the ship and dealt with anything that came into my view. It came as a sort of revelation that I could turn my head and track a fighter that zoomed out of that narrow zone out front.

I don't know if moving my head and looking around me improved my combat piloting, but it did make me dizzy. As I continued the space combat I started to sweat. The controller grew wet in my hands, and I could feel the armpits in my shirt growing hot and moist. Then, gradually, my initial dizziness turned into unwavering nausea. By the end of the mission, I was done with the game and had no desire to play it anymore.

The headgear pressed down on my nose a little bit so that I was breathing through my mouth, but the equipment did not inhibit my breathing or direct my exhalations back at me like a fighter pilot's mask would, but when I removed the VR headgear I gulped in as if I had been denied access to fresh air. It felt liberating to get that thing off my head, and when I was free of it, Colin asked me how I felt.

What I realized in that moment was that I was more grounded in my body than I am most of the time. Even when doing something physically demanding like yoga or weight lifting, my mind is often elsewhere. In those first few seconds after I got free of the VR gear, I was nowhere but in my own body and happy to be there.

Tomorrow: How this experience changed my views on VR



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February 2019


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