OK, at this point we can call it. VR is definitely here, it works, and it's not going away.
I was one of the first people in the UK to get the consumer version of the HTC Vive, the VR headset designed around standing up and walking around in a virtual space, not just sitting looking at it. I bought it for research rather than because I was sure it would be good - but when it arrived, it was absolutely amazing.
We're in full-on Holodeck territory here. Whether you're shooting ninjas with arrows or wandering around on the bottom of the ocean, it's incredibly immersive. And Valve's legendary "taking a dog for a walk" sim is... well, just spookily good.
So yeah. It arrived. I used it. I promptly put every project on my slate on hold and decided to focus on room-scale VR for the indefinite future.
It's that good.
Now, it's all but guaranteed that we're going to see a lot of scaremongering about VR in the near future. It's ripe for the next moral panic, and there are plenty of people looking for clicks on their articles about how VR must be banned now or it will cause the end of humanity.
So I thought I'd get in there first - with some unforseen side-effects of VR I've observed or learned about that will make the world better, not worse...
Here's a video of one of the projects I've been experimenting with for the Vive:
It's a fairly simple idea: you're on a raft, on a river. You're holding a paddle (the VR controller, which is tracked to milimeter level by Magic Technology, and thus means you can move things in the virtual world with your hands). Stick paddle in water, paddle, repeat.
It's fun. It's immersive. And most interestingly, it's rather exhausting. Not quite as much work as padding a real raft, but you can build up a sweat doing it.
Indeed, currently most of the top room-scale VR experiences combine those three things - fun, immersive, and actual exercise.
Take Hover Junkers, for example, a multiplayer competitive shooting game where you're building defences and blasting away at rivals both from your own little mini-hovercraft. Here's a video of two people playing a round of Hover Junkers .
It's genuinely very hard work. The amount of squatting you'll do challenges most people's level of physical fitness. But at the same time, it's a highly addictive, very entertaining computer game.
Recommended minimum exercise levels in the UK are approximately 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week. Most of the population don't even manage to get to that.
Recommended minimum play time to get into DOTA2, one of the most popular competitive computer games available right now, is around 10 hours per week. That's a minimum. Lots of people play a lot more.
(There's a famous review of DOTA2 on Steam which simply reads "Pretty good. Didn't play much.". It has 10,000 hours of play time listed.)
So the result of gaming, particularly competitive gaming, colliding with roomscale VR? Anyone who's into competitive gaming in VR is going to be ripped.
Even those of us who mostly play single-player games will get our exercise minima and then some. One brisk walk across Azeroth in World of Warcraft (with interludes to shoot at, hack apart or run away from the wildlife) or a couple of in-game days of hard manual labour in Stardew Valley will do it.
Forget the stereotype of the overweight gamer - the top gamers of tomorrow are going to be triathelete-level fit.
When I first acquired a VR headset, I took it to my optician to check that it wasn't going to do anything horrible to my eyes. And unexpectedly, rather than giving me a stern talking-to about time spent in front of screens, he got very excited.
It turns out that VR could be rather good for the eyes of anyone using it - much better than using a regular monitor, in many ways.
Why? The main reason is convergence. Humans are evolved to look at the horizon, scanning for prey and predators. Staring at things very close to us, not so much.
If prey's already within 20 inches of so of our face, chances are the deal's done. And if a predator's that close, well, it's a bad day for Ms Hunter-Gatherer and a good day for Captain Stripey McBigTeeth.
(As a side note, we also evolved to look at green things a lot, hence why green is the most relaxing colour for our eyes to stare at. Hence old-school green-text CRT monitors.)
Focusing on something very close to us for 8-12 hours a day is very much not what our eyes are good at, and it's starting to cause serious problems. In fact, my optician recently referred to computer vision syndrome as an "epidemic".
In a VR headset, you're more or less focusing on infinity, from the point of view of convergence between your two eyes. You're also focusing considerably further away from the point of view of individual eyes, too - approximately 1.2m in the Vive, which is a lot better than 40cm on average for a computer screen.
And in VR, you can simply create any size of screen you like, and work on that. There's an app called Virtual Desktop which allows the user to project his or her usual desktop up onto a massive IMAX-sized screen, and work there.
VR: it's coming to save our eyesight.
Less Mental Illness
And finally, and arguably most exciting of all - VR looks like it's going to have some major applications in treating mental illnesses of all kinds.
Studies are already showing that virtual experiences can be of considerable help in treating paranoia.
It also has a long history of use - hampered by the cost of old-fashioned VR headsets - in treating phobias, from agoraphobia to fear of spiders to fear of flying.
One VR developer reported on Reddit - very excited - that in developing a VR app with some significant height elements, they'd managed to cure their own fear of heights
And a clinical psychotherapist recently tried out the VR chat application AltSpace VR, and immediately became very excited about the possibilities for treating social anxiety, including his or her own, using AltSpace.
This is pretty remarkable, ground-breaking stuff: arguably offering a lot of the advantages of therapies using LSD or similar drugs that alter perception, without the obvious and unpleasant side effects.
So when the inevitable "VR is causing children to KILL" headlines come along, just remember - change on this scale causes a lot of effects, both good and ill. And it's already obvious there's plenty of likely good outcomes from this particular revolution!
What do you think? Have you tried VR? Noticed any positive effects?