During my holiday break, I always like seeing what the relatives enjoy when it comes to gaming. The kids always lead the way. One nephew was playing Crossy Road on his brand-new Apple TV. But virtual reality stole the show at Christmas.
As you can see from the photo above, my 81-year-old mother-in-law, Tan Chin, loved the Samsung Gear VR experience. Like when my colleague Stephen Kleckner got his five-year-old daughter to try out VR, I saw from viewing this non-gamer grandmother and her mobile-gaming grandchildren that virtual reality has a magical appeal that crosses generations. That tells you the potential of the platform, which tech advisor Digi-Capital believes will generate $30 billion in annual revenue by 2020.
My holiday experience convinced me that the VR industry has a huge opportunity to entertain us in the years ahead. Every neophyte I showed the VR experience to felt like it was a magical thing. And it convinced me of the value of easing the broader, seasick-prone audience into VR using light, almost casual entertainment experiences.
My mother-in-law played the Land’s End game from Ustwo, the London-based studio that also made Monument Valley. The animated 3D experience was beautiful. The movement was easy because you simply look at a location and are transported there. The game tracks your head movement when you turn your head. But you don’t otherwise move, except through teleportation.
That eliminates the motion sickness that you would ordinarily get with a mobile VR system that doesn’t have the best graphics processing or accurate head tracking. And with that out of the way, the road was clear for anybody, even people who would never pick up a game controller, to enjoy. As a platform, I saw that VR could be very inviting and compelling, even though it isolates the player from the rest of the party.
I had to strap on the VR headset and make sure she was sitting down. I didn’t want anyone tripping in their first VR experience. But she didn’t need any other instruction, except to look around. She already knew how to play. She had what Brendan Iribe, chief executive of Oculus, calls the “Oculus face,” where she was smiling with her mouth agape. She pulled it off herself, but mainly to give someone else a chance to play it.
The last time that I saw my mother-in-law play a video game was Wii Sports on the Nintendo Wii. The motion-based gameplay was easy to learn. She was laughing away as she tossed imaginary bowling balls. In the case of the Samsung Gear VR and Land’s End, all you had to do was look at something. The Gear VR also has a side touchpad where you can push a button or swipe. And it also has a back button. But for the most part, you control it by looking around and staring at things.
It wasn’t just my mother-in-law who liked it. So did two other grandmothers at our holiday parties. One of them, Sabine, sat on the floor and played Land’s End. She kept scooting around in different directions to follow the action in the 360-degree experience. I showed her the Oculus 360 photos, which let her browse in 360 degrees photos of faraway places like Austria.
Another grandmother, Merle, also got lost in the VR world. When she popped out of it, she was fascinated and curious. As a psychotherapist, she said she could see how she could use VR to help patients who were suffering from various mental disorders. It could transport them to places. I told her that some people were using VR to help people get over the fear of flying by showing them what it’s really like to sit in an airplane. She said she was looking forward to seeing more.
I also showed them Temple Gates Games’ Bazaar, where you sit on a magic carpet which moves around a 3D-animated space. It has stylized, simple visuals just like Land’s End. You move around through canals in a Middle Eastern style city. If you spot something like coins, you stare at them for a while to capture them. You can move your head in any direction, even up at the constellations in the sky. The saturated colors are fun to look at, and they take you away to another place. You have to make sure you pan around to find all the hidden things like keys for the next level. It was a nice, easy, no-seasick experience where we played virtual tourist.
Like Land’s End, Bazaar removes the motion and frenetic complexity that you would normally find in a video game, and it replaces it with a slower paced, steady movement. You can still control the experience by looking in any direction. But you aren’t in a state of panic or vertigo when you make your decisions about what to do.
I have to say that the VR developers are on to something in terms of reaching a broader audience than video game consoles. All three grandmothers are not gamers. But they played for 15-minute sessions on the Samsung Gear VR, and they didn’t get seasick doing it. That was very eye-opening for me, since I haven’t really tried to get any of them interested in playing a game since the Wii. They have also skipped smartphone games, as they’re not glued to iOS or Android devices like their kids and grandkids are.
Critics could argue that this holiday exercise also pointed out the flaws of VR. No one could share in the experience that one person was seeing. Everyone was curious about what the other was saying, and that encouraged conversations to happen, and it spurred more and more people to try it out. Nobody played with it for more than 15 minutes, except the daughter of a stranger who was at the party. I liked how it was a nice ice breaker that way.
My relatives didn’t even care that I was showing off older VR technology. I used the development version of the Samsung Gear VR headset. I think that the improvements in the final version of the $99 Samsung Gear VR make it a better platform (it’s lighter), and the better screens of the newest Samsung smartphones are also a big step up. We played the games on an older Samsung Galaxy Note 4, but the games on a Samsung Galaxy S6 look much better.
Of course, the kids loved playing the VR games too. A 10-year-old, a 12-year-old, and some college students all immersed themselves in the world inside the goggles, even though their cousins were poking them in the ribs. One mother got so into the Land’s End game that she almost stumbled to the ground as she was trying to avoid falling over a virtual cliff. We had to catch her, but she really felt like she was immersed in it.
So what games did your family play the most during the holidays? Let me know in the comments.