Thanksgiving was going to be a time for family. We’d been in lockdown for as many days as schedules would allow, and we were going to get tested before traveling one state over to visit my parents. No one was displaying any symptoms, but we couldn’t bear the thought of carrying the virus into my parents’ home. My wife and kids all tested negative. But I tested positive for Covid-19.
When we got home, I went straight into the bedroom. Aside from a few brief forays into the backyard, I haven’t left since. Fortunately I’d just been sent an Oculus 2 unit to check out. It’s been my only escape.
The first night I set up the boundaries for play, a four-foot-wide strip between the bed and the wall, much smaller than I’d be able to create in our living room, but large enough to work. I’d already tried out the basics on the headset—the introductory lessons and explorations, plus a free multiplayer game called Echo VR that’s basically a full-contact zero-grav sci-fi ultimate frisbee match that made me a little queasy (though I did have fun scoring the match’s only goal in a three humans vs. three AI players game). It made me think that J.K. Rowling really ought to take time out of picking on trans-rights activists and help develop a VR quidditch game soon.
I’d also purchased the first segment in the three-part Star Wars adventure, Vader Immortal ($9.99), and come face-to-face with the iconic Sith lord. It’s a very cool—if also very straight-forward and short—experience. The hand controllers lend themselves well to making you feel like you’re actually fighting with a lightsaber. And the VR really takes you to a galaxy far, far away. It’s immersive storytelling with some simple gameplay rather than requiring any strategy or skill, but the first chapter has me hooked, and I’ll be shelling out the other $19.98 to finish it.
I also bought Beat Saber ($29.99), the rhythm game that tasks you with slicing blocks with a pair of lightsabers. It’s a simple premise that’s surprisingly fun. And the fact that I’m locked away in quarantine means there’s no one to see me slashing at invisible cubes while moving my body to the EDM soundtrack. It’s definitely the game I keep going back to more than any other, though I haven’t yet downloaded SUPERHOT, one of my favorite VR games I’ve previously played. It’s on sale right now for $17.49, so that’ll likely be my next purchase.
I also was able to connect my Netflix and Amazon Prime accounts and watch TV through the headset instead of sitting at the desk I work at all day and staring at my monitor some more. The headset is comfortable enough not to be a bother while I laid propped up on my pillows, watching an episode of Community in a virtual living room with a wall-sized TV. It’s an interesting experience looking around the room and at the mountains out the window or the magazines on the coffee table at my feet, while getting lost in the antics of Abed, Annie, Jeff and Britta (I’m on the final season of a 2020 re-watch, missing Troy and Shirley). And for a more social watching experience, I tried out the free app, Bigscreen, where you can pop in theater rooms playing 2D and 3D movies. I briefly tuned into Avengers Endgame long enough to have virtual popcorn playfully tossed at me and to get frustrated with the low-res movie screen over my wifi.
But what’s soothed my soul this week have been the nature shorts. I’ve probably spent more time outside in 2020 than any year since I got my driver’s license at 16—taking early morning walks looking at birds and discovering the abundance of nature in my hometown of Atlanta. The thought of being stuck in one room for at least 10 days was not exciting. But the first night of my diagnosis I strapped on the Oculus and took a canoe down a mangrove-lined river in Southeast Asia. The second night I encountered Great White Sharks and skydived down into a field in London. In a year when travel is mostly out of reach, VR is the next best thing, with the surround sound as well as the 360-degree sights key in bringing far-off places into your home.
It was a virtual Thanksgiving. I was reduced to visiting extended family and friends on a couple of Zoom and Google Hangout chats and even eating Thanksgiving dinner in my room on FaceTime with my immediate family 20 yards—and a world away. But at least I also got to visit baby elephants in the grasslands of Kenya and baby orangutans in the rainforests of Borneo via Ecosphere. The app from the World Wildlife Federation, in partnership with Silverback Films and Oculus, provides the best virtual tourism experiences I’ve tried, trading out the 360-degree view for a high-def 180-degree wildlife encounter and environmental message. It provided a different much-needed break from the four walls I’ve been staring at as the actual wildlife in my backyard. And I even took a trip to the International Space Station via Mission: ISS, though that also had me feeling a little wonky after floating through the station’s zero-gravity. Your experience with the fluid orientation on some games may vary.
I’ve been fascinated by the possibilities of VR since exploring the latest developments at Sundance in 2016. I’ve known what was coming, but I’d been hesitant to pull the trigger on a unit for home. But the smartphone units seemed limited, and the tethered units seemed too expensive, especially those that required a high-end gaming computer. But the stand-alone Oculus 2 seems like a game changer at $300. With months to go before a vaccine frees us back into public without fear of infection, it’s a nice distraction from this dumpster fire of a year. If you can bear the fact that it’s a Facebook product that is likely learning more about you with every action (the camera can see your surroundings and Beat Saber estimated my height), it’s a pretty fantastic new toy.